[TW for mentions of domestic abuse, death]
In July 2021, twenty-two year old Gabby Petito and her fiancé Brian Laundrie set off on a summer road trip in their white Ford van to visit national parks and landmarks across the country.
To their friends and family, the newly engaged couple appeared nothing short of happy and in love. Yet, on August 12, the couple was pulled over in Grand County, Utah near Arches National Park. Police received an anonymous 911 phone call from a concerned citizen who had allegedly witnessed an intense argument between the couple, resulting in a physical altercation. Police reports and footage show that Petito appeared “confused and emotional,” but after speaking with both her and Laundrie, no charges were filed. Just over two weeks later, however, the couple was spotted in another dispute after leaving a restaurant in Jackson, Wyoming. While there is no video evidence to support the incident, several witnesses, including the restaurant manager, claimed to have seen Laundrie acting hostile towards Petito and other members of the restaurant staff.
Only a few days after the couple were seen in Wyoming was the last time Petito’s parents heard from their daughter; she sent them a text message saying “no service in Yosemite,” which Petito’s parents later claimed they believed came from Laundrie.
On September 1, Laundrie returned to his and Petito’s home in North Port, Florida, but he was alone. Shortly after his return, Laundrie’s parents explained that he had left once more to hike the Carlton Reserve in Sarasota, Florida. After weeks of radio silence from their daughter, and many unsuccessful attempts to reach out to Laundrie and his family, Petito’s parents filed a missing persons report and Laundrie was named a person of interest. Petito’s parents were not alone in their concern for their daughter –– Petito had started a personal blog on Instagram documenting the places she visited, and discrepancies in the unique style of her travel-themed posts raised red flags among her followers. Soon enough, information surrounding her disappearance was plastered all over the internet, and people from all over the country were sending positive messages to Petito’s family.
“Since she was not too much older than me… it was very upsetting,” senior student Ellie Costello explained.
It was September 19, when human remains were found near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, which were soon identified as Petito’s. Her death was ruled a homicide by means of strangulation. A public memorial service was broadcasted live from Long Island, New York, and several commemorative ceremonies including a memorial in front of the Ogden mural –– the site of the viral Instagram post –– and a candlelight vigil in her hometown.
After Petito’s body was identified, police issued a warrant for Laundrie’s arrest and sent a search party to the Carlton Reserve, where he was last believed to be. Just over a month after Petito’s body was located, Brian Laundrie’s remains were found on October 20 in the reserve. Several of Laundrie’s belongings were found near the body, but the cause of death is still unknown.
Gabby Petito’s death is undeniably tragic, but unfortunately not unique. According to FBI databases, over half a million individuals went missing in the year 2020 alone. In order to raise awareness for the staggering number of missing persons across the world and shine a positive light on her story, Petito’s parents, Nichole Schmidt and Joe Petito, formed the Gabby Petito Foundation. Highlighted in their mission statement, the non-profit seeks to “address the needs of organizations that support locating missing persons and to provide aid to organizations that assist victims of domestic violence situations.”
For those who wish to better understand Petito’s story, or are searching for resources and help, visit gabbypetitofoundation.org for more information.
The opinions stated in this article do not necessarily reflect the views and beliefs of the Wingspan staff as a whole.
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