A man arrested Tuesday is no longer a suspect in what investigators first believed to be an attempted abduction of a 13-year-old girl but now deem a failed purse-snatching, Altoona police said in a written release.
In a timeline released Thursday morning, Altoona police outlined how the case unfolded to shed light on why police took a registered sex offender into custody so quickly and what led investigators to determine they had the wrong man.
The original suspect was arrested Tuesday afternoon at just before 2 p.m. after the Altoona Area Junior High School student, who was walking to school, reported to school officials that "a black male attempted to pull her from the area," police noted in the three-paragraph narrative.
The registered sex offender was identified by the girl after she was shown two photo line-ups, her mother said Wednesday.
Police would only say Thursday that the man was identified "through various investigative means."
"Given the totality of the circumstances and information available, with the safety of the children in mind, the Altoona Police Department obtained an arrest warrant as well, however the investigation continued," police noted in the statement.
"As the investigation progressed, detectives began to have difficulty corroborating various pieces of information that had been obtained earlier," police said without providing further explanation of the problems with the case.
Those problems led investigators to decide not to have Brian S. Lawrence Jr., 23, of 1401 Washington Ave. arraigned on the charges, but he was jailed Tuesday night for allegedly violating his parole, police said.
"After conducting further interviews and receiving new information, it was determined that the arrest warrant should be withdrawn," Altoona police said in the statement.
Police indicated Lawrence, although cleared of any involvement in Tuesday's incident, will be charged with failing to report his address change as required by Megan's Law.
Lawrence's family members dispute the assertion he violated parole or his reporting requirements and said Thursday he hasn't moved from the address state police have on file after his release from jail in July, where he was since his arrest in February on another failure to report charge.
Police said in the written release that there have been "three attempted purse snatchings in recent weeks."
"At this time, with the information available, it appears as though this incident on the 16th is more closely related to this type of activity and Lawrence is no longer a suspect," police said in their statement.
Police went on to urge people, particularly women, to stay vigilant, be aware of their surroundings and suspicious people.
Lawrence's family members said there was rush to judgment by police and are looking for answers in the aftermath of his arrest, one that has taken its toll on a young man they said is gentle, considerate and improperly labeled a sex offender because of a plea bargain.
Kiersten Fetter, 30, Lawrence's cousin, said she spoke with him by phone before police cleared him as a suspect and said he was scared he'd be convicted for a crime he didn't commit.
"He said if he had to serve another term for something he didn't do he was thinking about killing himself," Fetter said Thursday.
Fetter said, as other family members have, that Lawrence was unfairly accused in 2009 of indecent assault on a woman, a woman they said was untrustworthy. When Lawrence was arrested Tuesday and accused of attempted child abduction, it caused them to question their own judgment of the man they knew.
"We had to second-guess ourselves when this happened because he was around our children- then all this came out," Fetter said of learning of the police's mistake.
Don Witherspoon, president of the Blair County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the case is troubling.
"Overall, our crime system works, but they make mistakes," the NAACP leader said, adding he's looking into all facets of Lawrence's case. "We just don't want no one else to go through what his mother is going through."
Lawrence's sister, Talicia Lawrence, 24, said she believes police should have learned more facts before seeking an arrest warrant.
"They need to admit they were wrong," she said. "They need to apologize."
Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.