IT is the murder mystery that has gripped America and sent internet sleuths into a frenzy.
Vlogger Gabby Petito, 22, went on the adventure of a lifetime across the country with her 23-year-old fiance Brian Laundrie — but only he returned home.
After hiring a lawyer and refusing to talk, he then vanished too . . . five days before Gabby’s body was found in a shallow grave in a national park. She had been strangled.
The case has become a national sensation, and was initially linked to the slaying of a lesbian couple at a camp site and also leading to the discovery of another dead hiker.
Now the hunt is on to find Laundrie, aided by an army of digital detectives poring over the couple’s extensive social media presence for vital clues.
In the latest bizarre twist, US reality TV celebrity Dog the Bounty Hunter has dug his claws into the case and claims to be hot on Laundrie’s trail. Gabby’s parents are desperate for Laundrie to be found alive. Her father Joe said: “I want to see him in a jail cell for the rest of his life, where he’s an outdoorsman being in that concrete cell.”
Mum Nichole Schmidt added: “I want to look him in the eyes.” Gabby’s gruesome killing is a world away from the sunny image the couple portrayed in the videos and pictures they posted on Instagram and YouTube just weeks ago.
The high school sweethearts, who met while growing up on Long Island, New York, left in July for what was supposed to be a four-month, cross-country exploration of America’s national parks.
They slept in their white Ford Transit van and documented their travels on social media. Gabby, a pharmacy technician, filled her Instagram account with smiling snaps of herself on sand dunes in Colorado and straddling red rocks in the Utah desert.
In one selfie of the couple, posted to Gabby’s Instagram in July last year, she said of Laundrie: “Here’s a picture from our first date because I have so much love for you. Brian asked me to marry him and I said yes! You make life feel unreal, and every day is such a dream with you.”
Another post, from Canyonlands National Park in Utah on July 30, she gushed: “(Brian) inspires me everyday on living a more natural lifestyle!”
But away from gushing social media their relationship had turned volatile. On August 12, an emergency services caller told police he had seen former supermarket worker Laundrie hitting Gabby in Moab, Utah.
He said: “We drove by and the gentleman was slapping the girl. Then we stopped. They ran up and down the sidewalk. He proceeded to hit her, hopped in the car and they drove off.”
Cops went to the scene, but appeared to single out 5ft 5in Gabby as the aggressor, after other witnesses told them she had hit Laundrie. Bodycam video of the incident showed her tearfully telling police: “We’ve just been fighting this morning, going through some personal issues.” Although Gabby told cops Laundrie hit her, officers suggested the couple go their separate ways that night and no charges were filed.
He proceeded to hit her, hopped in the car and they drove off.
The pair continued on their trip and a week later posted a YouTube video which they called Van Life: Beginning Our Van Life Journey, showing them laughing and kissing.
On August 24 they were seen leaving a hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was the last time Gabby was seen alive. Her final Instagram post came the next day — a curious Halloween picture in which she posed with a knitted pump- kin, more than two months before the October 31 celebration.
At that point, the couple’s van was in picturesque Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 310,000 acres encompassing mountains and forests. Two days later, Gabby’s mum Nicole received an odd text from her daughter that read: “Can you help Stan, I just keep getting his voicemails and missed calls.”
Stan is Gabby’s grandfather, but her mother said she never referred to him by his first name. Three days later Nicole received another strange text reportedly saying the couple were in another park, which read: “No service in Yosemite.”
On September 1 Laundrie returned home, alone, to North Port, Florida, where he had moved with Gabby to be near his relatives. He refused to speak directly to her family and hired a lawyer, who said he intended to remain in the background while the search for Gabby was underway.
Meanwhile, Nicole filed a missing person’s report with police in New York and accused Laundrie of refusing to tell them where he last saw her daughter. Her dad Joe said: “I’m asking for help from the parents of Brian and I’m asking for the help of the family members and friends of the Laundrie family as well.
“Whatever you can do to make sure my daughter comes home, I’m asking for that help. There is nothing else that matters to me now.” The case began to make headlines across America, with a flurry of posts and videos from amateur detectives on TikTok, Instagram and Twitter.
TikTok hashtag #GabbyPetito had 275 million views alone. Internet sleuths claimed Gabby’s use of the word “Stan” in the text to her mum was a codeword for danger, having featured in the Eminem song in which a man tied up his girlfriend before killing her.
Suspicion immediately centred on Laundrie. Gabby’s pal Rose Davis, 21, claimed he was controlling and a manipulator. She said: “I was concerned with them spending that much time together because when I was last seeing them, they were rocky. He didn’t want her to go out one night with me, and he stole her ID. This was really upsetting to her. You’re engaged, it’s not supposed to be like that.”
Authorities labelled Laundrie a “person of interest” — but he was not arrested or questioned. Protesters gathered outside the home of his parents, Christopher and Roberta, where he was said to be staying. Authorities also confirmed they were exploring links between missing Gabby and a double murder in Moab in August.
Kylen Schulte, 24, and Crystal Turner, 38, were found shot dead in a creek near their camp site after being harassed by a strange man. Detectives later declared there was no evidence of a connection between the cases. On September 17, Laundrie’s parents told police they had not seen their son, who has survival skills, in three days and he had headed to the 24,000-acre Carlton Reserve in Sarasota, Florida.
Cops began a hunt for him and belatedly searched his parents’ home. Two days later, authorities found Gabby’s body in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, at a camping area near where their van was last seen. Two more YouTubers, Jenn and Kyle Bethune, had alerted cops to the location after discovering footage of the van while examining film they had shot in the park.
On Tuesday this week, during a live-streamed hearing, Wyoming coroner Dr Brent Blue revealed that Gabby had been strangled.
On the day her body was found, search teams also discovered the body of another missing hiker, Robert Lowery, 46, just 40 miles from Gabby. His cause of death is currently unknown.
The FBI — which was by now leading the investigation — issued an arrest warrant for Laundrie, accusing him of fraudulently using a debit card that was not his between August 30 and September 1.
Cops continue to scour the swampy Florida marshland where Laundrie said he was going, after leaving his home with just a backpack. He also left his phone and wallet behind. And a new searcher has now joined in — Duane Lee Chapman, alias Dog the Bounty Hunter, who tracked down crooks on his reality TV show for eight years.
He is focusing on Fort De Soto Park, a recreational area covering five islands off the Florida coast, after discovering that Laundrie had stayed there between September 6 and 8 with his parents. That was after his fiancée had disappeared, which, some pointed out, was a strange time to go away on a camping trip.
Records from the park appeared to confirm their stay. Pictures from other holidaymakers at the camp site from earlier in the month also showed Laundrie’s red vehicle.
She wanted to cross the country in the camper van and live the van life and live free. This was her dream.
A shadowy figure resembling Laundrie was also captured in the background of a family’s snap.
A light aircraft also flew over the park with a banner saying: “Aloha Brian Laundrie — Dog”, though the TV investigator — who said he has had more than 2,000 calls with information on the case — denied he was behind it.
Gabby was laid to rest in New York. Her mum Nicole said: “She wanted to cross the country in the camper van and live the van life and live free. This was her dream.”
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