On Sept. 11, the Petito family filed a missing person report for their daughter, 22-year-old Gabby Petito, who they had last had contact with seventeen days prior on Aug. 25 when she Facetimed her mother letting her know that she and her fiance, Brian Laundrie, had arrived at Grand Teton National Park. The couple were childhood sweethearts who moved from New York in 2019 to live with his parents in North Port, Florida.
In late June, Petito and Laundrie had embarked on a journey from Long Island, after visiting for Petito’s younger brother’s graduation. Driving a white 2012 Ford Transit van which had been converted for comfortable travel, the couple documented their road trip across the country to Utah; they would visit numerous parks while on their journey. Petito was last seen on Aug. 29.
When this became public information, I was with friends after school and remember thinking how close to home this case felt. As a 17- year-old girl, only five years younger than Petito, it became alarmingly easy to put myself in her shoes. Being someone who hopes to travel in the future, especially with the people closest to me, this case both intrigued me and left me heartbroken. I feel that oftentimes when homicide cases occur, we tend to accidently de-personify the victim, forgetting that they too were a person similar to us. Gabby Petito was a student, a daughter, a sister and an adventurer, which is important to recall when remembering her life. The life she lived must be acknowledged over the way her life was taken.
In following this closely, I believe that there is a distinct difference between the Petito case and other missing persons cases/homicides throughout the years. The influence of social media has largely impacted the positive progression of the case and can ultimately be credited to assisting in finding and bringing Gabby’s body home. If we look at infamous cases throughout history such as the JonBenet Ramsey case, the disconnect in information is apparent, and I have to wonder if this disconnect would have occurred in today’s day and age; the progression of the case could have looked differently with the added influence of social media as we see in Gabby’s case.
In the weeks after Petito was publicly reported missing, her story had been featured on both national and international news networks, as well as dominating Tik Tok and other social media outlets. With little to no information from her fiance, the supposed last person to see her alive, whose whereabouts are now unknown, the FBI encouraged any and all information or possible tips to be disclosed.
In early September, the #GabbyPetito hashtag had more than 500 million views on the video app Tiktok. Many creators shared updates, unconfirmed information and their own theories on what they believe could have happened that day. In fact, some of these self-proclaimed “True Crime Fanatics” have provided investigators with leads as to where both Petito and Laundrie could be. 23-year old Miranda Baker took to social media with her experience with Laundrie in late August, going viral on the app.
Baker stated that while traveling through Utah with her boyfriend on Aug. 29, just four days after Petito last spoke to her mother, Baker picked up Laundrie after seeing him along the main road hitchhiking. Investigators believe that this could be probable and are currently conducting searches in that area for the man as well as across the country and overseas.
While many have claimed to have seen Gabby or believed that they knew where she was, it wasn’t until another couple also visiting the Grand Teton area, Youtubers Jenn and Kyle Bethune were reviewing footage from their family trip when they noticed glimpses of a white van parked nearby. The Bethunes who had traveled with their three children captured the images on their GoPros, and upon closer inspection, were able to confirm that it was in fact the White Ford Transit van parked alongside the road in Spread Creek Camping Area.
“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,” Jenny Bethune said in her vlog Red, White, and Bethune. “But the van was completely dark. There was nobody there, so we decided to continue on our way.”
Thankfully cameras were still rolling, and with the assistance of the recorded footage, FBI investigators were able to identify the exact location of the vehicle, and in a search, recovered a body consistent with the description of the 22-year-old later to be confirmed to be Gabby.
While Brian Laundrie’s whereabouts are still unknown, many have joined the search for the person of interest, including television celebrity Duane Chapman “Dog the Bounty Hunter” who has since added $10,000 to the standing reward money of $170,000 in hopes that this may motivate anyone with additional information to come forward. Chapman states that both himself through his personal hotline and the North Carolina police department have received information of sightings of Petito’s fiance near the Appalachian Trails and are conducting searches of the area, but there has yet to be federal confirmation of this. Due to “Dog”’s involvement in the case, there is an obvious increase in awareness and attention to the case from both the media and general public.
On Oct. 2, social media once again propelled the case further along when a local North Carolina man took to Facebook with reports of supposably seeing a “dazed” Brian Laundrie just days before on the trails. Dennis Davis contacted the police, telling them that the man [Laundrie] had seemed “out of sorts” and claiming that he had to return to California to see his girlfriend after the couple had a fight.
Laundrie’s parents have shied away from public interaction, but in a recent interview conducted by Today, both claimed that after their son’s arrival home without his fiance, he drove his silver Mustang to go for an alleged hike at a nearby 25,000 acre nature reserve. The couple reportedly told police that once they realized that their son had yet to come back from his hike, they drove to pick up the vehicle and brought it back to their home. Police later seized both the Mustang and the Ford Transit as evidence to the case.
In addition to this, former FBI official Maureen O’Connell claims that she believes that Brian Laundrie will be found “soon and alive.”
“All the information that’s been coming in for weeks now, as you layer it upon yourself, you can start to see all these things coming to fruition,” O’Connell said in an interview with Fox News.
Investigators originally alerted the public of possible appearance changes and to be on the lookout for perhaps a “skinnier” and “beardless” Laundrie, however after partial human remains identified as Laundrie were found on Oct. 22, the search for the man has been called off. This is the only public disclosed information at this time.
It is clear that social media has played a large role in the Gabby Petito case, not only providing evidence from outside sources and reports from those who interacted with the young girl in her final days but also speculation of Petito’s own social media; investigators and the public alike have questioned whether or not her last actions on her Instagram account were really her. Gabby’s followers have argued that it was Laundrie who wrote and posted the last few posts to her page, highlighting that the second-to-last post made on her that featured pictures from weeks beforehand and lacked the usual in-depth captions of their experiences that Petito frequented.
Joe Petito, Gabby’s father, has also taken to social media to address the outpour of support that the family has received in the recent weeks since the disappearance of his daughter. He not only thanks the public for their help in the search but also addresses the importance of leaving and safety in domestic situations, as well as the power of social media, encouraging others to fight for their missing loved ones.
“So many stories are being sent in to us about relationships being left with proper planning for safety, and people are being found due to her influence… We have much more work to do, but it’s a start,” Joe Petito said in a family press conference.
“I wanna ask everyone to help all the people who are missing and need help,” he added at the conference held to announce a foundation in Petito’s honor to help other missing persons. “It’s on all of you, everyone that’s in this room to do that. It’s not just Gabby that deserves that.”
As a result of the Gabby Petito case, other missing person cases have seen a boost on social media, as many trending posts also carry hashtags related to their cases. These names include; 40 year old Tiffany Foster, last seen on March 1st in Newnan GA, 30 year old Lauren “El” Cho, a musician last seen June 28th in Yucca Valley, 25 year old Jelani Day, a Illinois State graduate student reported missing on August 25th in Bloomington Illinois, and 24 year old Daniel Robinson, a geologist from Phoenix who disappeared on June 23 this year. Through this, a new light is being shone as previously seized searches have begun again to find, recover, and bring peace to the individuals and their families.
While these heartbreaking cases seem to occur far too often, I believe that there is new hope to be found through the power of social media and in turn the widespread support of the public in helping serve justice for not only Gabby but for all those who have been victims of abuse.
Police and FBI request that any and all tips surrounding these missing individuals be reported immediately.
Missing Persons Hotline: 1-800-CALL-FBI (225-5324)
Domestic Violence Hotline: 800.799.SAFE (7233)