Gabby Petito’s disappearance spurred into action a vast network of online sleuths and social media users, all looking for clues to try and trace the missing 22-year-old’s movements.
Petito, from New York, was reported missing on September 11, and her boyfriend Brian Laundrie – who had fled back to Florida on September 1 – was reported missing on September 14.
His whereabouts are unknown.
She was last seen on August 24 leaving a hotel in Utah, and spoke to her mother the following day, seemingly happy.
Gabby Petito was last seen on August 24 and was reported missing on September 11. Brian Laundrie, her boyfriend, arrived home in Florida alone on September 1, and disappeared, reported missing by his parents on September 14
Petito, 22, is seen with Laundrie in a post dated July 4, 2001 from Monument Rocks. His post is captioned: ‘Downsizing our life to fit into this itty bitty van was the best decision we’ve ever made. With the limited space we wanted to take advantage of every inch, while also keeping everything minimalist. Definitely felt inspired by a lot of other #vanlifers on @youtube but we came up with a completely original layout. Barely spent anything on the conversion and couldn’t be happier with the outcome. #vantour coming soon! Sacrificing space to wake up in nature everyday has been no sacrifice at all. Cross country road trip with @gabspetito’
Petito is pictured on July 26 at Mystic Hot Springs, which she visited with Laundrie
The FBI in Denver began appealing for help on September 16, tweeting: ‘UPDATE: The #FBI is working with our partners in the Teton County Sheriff’s Office, Jackson Police Department, the @NatlParkService and other state & local law enforcement agencies across the country in the investigation of Gabrielle ‘Gabby’ Petito’s disappearance. #FindGabby.’
On September 18 they tweeted a map, with specific details of the search area.
Since then the social media sleuthing has taken off – on TikTok, the #gabbypetito hashtag has been viewed more than 212 million times.
Josh Taylor, spokesman for North Port police, in Laundrie’s Florida hometown, said on Friday that they had received more than 1,000 tips.
In Victor, Idaho – a touristic town just across the hills from Jackson, Wyoming – a shopkeeper told her local newspaper, East Idaho News, that she had seen the couple on August 25 or 26.
‘Brian and Gabby came to Rustic Row,’ the shopkeeper said.
‘They told me they were traveling from Florida. They had just been to Teton Park and they said they were interested in going to Yellowstone and I told them they could go to the west entrance.
‘They seemed happy and when they left, she hollered back from the door that they were engaged and then I said congratulations.’
A shopkeeper in Victor, Idaho (pictured) said she saw the pair in the town on August 25 or 26
Jenn and Kyle Bethune believe they saw Petito’s van on August 27, and noticed its plates
Petito made her last Instagram post on August 25.
On August 27, the van that Petito and Laundrie were traveling in was seen on August 27, around 6pm.
YouTubers Jenn and Kyle Bethune said on Sunday that they noticed it when they reviewed their footage.
‘We came across a white van that had Florida plates,’ Jenn Bethune said.
‘A small white van. We were going to stop and say hi because we’re from Florida, too, but the van was completely dark. There was nobody there, so we decided to continue on our way.’
Petito’s family, on their Find Gabby page on Facebook, thanked the eagle-eyed online observers for spotting the van.
‘Thank you so much, this is exactly why we are asking people to review older photos and video,’ they wrote.
And on August 29, a TikTok user named Miranda Baker gave Laundrie a lift, she claimed.
Miranda Baker (pictured) believes she and her boyfriend gave Laundrie a lift when he was hitch-hiking on August 29
She said that she and her boyfriend picked him up at Grand Teton, with Laundrie telling them he ‘needed to go to Jackson,’ where they were heading.
But about 20 minutes later, she mentioned ‘Jackson Hole,’ and he allegedly asked to get out.
‘Once I said Jackson Hole, he became agitated,’ she said in one of the videos.
Brian Laundrie was given a lift from Grand Teton on August 29, according to Miranda Baker, who said he became ‘antsy’ and ‘weird’
‘He seemed like he needed to get out, he was kind of antsy. And that’s when things got weird.’
She said they let him out near Jackson Dam and watched as he crossed the street and into a nearby crowded parking lot, presumably to try to continue hitch-hiking.
‘I’m hoping this can help someone identify him because I saw him from TikTok, which then made me call the authorities,’ she said.
Analysts have said that part of the social media world’s fascination with the case is because Petito and Laundrie lived their lives in the public eye, filming a blog of their travels.
Another reason is the obsession with true crime podcasts and television series, and Petito’s disappearance unraveled like a script.
‘You’ve got this beautiful young couple, supposedly in love, making this romantic adventure across the country, and then something goes very bad,’ said Scott Bonn, a criminologist who studies why certain crimes become cultural touchstones.
He told The Washington Post that Petito’s looks and skin color likely enhanced the level of fascination.
‘It’s about our culture and our society,’ he said. ‘We place a priority on whiteness. We place a priority on youth and on our expectations of physical beauty.’
Petito and Laundrie knew each other from high school, and had been dating for several years
The pair had been traveling on a cross-country trip together since July 2, when they left New York. Petito was reported missing on September 11
Experts said the high profile nature of the case likely helped investigators – even though there were pitfalls to be avoided, and inevitable baseless conspiracy theories.
Michael Alcazar, John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor and retired New York Police Department detective Michael Alcazar told the paper that the tips from the public can be critical.
‘Most agencies don’t have that many detectives to canvass for witnesses, to canvass for any kind of evidence,’ he said.
‘Now we have so many eyes out there, millions of civilian investigators, because now they’re on the lookout. It’s kind of like an Amber Alert, but more effective.’