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How Gabby Petito Died – and Why Her Case Drew So Much Attention
Gabby Petito
Pop Culture

How Gabby Petito Died – and Why Her Case Drew So Much Attention

Chronicled on social media, Gabby Petito's planned cross-country trip turned tragic with a disappearance, and death, that riveted the country.

Gabby Petito’s disappearance and death in 2021 generated more public interest than perhaps any other missing-persons case in recent memory. So much so that, scarcely a year after Gabby's killing, Lifetime is releasing The Gabby Petito Story, a TV movie based on the crime.

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What is it about Gabby Petito's case that captured so much attention? Thousands of people go missing every year in the United States. So, why did the disappearance and death of this 22-year-old woman cause generate headlines around the globe?

Gabby Petito’s Death and Final Days

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Brian Laundrie and Gabby Petito

Gabby Petito and her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, set off from Blue Point, New York, on July 2, 2021, for what was intended as a four-month cross-country trip. Their white van was pulled over by police on Aug. 21, 2021, just north of Moab, Utah, in response to a 9-1-1 call regarding a domestic disturbance in a parking lot. Body-camera footage captured Brian and a crying Gabby downplaying the incident described by witnesses. Neither of them wanted to press charges.

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On Aug. 27, 2021, Gabby's mother, Nichole Schmidt, received a text, purportedly sent by her daughter. However, because of its "odd" nature, Nichole later assumed the message wasn't actually from Gabby. According to police, the text read, "Can you help Stan, I just keep getting his voicemails and missed calls." Stan is a reference to Gabby's grandfather, but she didn't typically refer to him by his first name.

On that date, Gabby's social-media posts stopped, which was out of character for a young woman who documented so much of her life on Instagram and YouTube. Her family had last spoken to her on Aug. 25, 2021, in a call from outside of Grand Teton National Park in Jackson, Wyoming.

Gabby was reported missing on Sept. 11, 2021, officially declared a missing person. Brian quietly returned to Florida 10 days earlier. By Sept. 13, 2021, he was missing, too.

We now know is, by that date, Gabby had been dead for more than two weeks. Her body was found on Sept. 21, 2021, near Grand Teton National Park, already in a state of decay. The autopsy determined Gabby Petito's cause of death to be strangulation.

Petito Family Reacts to Gabby Petito's Autopsy

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Gabby Petito, from Moab Police Department video footage, from Aug. 21, 2021

The release of Gabby Petito's autopsy report on Sept. 21, 2021, not only confirmed the body's identity but ruled the manner of death as homicide. That was followed by a brief statement from the Petito family, issued through an attorney: "We will be making a statement when Gabby is home. I will contact you to arrange a time and location."

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Indeed, a week later, mother Nichole Schmidt, father Joe Petito, and step-father Jim Schmidt held a news conference at which they thanked social-media users, and the media, for boosting the case.

"We need positive stuff to come from the tragedy that happened," Joe said. "We can't let her name be taken in vain."

Looming over the conference was one question: Where was Brian Laundrie? Gabby's fiancé, and a person of interest in her disappearance, hadn't been seen in more than two weeks.

Who Strangled Gabby Petito?

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Brian Laundrie (Photo: Instagram)

We may never know for absolute certainty who was responsible for Gabby Petito's demise. That's because the most likely suspect, Brian Laundrie, couldn't offer a sworn confession or stand trial. But given the circumstances that led up to Gabby's death, and everything that happened subsequently, it's almost certain she was killed by her own fiancé. Brian even left a written confession in a notebook found near his body.

Brian Laundrie’s Disappearance

As noted, Brian disappeared from his parents’ home on Sept. 13, 2021, never to be seen alive again. For days afterward, his family pleaded publicly for him to resurface, while also disavowing any knowledge of his whereabouts.

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It turns out he had gone deep into the Florida wilderness to commit suicide. Brian's remains were found on Oct. 21, 2021, in the Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park. Medical examiners later determined he shot himself in the head.

What Brian Laundrie Wrote in His Notebook

In early January, 2022, authorities revealed they had found a notebook near Brian's body that included an admission of Gabby’s killing. The writing seemed disingenuous, and intended to excuse his actions. Brian wrote, in part, “I ended her life … I thought it was merciful, that it is what she wanted, but I see now all the mistakes I made. I panicked, I was in shock."

He claimed a "freezing cold" Gabby had a "bump on her forehead," and was "begging for an end to her pain."

Gabby Petito Memorial

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Photo: Instagram

The Petito family held a memorial service on Sept. 26, 2021, in Blue Point, New York, using an empty urn to represent Gabby. The FBI had yet to release her body.

"I don’t want you guys to be sad," Gabby's father, Joe, said at the beginning of the service. "Gabby didn’t live that way…I’m asking you guys be inspired the way she treated people. She didn’t care she genuinely loved people. I couldn’t be more proud as a father."

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A memorial bench, surrounded by metal butterflies, was dedicated in November 2021, in North Port, Florida, where Gabby lived. A makeshift memorial was also created, from rocks bearing hand-written messages, near the Wyoming site where Gabby's body was found.

However, the memorial that will have the greatest impact is the Gabby Petito Foundation. It was established by Gabby Petito's family in October 2021 to support the search for missing persons, and to provide aid to groups that assist victims of domestic violence.

Why the Gabby Petito Case Drew So Much Attention

Because of Gabby Petito's formidable social media presence, her disappearance was a magnet for citizen crime solvers, who could follow the case, almost real time. That's a large part of why there was so much public interest.

It was relatively easy to assemble facts of the case, and to establish a probable timeline, based on Gabby's online posts from the road. She seemed a much more real, and accessible, person than many other crime victims, who are often viewed only through family photos or snippets of video.


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