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Gabby Petito's murder: The travel influencer who vanished

Image: #FindGabby

In 2021, 22-year-old Gabby Petito was in the prime of her life. She was at the frontier of adulthood and engaged to 23-year-old Brian Laundrie. The couple set off in their van in July, travelling across the United States and documenting their journey on their Instagram pages and YouTube channel. On 1st September, however, Laundrie returned home alone while Gabby’s parents reported her missing. The peculiar disappearance spread like wildfire across social media as internet sleuths scrambled to piece together the clues.

Gabby Petito was born on 19th March 1999, in Blue Point, New York. She met Brian Laundrie at Bayport-Blue Point High School in Long Island. It wasn’t until March 2019 that the couple began dating, and they moved in with Laundrie’s parents at their home in North Port, Florida. In July 2020, Laundrie proposed to Gabby and she excitedly said yes.

Gabby Petito had dreams and ambitions of becoming an influencer and took inspiration from the plethora of travel YouTubers that sell all of their worldly belongings and travel full-time. In 2019, she and Laundrie did a cross-country trip in her Nissan Sentra, and upon their return, Gabby was itching to go on more adventures.

The couple decided they would downsize their life and travel full-time across the United States but they needed to find a way that was affordable. Gabby purchased a 2012 Ford Transit Connect and handcrafted it so that they could travel and live nomadically in the van. When Gabby told her mother, Nicole Schmidt, of her plans, at first she was worried. However, these concerns dissipated when Gabby shared her thorough itinerary.

In July 2021, the couple set off on their travels across the United States. They were documenting their experience on their YouTube channel, Nomadic Statik, as well as their respective Instagram pages, where Gabby had dubbed herself an #adventureblogger. The plan was for them to travel throughout the country, taking in the scenery and hiking while living out of their van, before ending their trip in October in Portland, Oregon.

The first couple of weeks went by without a hitch as Gabby presented an aesthetically pleasing view of her nomadic life on social media. She made sure to stay in contact with her parents, giving them frequent updates on her adventure. She typically FaceTimed her mother, Nicole Schmidt, three times a week. The last time they spoke to her over the phone was on 25th August. Gabby informed her mother that they were heading from Utah to the Grant Teton National Park in Wyoming.

From here, the couple planned on travelling to Yellowstone, but Gabby fell silent. On 27th August, Nicole received a couple of text messages from Gabby’s phone number. One read: ‘Can you help Stan, I just keep getting his voicemails and missed calls.’ Nicole wasn’t positive that the text messages had come from Gabby. Stan was Gabby’s grandfather, and she never referred to him by his first name.

She commented to CBS News: ‘I don’t know if it was technically her or not, because it was just a text. I didn’t verbally speak to her.’ Nicole continued trying to get in contact with her daughter. At first, she speculated that Gabby was somewhere with poor service, but after not hearing from her daughter for more than a week, she became concerned and contacted the police to report her daughter missing.

An investigation immediately ensued, and investigators found that Laundrie had returned home to Florida alone on 1st September. He had driven back in the couple’s 2012 Ford Transit van. Investigators seized the van to be processed by the FBI. They attempted to speak to Laundrie, but commented that he had ‘not made himself available to be interviewed by investigators or has provided any helpful details.’

In a statement released by the Petito family’s attorney: ‘Brian is refusing to tell Gabby's family where he last saw her. Brian is also refusing to explain why he left Gabby all alone and drove her van to Florida.’

Due to the lack of cooperation, Laundrie was immediately considered a person of interest in Gabby’s disappearance. Investigators quickly learned of a domestic incident that had taken place in Moab, Utah, on 12th August. A 911 call had come into the police from a concerned citizen who had observed a confrontation between Gabby and Laundrie. She told police that she had seen Laundrie strike Gabby in the face.

Police officers responded to the call and pulled Gabby and Laundrie over in their van. The responding officers were wearing body cameras and they captured the entire interaction. Gabby is noticeably upset as the officers separate the couple and interview them separately. Gabby said to one of the officers:

‘Yeah, I don't know if some days, I have really bad OCD. I was just cleaning and straightening up, back in the ... I was apologizing to him and saying, ‘I'm sorry, that I'm so mean because sometimes I have OCD and sometimes I can get really frustrated. Not like mean towards him. I just like, I just, my vibe is, I'm in a bad mood. And, I was just saying I'm sorry if I'm in a bad mood. I just ... I had so much work I was doing on my computer this morning. ... And, I just now quit my job to travel across the country and I'm trying to start a blog. I have a blog. So I've been building my website. I've been really stressed and he doesn't really believe that I could do any of it, so, we just been fighting all morning and he wouldn't let me in the car before.’

