The sad, twisting saga of Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie – and what it tells us about America 

Many questions remain unanswered, but the case is a tragedy for all concerned, writes Andrew Buncombe

Tuesday 21 December 2021 13:52 GMT
<p>Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie</p>

Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie

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It began with the most modest of announcements.

“Blue Point Woman Reported Missing,” the Suffolk County Police Department tweeted on 13 September.

The day before, the force had revealed that its first ever pick-up basketball game had “been a success”. The following day, it provided an update about traffic work on the Long Island Expressway.

If you clicked on the link about the Blue Point woman, it took you to a Facebook page that said “Gabrielle Petito” had been reported missing by her family at 6.55pm on 11 September. There was a photograph of the young woman, and one of a white Ford Transit van, registration QFTG03.

It was the vehicle in which she had set off back in July, for what she had hoped would be several months of adventure.

“According to family, they were last in contact with her during the last week of August,” said the post. “Prior to the last communication, Petito is believed to have been in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.”

Police said that Petito had blonde hair and blue eyes, and several tattoos. One on her forearm read: “Let it be”.

Not everyone who spotted the announcement would necessarily have feared the worst. It was certainly odd that the vehicle she had been travelling in had returned without her. Yet people are reported missing all the time. And it is not unheard of for young people to get off the grid for all sorts of reasons.

Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie in a photograph shared on his Instagram account

And the killer? On Thursday, the FBI confirmed that remains found at the T Mabry Carlton Jr Memorial Reserve, located 10 miles from North Port, Florida, were those of Brian Laundrie, Petito’s fiancé, who had been named as a “person of interest” in the disappearance of the young woman.

“On 21 October 2021, a comparison of dental records confirmed that the human remains found at the T Mabry Carlton Jr Memorial Reserve and Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park are those of Brian Laundrie,” the FBI’s Denver office said in a statement. Meanwhile, the Laundrie family’s lawyer, Steve Bertolino, said the family had been told about the identification of their son’s body.

“Chris and Roberta Laundrie have been informed that the remains found yesterday in the reserve are indeed Brian’s,” he said.

Chris and Roberta Laundrie joined a police search just before their son’s body was recovered

A bag containing personal items belonging to Brian Laundrie is removed from the Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park on Wednesday morning

The remains were discovered on the same day that Laundrie’s parents visited the park. Bertolino told CNN the site where the remains were found was the “very area of the park that we initially informed law enforcement on” at a meeting with police on 17 September.

If the announcement has, for now, put pause to the noise that has surrounded this case, it provides a chance to ponder the nature of the tragedy that has gripped millions of Americans.

It started as a missing persons mystery, which people wanted to try and help solve.

If the young woman with blue eyes and tattoos had not travelled back to Florida with the man with whom she had set off, and if that individual was refusing to speak to police and had hired a lawyer, then the public wanted to play detective.

As police were able to provide more clues, and as the young woman’s parents – mother Nicole Schmidt and stepfather Jim Schmidt, and father Joseph Petito – spoke to the media, so friends and strangers alike used social media to post information they believed might help.

One of them, Miranda Baker, said that she and her boyfriend had picked up Laundrie, who was hitchhiking by himself on 29 August. She said they had picked him up at the public showers in Colter Bay, less than ten miles from the Spread Creek campsite.

Officers from the Moab Police Department responded to what they said was a potential domestic violence incident involving the couple

“I’m hoping this can help someone identify him, because I saw him from TikTok, which then made me call the authorities, and my boyfriend and I have been in contact with a bunch of different people to help piece together different parts of this case,” she said, as officers from the North Port Police Department in Florida confirmed they had spoken to her.

Another important piece of information was offered by Jenn and Kyle Bethune, a family travelling across America and posting updates on social media.

They posted a video showing the white Ford Transit parked at the Spread Creek campsite on 27 August.

“This is at the Spread Creek dispersed camping area,” Mr Bethune says, narrating the video. “We got there and there was a huge gravel lot and we decided we wanted to try to drive more toward the back because we’d heard the views were better back here. So we were heading back on this long, dirt, gravel road.”

