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Killing of Gabby Petito

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Killing of Gabby Petito
LocationBridger–Teton National Forest, Wyoming, U.S.
DateKilling of Petito:
Uncertain day in late August 2021
(three to four weeks prior to discovery of remains on September 19)
Laundrie's suicide:
c. September 21, 2021[1]
Attack type
Homicide by strangulation, murder–suicide
Deaths2 (including the perpetrator)
VictimGabrielle Venora Petito
PerpetratorBrian Christopher Laundrie
MotiveUnknown

In August 2021, Gabby Petito, an American woman, was killed by her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, while they were traveling together on a van life journey across the United States. The trip began on July 2, 2021, and was planned to last four months; however, Petito disappeared in late August.

After Petito went missing, Laundrie raised suspicion when he drove Petito's van from Wyoming back to his parents' house in North Port, Florida, and refused to talk about her whereabouts. He was deemed a person of interest in the case, and an arrest warrant was issued on charges of making withdrawals using Petito's debit card. Laundrie departed his home in Florida on September 13 and was reported missing on September 17.

On September 19, Petito's remains were found in Bridger–Teton National Forest in Wyoming. An autopsy found she was killed by manual strangulation. After a month of speculation around Laundrie's whereabouts, and an extended search of the area around his Florida home, his skeletal remains were discovered in the Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park on October 20. On November 23, it was announced that Laundrie died due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.[2] The FBI later announced that Laundrie admitted to killing Petito in his notebook, which was found near his remains.[3]

The Petito case gained national attention due to the couple's social media activity, police body camera video footage, 9-1-1 emergency dispatch call recordings, and eyewitness accounts.

Gabby Petito

Gabby Petito
Gabby Petito - fair use image (cropped and resized).jpg
Born
Gabrielle Venora Petito

(1999-03-19)March 19, 1999
DisappearedAugust 27, 2021
StatusFound deceased
Diedc. August 2021 (aged 22)
Cause of deathManual strangulation
Body discovered(2021-09-19)September 19, 2021
Bridger–Teton National Forest, Teton County, Wyoming, U.S.
EducationBayport-Blue Point High School
PartnerBrian Laundrie (c. 2019–2021)

Gabrielle Venora Petito (March 19, 1999[4] – late August 2021) was born and raised in Blue Point, New York. She was the eldest of six siblings and half-siblings. In 2013, Petito and her step-brothers appeared in a music video to raise awareness about gun violence, in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.[5][6] She graduated in 2017 from Bayport-Blue Point High School in Bayport, New York,[7] where she had met Brian Christopher Laundrie.[8] From September 2017 to January 2019, she lived in Carolina Beach, North Carolina, and worked as a hostess and in the kitchen of a restaurant in Wilmington. She applied to Cape Fear Community College, but did not attend.[9]

In March 2019, Petito began dating Laundrie[10] and moved in with him and his parents in North Port, Florida. Petito and Laundrie worked at a Publix location in North Port, she as a pharmacy technician, and he in the grocery department. Both Petito and Laundrie quit their jobs at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.[8][11]

In late 2019 and early 2020, the couple embarked on a cross-country drive from New York State to California, and along the journey visited Las Vegas, Yosemite National Park, Pismo Beach and other points of interest.[7] In March 2020, Petito celebrated her 21st birthday in Nokomis, Florida.[7] She and Laundrie visited Sope Creek, Georgia, in June 2020, and the two were engaged the following month.[12]

In December 2020, Petito purchased a 2012 Ford Transit Connect van converted into a camper, in which to take their next cross-country trip.[13] She then worked 50 hours per week at Taco Bell[11] and as a nutritionist, while Laundrie worked at an organic juice bar.[14] Petito documented her life and travels on social media sites, including YouTube and Instagram, where she described her interests as "art, yoga, and veggies".[7][8]

Disappearance

Road trip

Laundrie and Petito were traveling in a white 2012 Ford Transit Connect similar to the one pictured here.[15]

