Gabby Petito - Gabby Petito died of strangulation. Far too many other women have, too
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Gabby Petito

Gabby Petito died of strangulation. Far too many other women have, too


Story by Moira Donegan

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Published on October 15, 2021 8:04 AM
 
Though victims and perpetrators appear among all kinds of people, the dynamics of strangulation are deeply gendered Aside from rape and sexual assault, few acts of violence have such a reliably gendered breakdown
 
Most women who are strangled by their husbands or boyfriends don't cooperate with law enforcement. Because strangulation, when it doesn't kill, frequently causes traumatic brain injuries, these women sometimes can't speak in a way that seems plausible to the police. Their testimonies aren't always clear or consistent; they may misremember timelines, change details on repeated telling, or feel unsure about crucial bits of information. In many cases, a strangulation victim also won't cooperate with the police because to do so would likely anger the man who strangled her. And he has already shown what he's willing to do to enforce his will.

Gabby Petito was killed by strangulation, according to the Wyoming coroner who examined her body after it was found in Grand Teton national park on 19 September. The police, along with a small army of internet sleuths who seized upon the case after news of Petito's disappearance broke last month, are now looking for her fiance, Brian Laundrie, who was the last to see the 22-year-old alive. He returned from the road trip they had taken together alone, driving Petito's van and refusing to say anything about her whereabouts. Laundrie has since fled police and disappeared into a vast nature preserve in Florida.

It is important to clarify that Petito was strangled, not choked. In common parlance, the act of putting your hands around a woman's neck and squeezing is often called choking. But medical experts and domestic violence advocates prefer the word strangulation. The reasons for the distinction are both technical and moral. In strictly semantic terms, choking and strangulation are different things. Choking refers to when an obstruction of the windpipe occurs inside the throat – for instance, when a piece of food gets stuck. Strangulation is the term for when the pressure is applied on the neck from...

Killing of Gabby Petito

Gabrielle Venora Petito, a 22-year-old American woman, disappeared in late August 2021 while she was on a vanlife trip across the United States with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie. The trip had started on July 2, 2021 and had been planned to last four months. On September 19, 2021 her remains were found at Bridger–Teton National Forest in Wyoming. A few weeks earlier, on September 1, Laundrie had returned from the trip having driven the couple's vehicle from Wyoming to Florida alone. He refused to talk about Petito's whereabouts. Her death was determined to have occurred three to four weeks before her body was found, with the cause being homicide by strangulation. The case gained notoriety when the couple's whereabouts became the focus of public attention due to the amount of audio and video documentation and logistical information about their journeys, including their own travelogue posts, police body camera video footage of a domestic dispute between the couple, 9-1-1 emergency dispatch call recordings and eyewitness accounts made on social media platforms.

After Laundrie was designated as a person of interest in the case, his parents said he went hiking in a nearby forest preserve on September 14, and has not been seen since. On September 22, 2021, the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a warrant for Laundrie's arrest on charges of debit card fraud after he made withdrawals using someone else's card.

Gabby Petito

Gabrielle Venora Petito was born and raised in Blue Point, New York. She was the eldest of six siblings and half-siblings. In 2013, she and her step-brothers appeared in a music video to raise awareness about gun violence. Petito graduated in 2017 from the Bayport-Blue Point High School in Bayport, New York, where she met Brian Christopher Laundrie. They began dating in March 2019, moved in together later that year with Laundrie's parents in North Port, Florida, and got engaged in July 2020.

Disappearance and homicide

Background

Petito had been saving money for a cross-country trip with Laundrie by working as a pharmacy technician. She also worked as a nutritionist before she quit in order to embark on the trip. On June 17, 2021, they were both in Blue Point for Petito's brother's graduation ceremony, and on July 2, 2021, they departed from Blue Point in a 2012 Ford Transit Connect van converted to a camper for a four-month cross-country vandwelling trip. The couple documented their trip on Petito's YouTube account, as well as their Instagram accounts.

Domestic disturbance incident

On August 12, 2021, a witness called the 9-1-1 emergency response line claiming that a couple was fighting in the town of Moab, Utah, in front of the Moonflower Community Cooperative. The witness told the dispatcher that they had seen a man slap a woman, and after the two ran up and down the sidewalk, the man hit the woman again and then drove off. They would later be identified as Laundrie and Petito.

Later, a separate witness described other parts of the Moonflower incident in a statement to police that said Petito and Laundrie were talking 'aggressivel'y and that Petito 'was punching him in the arm'. The witness said it looked like Laundrie was trying to leave Petito and take her phone with him before Petito eventually climbed into the driver's seat, moved over into the passenger's seat, and asked 'Why do you have to be so mean?' and then they drove off.

When police responded, they forced a traffic stop of the van near the entrance to Arches National Park and found Petito crying heavily in the passenger seat, where 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'.

