Gabrielle Venora Petito (March 19, 1999 – c. August 30, 2021) was an American woman who disappeared between August 27 and 30, 2021, while she was on a vanlife trip across the United States with her fiancé, Brian Christopher Laundrie. The case gained notoriety when Laundrie returned to Florida alone on September 1 in their white 2012 Ford Transit Connect van and refused to talk about Petito's whereabouts. Her remains were found in Bridger–Teton National Forest in Wyoming on September 19, 2021, where preliminary results from an autopsy determined that her death was a homicide.
The disappearance of Petito quickly gained widespread attention due to the amount of audio and video documentation and logistical information around the couple's travels, including police body camera video footage of a domestic dispute between the couple, 9-1-1 emergency dispatch call recordings and eyewitness accounts in social media posts.
After being designated as a person of interest in the case, his parents said Laundrie went hiking in a nearby forest preserve on September 14, and has not been seen since. On September 22, 2021, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a warrant for Laundrie's arrest on charges of debit card fraud after he made withdrawals using someone's else card.
On August 12, 2021, a witness called the 9-1-1 emergency response line claiming that a couple was fighting in the town of Moab, Utah in front of the Moonflower Community Cooperative. The witness told the dispatcher that they had seen 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. They would later be identified as Laundrie and Petito.
Later, a separate witness described other parts of the Moonflower incident in a statement to police that said 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 Petito eventually climbed into the driver's seat, moved over into the passenger's seat, and asked "Why do you have to be so mean?" and then they drove off.
When police responded, they forced a traffic stop of their van near the entrance to Arches National Park and found Petito crying heavily in the passenger seat, where she told officers she was struggling with personal issues. The responding officer wrote in his report that "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".
Petito told the officer they had been arguing over her excessive cleaning of the van, telling the officer that "Some days, I have really bad OCD, and I was just cleaning and straightening up and I was apologizing to him saying that I'm so mean because sometimes I have OCD and get frustrated". Petito's father said that the OCD diagnosis was not literally true; she was just using slang.
Laundrie said that they had been arguing and that emotional tension had been building due to traveling together for four to five weeks. Both agreed that Petito had struck Laundrie, since she was concerned that he would leave her alone and stranded after he got in the van. In the report, the officers wrote that "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".
Neither Petito nor Laundrie wanted to press charges as a result of the incident and the police arranged for Laundrie to spend a night at the Bowen Motel in Moab, and for Petito to stay in the van, separating the two after characterizing the incident as a mental/emotional health break instead of domestic violence.
Police body cameras recorded the interactions between the officers, Laundrie, and Petito; the footage was released to the public on September 16. The Moab City Police Department announced on September 23 that it would investigate if the officers handled the case in accordance with police department policies.
Petito's mother said that her daughter had told her they were travelling from Salt Lake City to Yellowstone National Park and had last received a FaceTime call from her around August 24, 2021; Petito said she was in Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming. On August 25, the final post was made from Petito's Instagram account, photos in front of a butterfly mural outside of a restaurant in Ogden, Utah. Text messages also continued to be sent from Petito's phone to her mother until August 30. On August 27, a text was sent to her mother that said "Can you help Stan, I just keep getting his voicemails and missed calls". The text raised concerns for Petito's mother, who said Stan was her grandfather and that Petito never referred to him by his first name.
The last message, sent on August 30, said "No service in Yosemite". Her mother expressed uncertainty about who sent these messages. Investigators believe she disappeared sometime between August 27 and 30.
A number of witnesses came forward to describe their encounters with the couple or their van via posts on social media platforms, most notably on TikTok and YouTube. A number of them reported they also contacted law enforcement authorities with their observations.
A witness claimed that, on August 27 between 1:00 PM and 2:00 PM, 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 Laundrie and Petito were indeed at the restaurant.
Another witness said she reported to the FBI the activities and the exact coordinates of a slow-moving white van and a “generic” young white man "acting weird" near the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping area of Bridger–Teton National Forest in Grand Teton National Park 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, "tipped us off to the right place".
A woman claimed in a TikTok video that on August 29, she and her boyfriend gave Laundrie a car ride from an area near Colter Bay Village, after seeing him hitchhiking alone. She said when Laundrie found out that they were going to Jackson Hole instead of Jackson, he "freaked out", asked that the vehicle stop and got out at 6:09 PM near the Jackson Lake Dam, less than 30 minutes after being picked up. She also found it "weird" that Laundrie offered US$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.
Another witness stated that she picked up Laundrie, who was hitchhiking, from the Jackson Dam area at 6:20 or 6:30 PM on August 29 and dropped him off at the entrance to the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping area. He offered gas money for the 20 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.
