The Electronic Fire of Gabrielle "Gabby" Petito

CJ Coombs

Rest in peace Gabrielle Petito (b. Mar. 19, 1999, d. Aug. 27, 2021). Your life of 22 years was tragically cut too soon. And while your death has intrigued everyone wanting answers and details, you’re gone and nobody misses you more than your family and friends.

On 48 Hours at 10:00 pm/9:00 pm CST, What Happened to Gabby Petito? will be aired on September 25, 2021. I have said that true crime was not a genre I chose, it chose me. There are no victim images here because they are sailing across the internet.
Grand Teton, Wyoming.Dave Herring/Unsplash.

From the moment I heard Gabby Petito’s name on the news as being described as a missing person, my first thought was she either had an accident or someone ended her life. There was so much guesswork about her whereabouts across all forms of media. You see a young smiling woman with blue eyes and soft blonde hair, and the more images seen of her, the more compelling the story became. The more it evolved into a mystery. All we know now is that her family had not heard from her since the end of August 2021. We know she was traveling across the country with her 23-year-old fiancé, Brian Laundrie, in a white Ford Transit van. With all the images of the two of them appearing to be sharing joy and trip excitement, we speculate whether Brian could be responsible for her disappearance and death.

To make the story even more interesting was when Brian returned home in Florida without Gabby and 10 days before she is reported missing. He returned in her van and wouldn’t speak to anyone about the situation. Why wouldn’t he want to talk about Gabby’s disappearance if he has nothing to hide? And he must know if he’s not going to talk about it, the effects of that are going to stir suspicion.

On September 19, 2021, remains of a body were located in Wyoming at the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Obviously, there was speculation the remains belonged to Petito but without confirmation, it could only be speculation. And all forms of media wrapped their arms around this story. Two days after the body was found, it was sadly confirmed the remains belonged to Petito. The initial cause of death was a homicide.

Background Information

Gabrielle (called “Gabby”) was born in Blue Point, New York. She was only 22 when she disappeared. She attended Bayport-Blue Point High School in Long Island where she met Brian. Gabby and Brian began dating in 2019 and moved to North Point, Florida to live with Brian’s parents. In July 2020, they became engaged. In June 2021, they returned to Blue Point to attend the graduation of Petito’s brother. On July 2, they left Blue Point for a trip across the country in a white 2012 Ford Transit van that was converted into a camper. Petito posted their journey through YouTube as well as other accounts. Their goal was to reach Oregon by October.

Witness Reports They Were Arguing

There was a witness who reported via 911 that Gabby and Brian were in a fight in front of the Moonflower Community Cooperative located in Moab, Utah. It was stated that it was an aggressive confrontation and they eventually drove off. According to the Associated Press on September 19, a police video released by the Moab Police Department in Utah showed an officer pulling the van over on August 12 after it was seen speeding and hitting a curb near the entrance to Arches National Park. I watched the 1 hour, 17-minute body cam video posted on YouTube. The video showed Gabby in an emotional state. She sat inside a police cruiser while officers also separately questioned Brian. Moab police ultimately decided not to file any charges against Gabby who was seen as the aggressor based on her answers to questions and the physical markings on Brian which the officer took pictures of. Instead of filing this as a domestic charge, the couple was separated for the evening. They gave the keys to the van to Gabby and transported Brian to a hotel. Both were instructed not to communicate with each other until the morning.

The police felt the couple needed a break from each other based on comments they were hearing. Gabby was visibly having issues with anxiety, a behavior one of the questioning officers was familiar with. Gabby informed she was dealing with personal issues. Brian communicated there was a lot of tension building up between them. On September 16, the body cam footage between the Moab Police Department and the engaged couple was released and is available on YouTube.

ABC News online reported on September 16, when police officers located the van and pulled it over, the couple admitted to arguing and that Gabby had slapped Brian. The couple also stated to the police that Brian did not hit Gabby. Gabby told police that she suffered from severe anxiety and other medical conditions (redacted from the police report) and that the arguments had been escalating.

I read the redacted Moab Police Department Report of August 12 that is available on Scribd. The parties named in the report were Gabby, Brian, and a witness named Chris. The reporting officers were Officers Eric Pratt and Daniel Scott. The information on the report indicated the officers had responded to a reported domestic problem that took place near the Moonflower Co-op. According to the report,

“It appeared that a male and female had left the scene traveling north on Main in a white Ford Transit van with a black ladder on the rear after the male and female had engaged in some sort of altercation. It wasn’t clear, but I believe it was reported the male had been observed to have assaulted the female. I heard other officers report they were off to look for the vehicle, and being that I had to pass the Moonflower in order to get to Main St, I stopped there to see if any witnesses were still in the area.”