Petito told the officer they had been arguing over her excessive cleaning of the van, telling the officer that 'Some days, I have really bad obsessive–compulsive disorder , and I was just cleaning and straightening up and I was apologizing to him saying that I'm so mean because sometimes I have OCD and get frustrated'. Petito's father said that she did not have OCD and that she was using it as a slang term.

Bodycam footage from a separate officer was released on September 30. Petito first downplayed the physical altercation, but after the officer points out marks on her arm and face and tells her to 'just be honest', she tells him that Laundrie 'kept telling me to shut up' and 'grabbed my face', showing the officer a cut that she had from it and saying that it burned. Petito told the officer that she hit him first, and asked the officers to not separate them. Laundrie told the officer that Petito 'gets really worked up' and that he was just trying to push her away.

Laundrie said that they had been arguing and that emotional tension had been building due to traveling together for four to five weeks. Both agreed that Petito had struck Laundrie, since she was concerned that he would leave her alone and stranded after he got in the van. In the report, the officers wrote that '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. He grabbed her face and pushed her back as she pressed upon him and the van'.

Neither Petito nor Laundrie wanted to press charges as a result of the incident and the police arranged for Laundrie to spend a night at the Bowen Motel in Moab, and for Petito to stay in the van, separating the two after characterizing the incident as a mental/emotional health break rather than domestic violence. Five days later on August 17, Laundrie left on a flight back to Tampa, Florida. Then he returned on August 23 to rejoin Petito.

Police body cameras recorded the interactions between the officers, Laundrie, and Petito; the footage was released to the public on September 16. The Moab City Police Department announced on September 23 that it would investigate to determine if the officers handled the case in accordance with police department policies.

Last reported activities and sightings

On August 24, 2021, according to staff, Petito stayed at a Fairfield Inn and Suites hotel near Salt Lake City International Airport.

Petito's mother said that her daughter had told her they were travelling from Salt Lake City to Yellowstone National Park, and had last received a FaceTime call from her around August 24, 2021; Petito said she was in Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming. On August 25, the final post was made from Petito's Instagram account where she posted photos in front of a butterfly mural outside of a restaurant in Ogden, Utah.

A number of witnesses came forward to describe their encounters with the couple or their van via posts on social media platforms, most notably on TikTok and YouTube. A number of them reported they also contacted law enforcement authorities with their observations. A witness claimed that, on August 27 between 1:00 PM and 2:00 PM, she saw Laundrie and Petito together at Merry Piglets, a Tex-Mex restaurant in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Per the witness, Laundrie had an argument with the manager, waitress, and hostess, apparently about money, and was 'aggressive'. The witness said she later saw Petito return to the restaurant, crying and apologizing for Laundrie's behavior. Restaurant staff confirmed via Instagram that Laundrie and Petito were indeed at the restaurant.

The operators of an RV YouTube channel posted dashcam footage they captured from August 27, showing a white van matching the description of the one Petito and Laundrie had been driving. The video was from the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping area of Bridger–Teton National Forest in Wyoming near Grand Teton National Park. Initially interested in the white van's license plate as an indicator of a fellow traveler from Florida, one of the witnesses said they saw the van around 6:00 PM and saw it once more when they returned to the area later that night.

Another witness said she reported to the FBI the activities and the exact coordinates of a slow-moving white van and a 'generic' young white man 'acting weird' near the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping area of Bridger–Teton National Forest in Grand Teton National Park on August 26, 27 and possibly 28. She posted a video to TikTok with her observations. According to the witness, an FBI agent said that her account, 'tipped us off to the right place'.

A woman claimed in a TikTok video that on August 29, she and her boyfriend gave Laundrie a car ride from an area near Colter Bay Village, after seeing him hitchhiking alone. She said when Laundrie found out that they were going to Jackson Hole instead of Jackson, Wyoming, he 'freaked out', asked that the vehicle stop and got out at 6:09 PM near the Jackson Lake Dam, less than 30 minutes after being picked up. She also found it 'weird' that Laundrie offered US$200 for the 10 mi ride and did not appear to be very dirty, despite claiming that he had been camping for days.

Another witness stated that she picked up Laundrie, who was hitchhiking, from the Jackson Dam area at 6:20 or 6:30 PM on August 29 and dropped him off at the entrance to the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping area. He offered gas money for the 20 minute ride, but did not want to be taken further than the entrance of the campground, which was several miles from the van. According to the witness, Laundrie acted 'ants'y about getting out of the vehicle before it got closer to the campsite.

Text messages also continued to be sent from Petito's phone to her mother until August 30. On August 27, a text was sent to her mother that said 'Can you help Stan, I just keep getting his voicemails and missed calls'. The text raised concerns for Petito's mother, who said Stan was her grandfather and that Petito never referred to him by his first name. The last message, sent on August 30, said 'No service in Yosemite'. Her mother expressed uncertainty about who sent these messages. Investigators believe she disappeared sometime between August 27 and 30.