His wife adds: “And we came across a white van that had Florida plates, a small white van. We were going to stop and say hi because we’re from Florida too, but the van was completely dark, there was nobody there, so we decided to continue on our way.”

The media, perhaps understandably, has been criticised for its 24/7 coverage of the case of the young couple.

One of the many alleged sightings of Laundrie was captured on a ‘deer cam’ in Florida

Commentators pointed out that missing women of colour never receive such comprehensive attention, especially Native American women, who, campaigners say, face “an epidemic” of violence. This lack of coverage is all the more troubling, critics say, given that women of colour suffer violence far more often than white women.

Alongside that aspect, there was undoubtedly something about the search for the young woman that caught people’s attention.

She and Laundrie had met in high school and had been dating since March 2019. They apparently got engaged in July 2020 and were living together in North Port, Florida, close to Tampa.

Part of it, perhaps, was the fact that Petito and Laundrie had posted many of their adventures on a YouTube channel, Nomadik Statik, as they made their way across some of America’s stunning national parks.

As more information about the couple’s last movements emerged, people were able to compare it to what they could see for themselves on YouTube.

A large group of protesters has been gathered outside Laundrie’s parents’ home since Brian Laundrie was named a person of interest in the case

On 26 July, for instance, the young woman posted a number of images on her Instagram page from Mystic Hot Springs in Monroe, Utah. One of them showed the couple kissing.

On 12 August, she posted an image showing the Arches National Park in Grand County, Utah.

“On a calm Monday morning, [Laundrie] and I decided to take the highly trafficked hike to the Delicate Arch,” she wrote. “Not sure if it’s because it was 7am on a Monday, but there actually were not as many people on the trail as I expected.” Yet, we know things were not as calm as her post suggested.

On the same day, officers from the Moab Police Department responded to what they said was a potential domestic violence incident involving the couple.

Responding officer Daniel Scott Robbins followed their white van and spoke to Petito, who had been swerving.

As he spoke to her she was crying, and she told the officer she was suffering from mental health problems.

“After evaluating the totality of the circumstances, I do not believe the situation escalated to the level of domestic assault as much as a mental health crisis,” the officer wrote.

Laundrie’s final Instagram post was on 13 August, and Gabby’s was on 25 August. It showed her smiling and holding a small crocheted pumpkin with the caption “Happy Halloween”.

A rainbow where her body was found

Route 191, which has two branches, runs for more than 1,500 miles.

In the Grand Teton National Park it connects Jackson Hole with many of the towns to the north, such as Colter Bay Village and Yellowstone.

Every few miles there are parking lots to allow people to pull over, either to camp or to take in the stunning views of a landscape that can change swiftly from sun to rain.

When The Independent drove along that road last month as police searched for Petito, it appeared as though everyone was travelling with a truck or a motorhome and trying to embrace some sort of of “van life”.

Most, though not all, had heard of the search for the missing young woman, and many warned of the struggles confronting the FBI and the police. One challenge was the weather; another was the size of the park, which covers 485 square miles.

Ben Cole, who has visited the park for 30 years, was sitting close to the public showers at Colter Bay Village, from where the TikTok witness said she and her boyfriend had picked up Laundrie.

“Out here, it’s a vast land,” he said.

A makeshift memorial dedicated to Gabby Petito near City Hall in North Port, Florida

In the end, the FBI located Petito’s remains at the Spread Creek campsite, where more than 100 officers, backed by dogs, were involved in the search. The FBI has not said what took them to the campsite, which Petito had listed in an online journal as an “off site” camping location she was keen to visit.

It was the same place where the Bethunes had recorded the couple’s van. Yet the FBI search had begun before they posted the footage, leading some to speculate that either Laundrie or his parents had provided information that helped the police locate the body when officers visited the Laundrie family house on 17 September.

Frank Montoya Jr, a retired FBI special agent, said it appeared that the police had obtained some crucial lead that enabled them to scramble the large-scale search operation at Spread Creek.

“The question then becomes, how did they know to go to that spot. And there could have been some technical data from tracking [the couple’s] phones,” he said, speaking last month from Providence, Utah.

