By now, I'm sure you've heard about the horrifically sad case of Gabby Petito. It took social media and the internet like a category five hurricane. Once dominated by news about COVID-19 and the latest political mishap, the internet became flooded with minute-by-minute updates of the case. I, myself, became engulfed in it, scanning Twitter, Reddit, and TikTok every hour or two and knowing I wasn't alone. Members of my family did the same, and so did the hundreds of thousands of people across the world trying to uncover where Gabby was and what happened to her. Out of the 600,000 people who go missing every single year, the question is: why did this case specifically garner so much attention? In this article, I'll be exploring possible answers.
Disclaimer: Throughout the article, Brian Laundrie, after the first mention, will be referred to as BL.
Who was Gabby Petito and What Happened?
By now, I'm sure you know the entire story like the back of your hand. If you don't, that's totally okay - let me do a quick recap.
Gabby Petito ran a small travel channel on YouTube and an Instagram account with her fiance, Brian Laundrie. They documented their travels across the country via van ever since July 2021, showing smiles, laughs, and what looked like love. It genuinely seemed like they were having the time of their lives. Their goal was to travel in their renovated camper van to visit numerous national and state parks in the western United States. Their Instagram pages filled with beautiful images of the vast landscapes across the country, they embodied the popular romanticized social media dream for many: #VanLife. This facade would soon come to a screeching halt.
On September 1, 2021, BL returned to his parents' home in North Port, Florida, where he lived with Gabby. However, Gabby was nowhere in sight, and not a single word was said by him or his parents. On September 11, 2021, Gabby was reported missing by her family. The police took Brian's van into custody and BL refused to talk to the police at all, his parents handing the police contact information to his lawyer. By September 15, BL was named a person of interest in Gabby's missing persons case. To make matters even worse, on September 17, BL was reported missing as well. Theories have risen that he is in hiding, evading investigators.
On September 19, a body was found that was consistent with the description of Gabby Petito and later, on September 21, it was confirmed that the remains were of Gabby. The case was deemed a homicide.
On October 12, Gabby's cause of death was revealed to be "manual strangulation."
On October 20, human remains were found in the Carlston Reserve in Florida that were later identified as BL. No cause of death could be determined.
The Online Puzzle Pieces
In the days following Gabby's disappearance, the details of her case began to radiate through social media like wildfire. It seemed like everyone who had access to the internet was trying to put each piece of evidence together and come up with theories.
With both their YouTube channel and the shared Instagram account they'd filled with pictures, videos, and locations that pinpointed their lives down to the hour, Gabby and Brian undoubtedly had a very large online presence. Rarely do you see a missing persons (and eventual homicide) case have so many digital components to the point where the general public has almost the same amount of evidence as law enforcement does. We truly live in a digitalized age, where anyone who has access to WiFi can look at every single piece of evidence, from the original body cam footage to the Instagram posts to the TikTok content creators recounting their possible experiences with Gabby or Brian.
The Gabby Petito Reddit page has 148,000 members and updates their subreddit daily. I can personally admit to getting lost in the daily discussions, news updates, and thousands of comments found there. Before Gabby's body was found and her cause of death determined, the Reddit page had numerous theories on what might have happened to her, from human trafficking to cult victim to drug cartels.
Given the case had so much digital evidence available pretty much everywhere, the online army of amateur investigators could get their hands on and be a part of the search for Gabby. These "amateur investigators" offered, as mentioned earlier, some outrageous conspiracy theories, but also pieces of evidence that swung the investigation completely. For example, the couple running the Red, White, and Bethune YouTube channel claimed to have seen Gabby Petito's van in Grand Teton National Park and caught the encounter on dash cam footage. This piece of evidence sped up search efforts for Gabby, as her remains were found very close to where the couple claimed to have seen the van.
Gabby Seemed to Lead an Ideal Life
Through Gabby's numerous social media posts, videos, and images, the general public believed Gabby was living her best life. Traveling across the country and visiting beautiful United States landmarks without a care in the world is the dream for many young people. With the dominating trend of #VanLife circulating the internet, we only see the good parts. We see the beautiful forests, the breath-taking sunsets, and the aesthetic-y van tours with string lights, hammocks, and loft beds. We never see the dark moments: the moments of fear when you hear someone outside the van at night or when the amount of fights between the traveling couple starts to increase.
A "van life" blogger named Kaya Lindsay runs a blog and shop called One Chick Travels dedicated to helping others live their van life dreams. In a blog post called The Psychological Impacts of #VanLife, she outlines many different ways that participating in van life can affect your well being, from having to redefine mental boundaries to the process of "mental downsizing." On social media, we never see these things; they're rarely ever talked about.
