The 22 year-old woman’s remains were recently discovered, with her still-missing boyfriend a person of interest.
National attention placed a spotlight on the case of Gabby Petito, 22, after she was reported missing on Sept. 11 after a cross-country road trip with boyfriend Brian Laundrie, 23. Her disappearance sparked social media discussion which helped accelerate her case: her remains were found in Wyoming on Sept. 19, and as of the following Tuesday, a coroner determined the manner of death as a homicide, according to BBC News.
In June, Petito and Laundrie began their road trip in her white van, planning to visit national parks across the western United States. She posted frequently on her social media about their trip and kept in frequent contact with her family until all communication abruptly stopped in late August. On Sept. 1, Laundrie returned to his family home in Florida with the white van he shared with his girlfriend; notably, he came home alone and did not alert her family or the police regarding Petito’s absence.
Weeks before her disappearance, tensions between the couple seem to have spiked. On Aug. 12, police in Moab, Utah received a call from a witness who observed a domestic violence incident. The caller said he saw the couple fight over a phone and saw Laundrie slap Petito before they returned to their van. When a police officer pulled them over and separated the two, the body camera footage depicts a stark difference in their behavior: Petito sobbed hysterically, seeming unable to compose herself, while Laundrie smiled and laughed with officers. “She’s just crazy,” he jokingly said to the officers after they asked if she took medication for her anxiety. At the suggestion of the officers, Petito and Laundrie separated for the night, and Laundrie’s hotel was paid for by the police, which was something the department often did for domestic abuse victims. The next day, they continued their trip.
The details surrounding Petito’s homicide are unclear, but police have labeled Laundrie a person of interest. According to CNN, an arrest warrant against Laundrie was issued Wednesday over alleged fraudulent use of someone’s credit card between Aug. 30 and Sept. 1, withdrawing more than $1,000 from the account; though the indictment does not say to whom the card belonged, the use of the card during the period of Petito’s disappearance spurs more suspicion toward Laundrie from those following the case. Regardless, this arrest warrant allows the police to pursue him while further exploring his involvement in Petito’s homicide.
Though a warrant has been issued, the Associated Press reports that Laundrie’s parents claim they have not seen him since Sept. 14 when he set off to Florida’s Carlton Reserve, leaving behind his phone and wallet. Authorities continue to search this swampy 24,000-acre nature reserve for his whereabouts: helicopters, drones, dogs, divers and officers in specialized all-terrain vehicles have been deployed for several days. The area is difficult for conducting any search, as 75 percent of the search area is underwater, and alligators have presented a safety issue.
National attention not only keeps the search for Laundrie ongoing but has also propelled greater awareness of other missing persons cases such as Jelani Day, Lauren Cho and Daniel Robinson. Day’s body was found on Thursday, but the locations of Cho and Robinson remain unknown; the prior was last seen in Yucca Valley ,California while the latter in Buckeye, Arizona.
Petito’s case has highlighted several wrongdoings from police misconduct in situations of domestic violence to the disproportionate reporting of missing people of color. Because Petito was a young, conventionally attractive white woman, her story fits into the phenomenon of “missing white woman syndrome,” coined by journalist Gwen Ifill. Within this narrative, missing white women are portrayed as innocent victims, their disappearance or murders drawing days of news coverage attention while similar cases with victims of color are often ignored. Social media coverage helped find Petito’s body in Wyoming relatively quickly; other victims in the same state have not had such luck as 710 cases of missing Indigenous people have been reported in the past decade, according to NBC. Their stories have been largely untouched.
With Laundrie missing, findings regarding her disappearance continue to develop with intense media coverage, and others hope to utilize this national awareness to shine light on other untouched missing persons cases.