The officer found one witness and took down his phone number and then left the scene because he heard the vehicle was located near Arches National Park. Officer Robbins performed a traffic stop because the vehicle was speeding and left its lane hitting the curb.

Officer Pratt assisted Officer Robbins and two park officers briefly before he was called away to another incident. He questioned Gabby, Brian, and called the witness. All three gave the same story. Gabby and Brian had argued and Brian told Gabby to go take a walk and calm down, but she didn’t want to be apart from him and began slapping him. Brian had grabbed her face trying to push her back as she pressed herself into him and the van. Brian tried to lock her out but she was able to climb into the driver’s side window and get into the vehicle which then drove off. It was deemed as a “mental/emotional health break” (emphasis added) rather than a domestic assault.

According to Officer Robbins, the witness reported seeing Gabby and Brian arguing over a phone and saw what appeared to him to be Gabby hitting Brian in the arm and climbing into the driver's side window. When Robbins caught up with the van, it was traveling at 45 mph in a 15 mph zone and swerved stopping near the entrance gate of Arches National Park. Robbins reported that Gabby was “crying uncontrollably.” What Gabby communicated she suffers from was redacted in the police report. She stated when she saw his vehicle lights, she hit Brian in the arm to get his attention which caused him to swerve. She said she did not intend to cause him harm. Robbins reported that during the whole time, Gabby was crying and heavily breathing. What both suffer from was redacted. Robbins concluded they were under emotional strain from traveling together for a long time, and that it was more of a “mental health crisis than domestic assault.”

When Gabby Disappeared

To contribute to more back story, on August 19, Gabby posted their Beginning our Van Life Journey on their YouTube channel called “Nomadic Statik” journaling the beginnings of their trip. Gabby provided her parents weekly updates. The last time she talked with her dad and stepmother was by facetime on August 21. I watched the video and noted the van’s interior, a tent they had set up outside, the two of them sharing food and playing games, and even swinging. I could hear music in the background and saw them on a beach. This video has over 5 million views.

The last time Gabby had a facetime with her mom, Nichole Schmidt, was August 24. Gabby told her that she was in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. On August 25, Gabby posted a last Instagram message. Allegedly, she was texting her mom up until August 30. Interestingly, on August 27, a text message from Gabby’s phone to her mom read, “Can you help Stan, I just keep getting his voicemails and missed calls.” This drew attention to her mom because Gabby never called her grandfather by his name. It would come out later, according to the warrant executed by the North Port Police Department in Florida, that this caused Gabby’s mom to worry that something was wrong with her daughter. The warrant also called the text the last communication Gabby had with anyone. WNBC in New York reported that Gabby’s mom last heard from her daughter on August 30 in the form of a text which read “No service in Yosemite,” and her mom was unsure whether that came from Gabby.

Police Investigation

On September 1, Brian returned home in Gabby’s van without her to North Port. On September 11, Gabby’s family reported her as missing. Three days later, the van was taken by police from Brian’s home in an effort to search it for any possible evidence leading to Gabby’s disappearance. They had also obtained a search warrant to scrutinize Gabby’s located hard drive. Then on September 15, they named Brian as a person of interest. As reported in the media, his family retained a lawyer and were advised not to speak to anyone. On this same day, police interviewed a woman who had been posting TikTok videos indicating that on August 29, she gave Brian a ride as he was hitchhiking in Grand Teton National Park. She said Brian asked to get out of the vehicle once he realized they were traveling to Jackson Hole instead of Jackson, Wyoming.

On September 13, more information was released to the public by the FBI and the news about Gabby’s disappearance heightened. A national hotline was established for any information or helpful tips of 1–800-CALLFBI (225–5324). On September 14, a statement was issued by Gabby’s family pleading for Brian to provide information on Gabby. Attorney Stafford representing Gabby’s mom and the Petitos released the letter that both these families wrote to the Laundries pleading for information. This letter was also uploaded on Scribd. On September 17, the FBI began its search for Brian. It is unknown if he left North Port. According to his parents, he has been missing since September 14, but Gabby’s family insists that he’s hiding.

On September 18, a search began of the 200 acres of Myaahatchee Creek Environmental Park and the subsequent search of the massive acreage of Carlton Reserve. Brian’s family indicated their son took his backpack on September 14 and was heading to the reserve. Rumors spread on social media that a body was found which were labeled misinformation by the North Port Police, the department which is also creating a timeline of locations where Gabby and Brian were based on their stored cell phones information through the use of digital forensics; the police do not have their cell phones.

On September 19, Jenn and Kyle Bethune posted footage on YouTube taken on August 27 that showed a van like what Petito and Laundrie were traveling in. According to the video, the van’s back door abruptly closes as the Bethunes got closer. And on the day they came forward with the footage, the body remains were found. It was confirmed that a body was found at Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area in Teton County.