“It could have also been some more specific information coming from a human source, whether it was a note that he left behind that they’ve discovered.”

The young woman’s remains were located close to a stream bed close to the campsite on the morning of Sunday 19 September.

A travel blogger described coming across Petito’s van in Wyoming

FBI senior supervisory agent Charles Jones said officers had found the remains of someone who matched the description of the young woman at the site, but could not yet be certain they belonged to her.

“The cause of death has not been determined at this time. We appreciate your continued support and patience as we work through this process,” he said at a press conference. “The facility around Spread Creek campsite will remain closed to the public until further notice. This is an active and ongoing investigation.”

After the FBI finished its press event, and as a vehicle from the Teton County coroner’s office transported the young woman’s remains to the mortuary, a rainbow could be seen over the campsite where her body had been found.

Two days later, officials confirmed the remains as those of the young woman from Long Island and said her death had been a homicide.

The FBI noted in its statement that Laundrie had been named as a “person of interest”, and the special agent in charge, Michael Schneider, said the agency was determined to ensure anyone “responsible for, or complicit in her death” would he “held accountable” for their actions.

He added: “The FBI’s commitment to justice is at the forefront of each and every investigation.”

From Alabama to Canada

Who knows how many “sightings” there were of Brian Laundrie in the days and and weeks that followed.

From Alabama to Ontario, it appeared that the 24-year-old man was being spotted everywhere. Many of these sightings appeared unlikely, and fanciful.

The truth, it appears, is that after returning to Florida without Petito, reportedly arriving back at North Point by 1 September, Laundrie did not leave the “sunshine state” again.

Laundrie’s parents initially informed investigators that their son had told them he was going on a hike in the 25,000-acre reserve, home to alligators and snakes, on either 13 or 14 September.

They reported him missing on 17 September, and told police their son had taken a silver Mustang, often driven by his mother. The couple, Chris and Roberta, said they had found the car and driven it back to their home on 15 September, before it was taken into custody by police.

Gabby Petito appeared in a music video in 2013 to raise awareness about violence against children

In the month that has passed, the Laundries have said little, though they rejected claims that they knew where their son was.

Yet if they had nothing to say, there were plenty of other individuals willing to to fill the airwaves – whether protesters who marched outside their windows, psychics offering purported clues, or 68-year-old Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, a one-time reality star (even though one of Chapman’s daughters, Cecily Chapman, dismissed her father’s presence in Florida as nothing more than “a publicity stunt”).

On Wednesday it was reported that Laundrie’s parents had escorted the FBI to a location at the Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park, part of the Carlton Reserve. From there, agents were able to recover personal possessions of the missing young man, along with human remains.

“Chris and Roberta Laundrie were at the reserve earlier today when human remains and some of Brian’s possessions were located in an area where they had initially advised law enforcement that Brian may be,” Bertolino, their lawyer, said in a statement.

‘Dog the Bounty Hunter’ joined the search for Brian Laundrie

“After a brief search off a trail that Brian frequented, some articles belonging to Brian were found.”

Police later said that clothing found at the scene matched what Laundrie had been wearing, while the FBI said dental records had been used to confirm the remains were his.

Many questions remain unanswered about the case, not least the precise circumstances of the death of a young woman who had, according to her mother, “wanted to cross the country in the camper van and live the van life and live free”.

And what was it that led to the discovery of Laundrie’s body, more than a month after he went missing?

One certainty is that the case has ended in tragedy for two families.

Gabby Petito’s mother says she thought Brian Laundrie ‘would take care of’ her daughter

After the FBI announced that the remains in Florida were those of Laundrie, the family’s lawyer appealed for the parents to be allowed to grieve.

“We have no further comment at this time and we ask you respect the Laundrie family’s privacy at this time.”

Meanwhile, Richard Stafford, a lawyer who represents the Petito family, said his clients would also not be speaking.

“They are grieving the loss of their beautiful daughter,” he told CNN. “Gabby’s family will make a statement at the appropriate time and when they are emotionally ready.”

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