"Earlier today human remains were discovered consistent with Gabrielle Petito," FBI spokesman Charles Jones told reporters at a press conference.
"Full forensic identification has not been completed to confirm 100 per cent that we found Gabby, but her family has been notified of this discovery," Jones said, adding that the cause of death was yet to be determined.
Disappearance of Gabby Petito
Gabrielle Venora Petito is a 22-year-old American woman from Suffolk County, New York, who was reported missing on September 11, 2021, while traveling across the United States with her fiancé. Her family lost contact with her in late August when she was in or near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
On September 19, 2021, authorities announced that human remains 'consistent with the description of' Petito was discovered in Bridger–Teton National Forest, though it has not been officially identified, and a cause of death has not been confirmed.
Domestic disturbance incident
On August 12, 2021, police in Moab, Utah, intervened in a domestic dispute between the couple that resulted in a roadside stop. A witness who called 911 claimed that the couple were fighting near the Moonflower Community Co-op. In initial reports, it was stated that the witness claimed that Petito struck Laundrie in the arm before trying to climb in through the driver's side window. However, on September 20, the 911 call was released to the public and the witness is heard telling the dispatcher that Laundrie slapped Petito, the two ran up and down the sidewalk, Laundrie hit Petito again, and then they drove off.
When police arrived, they had to pull the van over near the entrance to Arches National Park and found Petito crying heavily in the passenger seat, and 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'.
Laundrie said the two of them began arguing in town, citing emotional tension that had been building between the two due to traveling together for four to five weeks, resulting in an increase of arguments. Both agreed that Petito had struck Laundrie, as she was concerned that he would leave her alone and stranded in town after he got in the van. In the report, the officers characterized Petito as the suspect as '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. She showed indications of separation anxiety. He grabbed her face and pushed her back as she pressed upon him and the van'.
No charges were filed and the police arranged for Laundrie to spend a night in a hotel and for Petito to stay in the van, in order to separate the two after characterizing the incident as a mental/emotional health break instead of domestic assault.
Petito stayed at a hotel near Salt Lake City International Airport on August 24, 2021, according to hotel staff. Petito's mother, Nichole Schmidt, stated that Petito had told her they were traveling from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Yellowstone National Park, and had last received a FaceTime call from her around August 24, and Petito claimed to be in Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming. Text messages also continued to be sent from Petito's phone to her mother until August 30 with the last one stating 'No service in Yosemite'. Her mother expressed uncertainty about their validity.
Laundrie returned to Florida with the van on September 1 without Petito. Petito's family reported her missing on September 11. On September 17, officials reported that Laundrie had gone missing. On the same day, TikToker Miranda Baker posted a series of videos claiming that she had picked up Laundrie on August 29, hitchhiking alone in Grand Teton National Park.
Laundrie is not speaking to police while the investigation is ongoing. He has hired a lawyer, and is considered a person of interest in the case. His parents have refused contact with law enforcement and with the Petito family, instead directing all contact through the family lawyer, who has advised Laundrie to refuse comment. The lawyer also issued a statement claiming that in his experience, intimate partners are often the first person law enforcement focuses on and that any statement made would be used against him. As such, he had advised Laundrie to remain silent. While Laundrie has not been charged with any crime as of September 17, the North Port police are investigating the case with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Suffolk County Police Department in New York. The van was later recovered from Laundrie's family home and was processed by police to look for additional evidence. On September 16, the Petito family's lawyer spoke out against the Laundrie family's protection of Brian. Laundrie has not been seen since September 14; his parents reported him missing as of September 17. As of September 19, the FBI and police are searching for Laundrie in the Carlton Reserve, a Sarasota county park near his home in North Port; a statement by the North Port Police Department said that police 'are now working a multiple missing persons investigation'. On September 20, police began searching for Laundrie in Mobile, Alabama after witnesses reported seeing him at a restaurant and near a Walmart in Tillmans Corner, Alabama.
On September 19, a YouTube channel under the name Red White & Bethune posted dash cam footage from August 27 which shows a white van matching the description of the one Petito and Laundrie had been driving in the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping area of Bridger–Teton National Forest in Wyoming near Grand Teton National Park; the uploader of the video stated they saw the van around 18:00 and saw it once more when they returned to the area later that night. The video shows the back door of the van abruptly closing as the YouTuber is getting closer. That same night, law enforcement searched and found a body in Bridger–Teton National Forest. The identity has not been confirmed. The FBI, however, has stated the remains match the description of Petito. It is expected in the following week that an identification of the body and autopsy will be conducted.
On September 20, the FBI carried out a search warrant on Laundrie's home, declaring it a crime scene.
Media coverage and public reaction
The search for Petito has gained significant national news coverage in the United States and produced widespread interest on social media. Significant public attention has focused on Laundrie's silence in the case, and protesters and reporters have gathered outside his parents' home in North Port. Some North Port residents held a candlelight vigil for Petito on the night of September 17.
The interest in Petito's disappearance coincided with the growing popularity of true crime podcasts and documentaries over the previous year. Experts and media commentators have attributed the particular interest in Petito's case to a range of factors, including Petito and Laundrie's existing social media presence documenting their vandwelling lifestyle and the narrative appeal of a romantic excursion gone wrong.
The intensity of the media coverage surrounding Petito's disappearance and the subsequent investigation has been criticized as an example of missing white woman syndrome. Mashable writer Morgan Sung criticized some social media influencers for making 'distastefully opportunistic' posts to appeal to 'voyeuristic online frenz'y.
As with previous missing person cases receiving widespread attention, law enforcement's search benefited from increased public awareness, but was also distracted by a barrage of false or unhelpful tips. The increased use of social media as a platform for information on Petito's case led to law enforcement expressing concerns about the dissemination of false narratives before police have the opportunity to corroborate tips.