On June 17, 2021, Petito and Laundrie visited Blue Point, New York, for her brother's graduation ceremony. From there, on July 2, 2021, they departed in the Ford Transit Connect van for their trip. That month, they visited Monument Rocks, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Mystic Hot Springs, and Canyonlands National Park.[7]

Domestic disturbance incident

On August 12, 2021, a witness called 9-1-1 claiming that a couple, later identified as Laundrie and Petito, was fighting in front of the Moonflower Community Cooperative in Moab, Utah.[14] The caller told the dispatcher they saw a man slap a woman, and after the two ran up and down the sidewalk, the man hit the woman again, and then drove off.[16] Another witness described the incident to police, saying that Petito and Laundrie were talking "aggressively", and that Petito "was punching him in the arm." The witness said it looked like Laundrie was trying to leave Petito and take her phone with him, before she eventually climbed into the driver's seat, moved over into the passenger's seat, and asked, "Why do you have to be so mean?" before they drove off.[17]

Officers from the Moab City Police Department (MCPD) identified the van driving erratically near the entrance to Arches National Park, and conducted a traffic stop. They found Petito crying heavily in the passenger seat, where she told officers, captured on police body camera footage:[18]

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.[14][19]

Petito first downplayed the physical altercation, but after the officer pointed out marks on her arm and face, and told her to "just be honest," she told him that Laundrie "kept telling me to shut up", and "grabbed my face," which had produced an injury.[20]

Laundrie told the officer:

I said, let's just take a breather and let's not go anywhere, and just calm down for a minute, she was getting worked up. And, then she had her phone and was trying to get the keys from me. I was just trying to, I know I shouldn't push her. I was just trying to push her away to go, let's take a minute and step back and breathe and see, she got me with her phone.[14][21]

Petito told the officer that she hit Laundrie first, and asked the officers to not separate them.[20] In their report, the officers wrote:

At no point in my investigation did Gabrielle stop crying, breathing heavily, or compose a sentence without needing to wipe away tears, wipe her nose, or rub her knees with her hands... The male tried to create distance by telling Gabby to take a walk to calm down ... She did not want to be separated from the male and began slapping him. He grabbed her face and pushed her back as she pressed upon him and the van.[17]

Neither Petito nor Laundrie wanted to press charges as a result of the incident, which was characterized by police as a mental breakdown rather than as domestic violence, which would have required an arrest. The police separated the couple, arranging for Laundrie to spend a night at the Bowen Motel in Moab,[22] and for Petito to stay in the van.[14]

The MCPD investigated whether or not its officers handled the case in accordance with the department's policies. Its chief of police took a leave of absence amid the investigation.[23][24][25]

Last reported activities and sightings

On August 17, Laundrie took a flight from Salt Lake City to Tampa, Florida, leaving Petito to herself. Petito stayed several days at a Fairfield Inn and Suites hotel near Salt Lake City International Airport, according to staff, checking out on August 24.[16][26] It was later explained by the Laundrie family attorney that he made the trip to "obtain some items and empty and close the storage unit to save money as they contemplated extending the road trip."[27] Laundrie returned on August 23 to rejoin Petito and continue the trip.[28]

Petito's mother said that she last spoke to her daughter on August 25 and had been told that the couple were traveling from Utah to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. On August 25, the final post was made on Petito's Instagram account, which consisted of photos of herself taken in front of a butterfly mural outside of a restaurant in Ogden, Utah.[16][29]

Eyewitness accounts of the couple thereafter were as follows:

  • A witness said that, on August 27 between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. she saw Laundrie and Petito together at Merry Piglets, a Tex-Mex restaurant in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Per the witness, Laundrie had an argument with the manager, waitress, and hostess, apparently about money, and was "aggressive." The witness said she later saw Petito return to the restaurant, crying and apologizing for Laundrie's behavior. Restaurant staff confirmed via Instagram that the couple were indeed at the restaurant.[30][31]
  • Another witness contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to report the activities and coordinates of a slow-moving white van and a "generic" young white man "acting weird" near the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping area on August 26, 27 and possibly 28. She posted a video to TikTok with her observations. According to the witness, an FBI agent said that her account, with regard to finding Petito's body, "tipped us off to the right place."[32]
  • A woman posted in a TikTok video that on August 29, she and her boyfriend gave Laundrie a lift from an area near Colter Bay Village, after seeing him hitchhiking alone.[33] She reported that Laundrie "freaked out" upon learning that they were going to Jackson Hole instead of Jackson, Wyoming, disembarking the vehicle at 6:09 p.m. near the Jackson Lake Dam, less than thirty minutes after being picked up. The witness found it "weird" that Laundrie offered $200 for the 10 mi (16 km) ride and did not appear to be very dirty, despite claiming that he had been camping for days.[34][35]
  • Another witness stated that she picked up Laundrie from the Jackson Lake Dam area at 6:20 or 6:30 p.m. on August 29, dropping him off at the entrance to the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping area. Laundrie offered gas money for the twenty minute ride, but did not want to be taken further than the entrance of the campground, which was several miles from the van. According to the witness, Laundrie acted "antsy" about getting out of the vehicle before it got closer to the campsite.[36][37]

On August 27, a text from Petito's phone was sent to her mother which read, "Can you help Stan, I just keep getting his voicemails and missed calls." The message raised concerns for Petito's mother, who said Stan was Petito's grandfather and that she never referred to him by his first name.[38] The last message, sent on August 30, said, "No service in Yosemite." Her mother expressed uncertainty about who sent these messages.[39]

On September 1, 2021, Laundrie returned alone to his parents' home in North Port, Florida, in the Ford Transit Connect.[13] On September 6 and 7, 2021, Laundrie and his parents went camping at Fort De Soto Park in Pinellas County.[4]

Investigation

Petito and Laundrie reported missing

On September 11, after not hearing from her daughter since late August, Petito's mother filed a missing person report.[40] Four days later, Laundrie was named a person of interest. Laundrie's parents hired a lawyer, and based on his advice, remained silent, refusing to talk to anyone about the case.[16]

Police surveilled the Laundrie home and saw him leave on September 13. On September 15, they saw his car return; police believed the person who exited the car and entered the home was Laundrie.[41] The following day, North Port Police Chief Todd Garrison told reporters, "All I'm going to say is we know where Brian Laundrie is at".[42] On September 17, Laundrie was reported missing by his parents, who claimed not to have seen him since September 13.[43] It was at this time that police realized that they had mistaken Laundrie's mother for Laundrie himself on September 15.[41][44]

After obtaining search warrants, police seized the Ford Transit Connect, an external hard drive, and the Laundrie family's Ford Mustang from the North Port residence.[45]

Discovery of Petito's remains

On September 19, human remains matching the description of Petito were found at the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping area in Wyoming,[46] not far from where the Ford Transit Connect was previously observed.[16][47] Her identity was confirmed and an autopsy determined that the manner of death was homicide by "blunt-force injuries to the head and neck, with manual strangulation",[48] which occurred three to four weeks before the body was found.[16]

Search for Laundrie and discovery of remains

On September 23, the United States District Court for the District of Wyoming issued an arrest warrant for Laundrie due to his unauthorized use of Petito's debit card to obtain $1,000 or more between August 30 and September 1.[49][50][51] The FBI took material to match Laundrie's DNA from his home.[52]

On October 5, in an interview with ABC News, Laundrie's sister encouraged him to turn himself in to authorities.[53] Two days later, Laundrie's father joined investigators in searching for Laundrie at the T. Mabry Carlton Reserve in Sarasota County, Florida,[54] focusing on areas he used to frequent in the reserve and the adjacent Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park.