From Gabby's many social media pages, we didn't see the possible darkness and mental impact living in a van had on her mental health. We saw a crack in the armor, so to speak, when the body cam footage and 911 call audio were released, but before then no one could have guessed her relationship was going horribly wrong or she was struggling. Based off the body cam footage and witnesses who say BL slapped Gabby, many came to the conclusion that she must've been trapped in an abusive relationship with no way out.
There was such a contrast between the life she portrayed on social media and the actual reality she lived day to day. She seemed so content and happy as far as Instagram and YouTube were concerned, but that facade was ripped away when she was murdered, most likely by Brian Laundrie.
This contrast was horrifyingly fascinating to those who followed her story and were left with the question of "how much wasn't shown on social media?" and "what was the true nature of their relationship?"
Domestic Violence Survivors Saw Themselves in Her
A Reddit user (u/Lower-Ad-7643) authored a post with the title, "Why Gabby?" Here is the full text:
"I hear a lot of people griping about the intense reaction of the world towards the Gabby Petito case. 'Why Gabby?' 'How many people went missing in that area over the past 10 years?' 'What about all the other missing people?'
I get it. I do. I want awareness of ALL missing people. I want justice for ALL survivors and victims of domestic violence. I wish I could bring attention to every single case. Unfortunately, I don't have that sorta power.
But what I can do, is answer the question 'Why Gabby? Why this ONE case?'
Did you watch the Moab Police video of when Gabby and Brian got pulled over? Did you notice the skyrocketing of interest in the case after that happened?
It's because that was the moment when almost every survivor of domestic violence saw themselves in Gabby's eyes. We felt the police gaslighting us like they did when we were protecting our abuser. We felt the fear of what would happen once they left if she said the truth. We felt the sting from the recent scratch on her face. We felt the pressure around our necks. We felt the nausea, the shakiness, the tears, the tightness in her chest. We felt it all with her. We felt like it was our fault again.
Then, after a lot of us cried with Gabby, curled up, threw up, etc., we remembered we survived. But Gabby didn't. There's a lingering 'what if...' in most of us that kept poking us and reminding us how close we were to a similar fate. That poke is giving us no other option but to do our part in bringing Brian to justice, so no one else is ever hurt by him again.
For many of us, justice was never served. For many of us, we know our abusers are living, laughing, loving, and never dealing with consequences for the lingering damage they'd done to us. So on principle, a lot of us reacted defensively to a young woman who we saw ourselves in.
JusticeForGabby is a way for us to help put away our own abusers.
So please, fight for every missing person you see. Fight for every domestic violence situation you know of. But PLEASE, stop trying to take away the power in us, who want to fight for Gabby. The strength it took for us to even follow this case, is a force in and of itself. Most of us are fighting through PTSD to look for Brian. Most of us are attempting to reclaim our power from our own abusers. Kicking us and screaming about other abused people isn't helping anyone. You focus on what's important to you, and please just let us fight the battles we choose for ourselves.
We survivors of domestic violence -NEED- to see justice for Gabby."
What Can Be Learned From Gabby's Story?
Gabby's life was taken away too soon and in such a horrific way. We shouldn't have to learn anything from her story because she should still be alive now, but sadly, she isn't. There are a couple things, as a society, we can do to learn from what happened so it never happens again:
1. Learn the signs of Domestic Violence
Many signs of domestic violence go overlooked, and sometimes, it can be very hard to spot. It's important, as human beings looking out for one another, that we learn to recognize the signs of an abusive relationship. If we all knew, understood, and could recognize the signs of domestic violence, many lives could be saved.
Here are some resources where you can learn about the signs of domestic violence and abuse, as well as ways to help others experiencing them:
2. Don't Believe Everything You See on Social Media
Always reach out and check on those you see on social media, because you never truly know what could be going on behind closed doors. One small act of kindness like "how are you doing?" or "are you okay?" could end up saving a life.
3. Fight and Advocate Equally for ALL Missing Persons to break down the racial, economic, and cultural barriers that the media may uphold
Research and spread the word about missing persons that may be overlooked by the media. Donate to missing persons foundations and organizations to help their efforts in bringing missing people back home to their loved ones. Everyone should be given the same energy as Gabby was given, so we can bring those who have been missing for far too long back to their loved ones.
To Gabby: Rest in peace. In the words of your father that ring so true, you touched the world.
To Gabby's family, friends, and loved ones: I hope you find the space to grieve and process this horrendous tragedy. All of you are in our thoughts.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, please reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline (https://www.thehotline.org/) OR call 1-800-799-7233.