On September 20, the FBI with a search warrant declared Brian’s home as a crime scene. A Ford Mustang was towed away and someone who looked like Brian was seen on a trail camera in Baer, Florida. On September 21, Teton County’s coroner confirmed the remains found belonged to Gabby and that this was a homicide.

The Media

True crime stories have grown to such popularity in our country, but I’ve never seen anything go as viral as Gabby’s story. The police do not want any misinformation displayed across social media while they perform their investigation, for good reason.

As reported by the Associated Press on September 19, 2021, in its piece entitled, Body found in Wyoming believed to be Gabrielle Petito (Source), “The FBI said the body was found by law enforcement agents who had spent the past two days searching campgrounds.” The cause of death was still uncertain, and they were working on the complete forensic process to confirm the identification of the remains. It’s heartwrenching to think what Gabby’s family is going through plus with everything hitting the media.

According to the September 13, 2021 article by The U.S. Sun (A UK Company), A woman has been missing for two weeks after going on a road trip with her boyfriend, with her mom fearing her final texts were not sent by her (Source), “Petito’s mom, Nicole Schmidt, last spoke to her daughter on the phone on August 25 when she was at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.” This reporting indicated the family had a GoFundMe page to raise money to aid the search for Gabby. Also, according to this reporting, Gabby stood 5’5” tall and had two tattoos — on her left arm was a triangle with flowers, and on her right arm were the words, “let it be.”

From ABC News online on September 15, 2021, in Gabby Petito’s boyfriend named person of interest after her disappearance during road trip (Source), it was reported that “Brian Laundrie raised flags among Petito’s family after he returned home to their home in North Port, Florida, with Petito’s white Ford van — but Petito was nowhere to be found.” Even though there is no evidence of any crime being committed in Florida, the North Port Police Department has taken a lead in the investigation. More speculation is drawn towards Brian since he refuses to speak to investigators and isn’t communicating why he drove her van back to Florida without her. At this point, Utah and New York agencies and the FBI are working collectively in the investigation.

As reported on September 17 in the East Idaho News online (Source), an owner of a local shop, Rustic Row, in Victor, Idaho (close to the border of Wyoming) stated both Gabby and Brian were in her store for about 20 minutes on either August 25 or 26. They spoke to each other and appeared to be happy when they departed. Once the shop owner saw Gabby on the news, her information was reported to the FBI. It was also reported an individual named Shannon Baker swears she saw the Petito van at a parking area at Jenny Lake. In Florida, public information officer Josh Taylor told the media that they do not have Gabby’s cell phone and have received hundreds of tips. Taylor explained they are not ruling out a connection between this case, and a recent double homicide case in Utah of two newlywed women.

A USA Today story in the Cincinnati Enquirer online on September 18 in Gabby Petito remains missing as authorities search vast Florida reserve for fiancé Brian Laundrie, indicated police were continuing their search for Brian. As of this date, no charges had been filed. His family communicated to officers that they have not seen Brian since September 14 (Tuesday). On September 17 (Friday), at the family’s request, the officers met with them and discussed this case. Late Friday, the family filed a missing person report (communicated by police spokesman, Josh Taylor, to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune (part of the USA Today Network). As reported, “All of Gabby’s family want the world to know that Brian is not missing, he is hiding. Gabby is missing,” the statement from the law office of Richard B. Stafford said. The North Port Police Department said this case “is now being treated as a multiple missing person investigation.”

According to The Guardian’s article on September 22, Gabby Petito case: Brian Laundrie charged with illegal bank card use (Source), Brian has been charged with the unauthorized use of a Capital One Bank card. He has been indicted by a federal grand jury as the charges of greater than $1,000 occurred in the time frame that Gabby was missing. We don’t know if it’s Gabby’s card. Having this arrest warrant will permit other law enforcement from coast to coast to help in the search for Brian. If we didn’t believe he caused Gabby’s death, this might convince us otherwise.

The hunt for Brian continues. Of note, Wyoming and Florida still carry the death penalty. If Gabby’s killer is arrested and convicted of murder, the death penalty is on the table.

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Hello! I have 30 years of experience in the legal field, and a BA in Eng Journalism & Creative Writing. I am an incessant thinker, giver, and lover of life. Born into the service life of the Air Force in Louisiana, life has taken me to Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, and ultimately to Missouri, I don't have that true concept of "home," but believe every living experience is tied to language. I applaud all writers who churn language into something artful, meaningful, and productive. I love my family, art, true crime, non-fiction, reading, travel, and red pinot.

Kansas City, MO

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