Gabby downplayed the physical altercation. However, the officer noticed that she had marks on her arm and face. She then said that Laundrie had grabbed her face but said that it was her fault because she had slapped him first. She commented: ‘Well he, like, grabbed me with his nail, and I guess that’s why it looks … definitely I was cut right here. Because I can feel it. When I touch it, it burns.’

Since neither Gabby nor Laundrie wanted to press charges, the officers simply separated them for the night. They characterised the incident as a ‘mental breakdown’ as opposed to a domestic incident. Gabby spent the night in the couple’s van while Laundrie checked in to a local hotel.

Trouble was clearly brewing behind the scenes, but Gabby made no mention of it on her social media which portrayed a seemingly-idyllic online life. Just one week after this incident, Gabby posted a video blog on their YouTube titled: ‘VAN LIFE | Beginning Our Van Life Journey’. The video showed a jovial Gabby and Laundrie, laughing and kissing as they spoke about their travels thus far. The last time that Gabby was seen was on 24th August, as she and Laundrie were checking out of a hotel in Salt Lake City.

As news of Gabby’s disappearance hit the headlines, the internet galvanised. Posts began to spring up in the thousands from concerned people all across the world who took to examining Gabby’s social media posts in search of a clue that could lead to her whereabouts. Some suggested that her final posts on Instagram appeared different from her other posts, almost as if somebody else were writing them.

Then, in mid-September, the body-cam footage from the earlier incident was publicly released. People across the internet analysed it with scrutiny, pointing out how Gabby appeared to be distraught, while Laundrie appeared to be calm and collected. Many said that Gabby’s behaviour had all the hallmarks of a victim of domestic abuse. The responding officers were also hit with criticism for how they handled the situation, with Ruth M. Glenn, the president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, stating that the officers did not appear to be ‘educated or trained or have had information about the dynamics of domestic violence’.

As the search for Gabby continued, Laundrie and his parents were remaining silent but then Laundrie himself vanished. His parents told investigators that they had last seen him on 13th September. They said that he had gone hiking alone in the Carlton Reserve in Sarasota County, Florida, and failed to return. Gabby’s family responded by issuing a statement accusing Laundrie of refusing to tell them where he last saw Gabby.

The influx of speculation continued on social media. A woman on TikTok, Miranda Baker, claimed that she had picked Laundrie up as he hitchhiked alone on 29th August. Then on 19th September, a video was posted on the YouTube channel, Red White & Bethune. The video was taken on 27th August as a family drove through Grand Teton National Park.

As they rounded a corner, their camera picked up a 2012 Ford Transit Connect that was pulled over among the trees. Based on the stickers on the back of the van and the license plate number, it was Gabby and Laundrie’s. The family wanted to stop and say hello to the driver of the van since the van had Florida plates and that was where they were originally from. However, the lights were off and it looked to be empty.

The owner of the video sent it to the FBI and investigators immediately descended on Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. They were searching specifically in the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area. The search party fanned out and it wasn’t long until they found a body. They announced that the body was ‘consistent with the description’ of Gabby. Days later, the body was positively identified as Gabby and her cause of death was strangulation. The pathologist estimated that she had been dead for three to four weeks.

An arrest warrant was subsequently issued for Laundrie as he was charged with the unauthorized use of Gabby’s debit card, but he still remained elusive. Investigators continued searching Carlton Reserve as Gabby’s family urged Laundrie to turn himself in.

On 20th October, Laundrie’s body was found in an area in Carlton Reserve which had previously been underwater. He had taken his own life with a gun. Beside his body, investigators found a journal in which he ‘admitted responsibility’ for her death. He stopped short of admitting full responsibility by claiming Gabby had injured herself falling into a creek and that he had strangled her to put ‘an end to her pain’.

The FBI subsequently praised the public for the plethora of tips they received from all across the world, calling their role in the case ‘invaluable’.