On September 1, 2021, Laundrie returned to his parents' home in North Port, Florida, in the white van in which he and Petito had been travelling; Petito was not with him. On September 6 and 7, 2021, Laundrie and his parents went camping at Fort De Soto Park in Pinellas County, Florida. The family's attorney said that the family left the campground together.

Investigation

Petito reported missing and disappearance of Laundrie

On September 11, Petito's mother filed a missing person report in relation to Petito, after not hearing from her since late August. On September 14, police seized the van from Laundrie's family home to search for additional evidence. Crime scene technicians found an external hard drive that was later examined as part of a search warrant.

On September 15, Laundrie was named a person of interest. Laundrie's parents refused to speak to police or the Petito family and hired a lawyer, who advised them to remain silent. Two days later on September 17, Laundrie was reported by his parents to be a missing person after they allegedly did not hear from him since September 14. Based on information from the Laundrie family on his possible whereabouts, the FBI and police searched for Laundrie in the 25,000 acres Carlton Reserve, a Sarasota County park approximately 13 mi northwest from North Port.

On September 17, the Grand County Sheriff reported that a recent double homicide that also took place in Moab was determined to have been unrelated to Petito's disappearance.

Body discovered

On September 19, 2021, human remains were found near Petito's last known whereabouts, at the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area of Bridger–Teton National Forest in Grand Teton National Park not far from where the van was previously observed. The remains matched Petito's description and her identity was confirmed. The preliminary results from an autopsy determined that the manner of death was a homicide, and in October the coroner announced that she died from strangulation. The coroner determined that she died 3-4 weeks before the body was found.

Search for Laundrie

On September 20, the FBI carried out a search warrant on Laundrie's home, declaring it a crime scene investigation. Authorities towed the family's Ford Mustang from the driveway of the home. The Sarasota County Sheriff's Underwater Recovery Force was called in on September 22 to assist in the search at Carlton Reserve. On September 21, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis stated that he was directing all state agencies to assist in the search for Laundrie.

On September 23, the FBI in Denver announced that 'the U.S. District Court of Wyoming issued a federal arrest warrant for Laundrie pursuant to a Federal grand jury indictment related to Mr. Laundrie's activities following the death of Gabrielle Petito', officially declaring the search for Laundrie a manhunt. The grand jury indictment specified one count of 'intent to defraud' related to the unauthorized use of a Capital One debit card, stating Laundrie used the card to obtain US$1,000 or more between August 30 and September 1. The FBI later returned to Laundrie's home, looking for material to match with Laundrie's DNA.

On October 5, Laundrie's sister Cassie gave an extended interview with ABC News, stating, 'I would tell my brother to just come forward and get us out of this horrible mess'. Laundrie's father Christopher began to assist investigators in searching Carlton Reserve on October 7.

Media coverage and public interest

The search for Petito sparked significant interest by the public, and as a result, major coverage on news and social media. Public involvement in the case included witnesses posting their direct eyewitness accounts to social media sites, or participating in protests outside the Laundrie home or in candlelight vigils for Petito.

Heightened interest in the story have been attributed to a number of factors. The refusal by Laundrie and his parents to comment on the unknown status of Petito when pressed by her parents attracted significant media attention. The amount of multimedia content around their 'van life' lifestyle; the video footage of the Moab, Utah, traffic stop; the audio footage of the 9-1-1 emergency dispatch call; and the video posts of social media witnesses all provided a large amount of publicly available evidence. Additionally, the story of a 'young and attractive' couple in a romantic excursion gone wrong, and the relationship analysis and possible domestic violence became the subject of much discussion. A number of commentators noted the general increase in interest in true crime television and podcast programming in the preceding decade.

The amount of media coverage in the case was cited among some commentators as an example of missing white woman syndrome, or the over-emphasis of news about individuals based on their race, gender, age, or appearance. In comparing Petito's case to others, a number of outlets noted the relative lack of media attention towards Wyoming's roughly 710 Indigenous people that had been reported missing between 2011 and 2020. Some of the attention to the case has been characterized as insensitive, unhelpful, monetized, or seeking of increased social media exposure. It has also led to the dissemination of misinformation.

Other missing person cases

The increased interest in the Petito case has also led to awareness of other missing person cases. During a press conference, Petito's parents asked the public to aid authorities in finding other missing persons. Discussions about Petito's case and the missing white woman syndrome surrounding its media presence have shed light on existing missing person cases. In the family's first public appearance after their daughter's body was found, Petito's stepfather Jim Schmidt said: 'We're hoping through our tragedy of losing Gabby that in the future, some good can come out of it, that we can help other people that may be in a similar situation... This same type of heightened awareness should be continued for everyone'. He and Petito's mother also announced that they would be starting the Gabby Petito Foundation, which will support those looking for lost loved ones.

As of September 29, 2021, news coverage of the Petito case prompted witnesses to provide tips that led to the discovery of the remains of an unrelated missing person in Wyoming.