On September 1, 2021, Laundrie returned to his parents' home in North Point, Florida, in the white van in which he and Petito had been travelling. Petito was not with him. On September 6 and 7, 2021, Laundrie and his parents went camping at Fort De Soto Park in Pinellas County, Florida. The family's attorney said that the family left the campground together.
Petito reported missing, early investigation, and disappearance of Laundrie
On September 11, Petito's mother filed a missing person report in relation to Petito, after not hearing from her since late August. On September 14, police seized the van from Laundrie's family home to search for additional evidence. Crime scene technicians found an external hard drive that was later examined as part of a search warrant.
On September 15, Laundrie was named a person of interest. Laundrie's parents refused to speak to police or the Petito family and hired a lawyer, who advised them to remain silent. Two days later on September 17, Laundrie was reported by his parents to be a missing person after they allegedly did not hear from him since September 14. Based on information from the Laundrie family on his possible whereabouts, the FBI and police searched for Laundrie in the 25,000 acres (100 km2) Carlton Reserve, a Sarasota County park approximately 13 mi (21 km) northwest from North Port.
On September 17, the Grand County Sheriff stated said that a recent double homicide that also took place in Moab was determined to have been unrelated to Petito's disappearance.
Discovery and identification of Petito
On September 19, 2021, human remains were found near Petito's last known whereabouts, at the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area of Bridger–Teton National Forest in Grand Teton National Park not far from where the van was previously observed. The remains matched Petito's description and her identity was confirmed. The preliminary results from an autopsy determined that the manner of death was a homicide, pending a final report.
On September 20, the FBI carried out a search warrant on Laundrie's home, declaring it a crime scene. Authorities towed the family's Ford Mustang from the driveway of the home. The Sarasota County Sheriff's Underwater Recovery Force was called in on September 22 to assist in the search at Carlton Reserve. On September 21, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis stated that he was directing all state agencies to assist in the search for Laundrie.
On September 23, the FBI in Denver announced that "the U.S. District Court of Wyoming issued a federal arrest warrant for Brian Christopher Laundrie pursuant to a Federal grand jury indictment related to Mr. Laundrie's activities following the death of Gabrielle Petito", officially declaring the search for Laundrie a manhunt. The grand jury indictment specified one count of "intent to defraud" related to the unauthorized use of a Capital One debit card. The indictment stated that Laundrie used the card to obtain US$1,000 or more between August 30 and September 1. The FBI later returned to Laundrie's home, looking for material to match with Laundrie's DNA.
Media coverage and public interest
Media crew members outside the Laundrie family home in North Port, Florida, on September 20, 2021.
Unlike most missing persons cases, the search for Petito sparked significant interest by the public, and as a result, major coverage on news and social media. Public involvement in the case included witnesses posting their direct observations to the Internet, protests outside the Laundrie home or candlelight vigils for Petito.
Heightened interest in the story have been attributed to a number of factors. The refusal by Laundrie and his parents to comment on the whereabouts of Petito when pressed by her parents gained significant media attention. The amount of multimedia content around their "van life" lifestyle; the video footage of the Moab, Utah, traffic stop; the audio footage of the 9-1-1 emergency dispatch call; and the video posts of social media witnesses all provided a large amount of publicly available evidence.
Additionally, the story of a "young and attractive" couple in a romantic excursion gone wrong, and the relationship analysis and possible domestic violence also became the subject of much discussion. A number of commentators noted the general increase in interest in true crime television and podcast programming in the preceding decade.
The disproportionate media coverage and public interest in the case was also cited among some commentators, including Joy Reid of MSNBC, as an example of missing white woman syndrome, or the over-emphasis of media coverage of individuals based on their race, gender, age, or appearance. In comparing Petito's case to others, a number of outlets noted the relative lack of media attention towards Wyoming's roughly 710 Indigenous people that had been reported missing between 2011 and 2020.
Some of the attention to the case has been characterized as insensitive, unhelpful, monetized, or seeking of increased social media exposure. It has also led to the dissemination of misinformation.
The increased interest in the Petito case has increased awareness of other missing person cases. During a press conference, Petito's parents asked the public to aid authorities in finding other missing persons. News coverage of the Petito case prompted witnesses to provide tips that led to the discovery of the remains of another missing person in Wyoming in an unrelated case.
^"Search Warrant"(PDF). State of Florida, 12th Judicial Circuit, County of Sarasota. Archived(PDF) from the original on September 20, 2021. Retrieved September 21, 2021. This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.