On October 20, Laundrie's skeletal remains, confirmed by forensic dentistry, and some of his belongings were found in the Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park in an area that had recently been underwater due to flooding.[55] His cause of death could not be determined by an autopsy, and his remains were given to an anthropologist for further examination.[56] On November 23, it was announced that the anthropologist concluded that Laundrie died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound and that the manner of death was suicide.[2]

Laundrie's admission

On January 21, 2022, the FBI revealed that after examining Laundrie's notebook, they found he admitted to killing Petito, then deceiving people through text message that she was still alive. He was officially blamed for Petito's death by authorities afterwards.[3] The FBI Denver Division closed out the investigation, stating that "The investigation did not identify any other individuals other than Brian Laundrie directly involved in the tragic death of Gabby Petito. The FBI’s primary focus throughout the investigation was to bring justice to Gabby and her family."[57] The text of the note was later released by the Laundrie family lawyer. The note contains an account where he says he killed Petito after she had fallen and injured herself saying "I ended her life. I thought it was merciful, that it is what she wanted, but now I see all the mistake I made."[58] The note ends with his plans for suicide saying "I am ending my life not because of a fear of punishment but rather because I can’t stand to live another day without her."[59]

Experts however, contend that Laundrie's account doesn't line up with investigators' findings. Michael Alcazar of John Jay College of Criminal Justice believed Laundrie was "Someone who doesn't want to own up to what he did. He's trying to find justification for the actions he did."[58]

Public interest

Media outside the Laundrie family home in North Port, Florida, on September 20, 2021

The case sparked more public interest and coverage on news and social media than other missing persons and murder cases.[60][61][62]

This heightened interest was attributed to several factors including: the refusal by Laundrie and his parents to comment on Petito's whereabouts;[16] the amount of content on social media documenting their lifestyle;[63] the video footage of the Utah traffic stop; the audio recording of the 9-1-1 call;[60][63][64] the video posts by witnesses which provided a lot of publicly available evidence; the idea that the couple was young and attractive[63] and in a romantic excursion gone wrong;[61] the domestic violence incidents in their relationship; an increase in interest in cross-country van-dwelling trips due to the COVID-19 pandemic;[63] as well as the general increase in interest in true crime-related entertainment in the preceding decade.[61]

There was speculation that the case is linked to the murders of Kylen Schulte and Crystal Turner, which occurred in Moab around the same time Laundrie and Petito were there.[65]

Public involvement in the case included witnesses and others posting their observations and theories on social media,[61] protests outside the Laundrie home demanding answers, a candlelight vigil for Petito in her hometown,[66] and donations to the Gabby Petito Foundation established by her parents to support searches for other missing persons.[67] The increased interest in the search for Laundrie and Petito led to the discovery of five bodies of other missing persons.[68] While some posts on social media regarding the case were helpful in the investigation, many of them have been characterized as insensitive, unhelpful, monetized, motivated by increased exposure, or outright misinformation.[61][60][62][63]

The high volume of media coverage in the case was cited among some commentators as an example of missing white woman syndrome, or the over-emphasis of news about individuals based on their race, gender, age, or appearance.[60][63][69][70]

In comparing Petito's case to others, several outlets noted the relative lack of media attention towards the roughly 710 indigenous people who were reported missing in Wyoming between 2011 and 2020.[60][71][72][70]

Lawsuits

The parents of Gabby Petito are suing the parents of Brian Laundrie. A Florida judge allowed the suit to proceed.[73]

In early November 2022, Petito's parents filed a $USD 50,000,000 lawsuit against the Moab, Utah police department.[74]

Adaptation

On October 1, 2022, Lifetime released a TV movie called The Gabby Petito Story as part of its "Ripped from the Headlines" feature films. The film stars Skyler Samuels as Gabby Petito, Evan Hall as Brian Laundrie, and Thora Birch (who also directs this film) as Nichole Schmidt.[75]

See also

References

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External links