clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Gabby Petito’s disappearance, and why it was absolutely everywhere, explained

Web sleuthing was a tricky true crime hobby. Then Gabby Petito went missing.

A makeshift memorial dedicated to missing woman Gabby Petito on September 20, 2021, near city hall in North Port, Florida.
Octavio Jones/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The entire internet was looking for her.

In the days before FBI officials on Sunday announced — and on Tuesday confirmed — that the body of 22-year-old Instagrammer Gabby Petito had been found near Grand Teton in Wyoming, her status as a missing person had gone massively viral. For the past week, the story of Petito and her boyfriend Brian Laundrie, 23 — who had returned home from a heavily chronicled #VanLife road trip without her — dominated social media, mesmerized true crime communities, and led the nightly news around the country. When news broke that Laundrie, amid intense public scrutiny, had fled authorities and gone on the run, the saga became one of the most viral news stories of 2021.

A coroner for Teton County in Wyoming confirmed after an autopsy conducted on Tuesday that Petito’s cause of death was homicide. Currently, Laundrie is the only known person of interest in the case.

On one level, Petito’s case is typical of true crime cases where a victim of alleged domestic violence goes missing. Too often the partner simply clams up, as Laundrie did, impeding investigation into the person’s disappearance. But the case of Petito and Laundrie garnered so much attention so rapidly that an extraordinary amount of public effort went into finding her — with the internet and social media platforms from TikTok to YouTube playing a major role in the search efforts.

Because of these many factors and national attention, Petito’s case has become a flash point for discussions regarding domestic violence issues, the racial dynamics of missing persons investigations in the US, and the positives and negatives of “web sleuthing.”

In the middle of it all, we’re still learning new information about Petito, her life, and her death. And with Laundrie still missing, this story is not over yet.

The timeline of Petito’s journey — and her abrupt disappearance

Authorities Search National Park In Wyoming For Missing Woman
Spread Creek near Moran, Wyoming, where law enforcement authorities found a body on September 19.
Natalie Behring/Getty Images

Petito, a former pharmacy technician, met Laundrie at Bayport-Blue Point High School on Long Island. The couple began traveling around the western US in a small van in June, chronicling their journey on Petito’s Instagram account using the popular hashtag #VanLife. The tag unites nomadic communities around the globe — wanderers who live out of their vans while documenting their travels on social media. (Petito also has a YouTube page, though the account has just one video from the trip.)

In their social media content, the couple looked as though they were enjoying a blissful summer road trip and camping out under the stars. But in late August, Petito’s regular social media updates stopped abruptly and her family lost communication with her — and on September 1, Laundrie returned to his family’s home in North Port, Florida, alone.

Petito’s family reported her missing on September 11, and the ensuing search to find her garnered widespread public and media attention. Amateur internet detectives publicized her case over the last week, leading to an unusually intense nationwide search that focused primarily on the vast stretches of wilderness between Petito’s last known whereabouts, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton National Park, where she and Laundrie were believed to have been heading before his sudden return to Florida.

As interest in the case grew and spread, so did the flood of information that emerged about Petito and Laundrie’s relationship, along with a deluge of tips from people who had learned about the case online. Although other missing persons cases have gotten significant public and media attention well after the fact, Petito’s case seemed to be unfolding in real time, with an unprecedented number of eyes on the ground trying to locate her.

Among the many tips that came in to authorities was one that may have been crucial: A couple driving through Grand Teton National Park on August 27 — two days after Petito’s mother last spoke to her — captured video footage of a van quickly identified as that of Petito and Laundrie. The footage provided a major clue that may have helped authorities narrow down a search area that otherwise would have been impossibly large.

On September 18, news broke that Laundrie had apparently fled police and gone on the run. The next day, the FBI announced that authorities had located a body “consistent with the description of” Petito, reportedly very close to the location in Grand Teton where her van had been caught on video in August before Laundrie drove it home alone. Authorities continued to search for Laundrie, who remained missing as of Tuesday.

Police body cam footage of Petito and Laundrie prompted viral discussions about the case

On September 16, authorities from the Grand County Sheriff’s Office in Moab, Utah, released over an hour of body cam footage of police responding to a 911 call in Moab on August 12. (The 911 call was later released on September 20.)

The 911 caller reported seeing a man, later identified as Laundrie, slapping a woman repeatedly, as well as chasing her down and hitting her. The caller was extremely concerned for the safety of the woman, later identified as Petito, and described the scene as a “domestic dispute.”

As seen in the body cam footage, police who responded to the incident worked to separate the couple and successfully convinced them to spend the night apart. But in one portion of the video, which has since been heavily criticized by the public, the officers seemed to bond with Laundrie, at one point explicitly joking with him about histrionic women and identifying him as “the victim.” They ultimately took no further action, reporting that “insufficient evidence existed to justify criminal charges.”

The footage spread across social media, showing up in Instagram stories and TikToks where every second was duly analyzed for clues to the couple’s relationship and Petito’s mental state leading up to her disappearance. The attention helped boost broader public awareness of Petito’s case, and made an already viral sensation even bigger. The social media response to the body cam footage was threefold, with users joining in a discussion about the warning signs of toxic abuse, gaslighting, and coercive control that the cops apparently missed. Still others argued that the discussion was missing the real point: that we should be teaching boys and men not to abuse women.

Some have used Petito’s case to discuss the phenomenon of “missing white woman syndrome,” in which young, white women — particularly middle- and upper-class white women — receive lots of media attention and publicity when they go missing, compared with less publicized cases of poorer, nonwhite women who vanish.

Another common adjacent topic within the true crime community is the phenomenon of “missing and murdered Indigenous women,” a collective term created to emphasize the highly marginalized status of these victims. Among them are more than 700 missing Indigenous people, mostly girls and women, who have vanished over the past decade in Wyoming, the same state where the body matching Petito’s description was recovered.

The fact that this high number of victims isn’t more widely known has been an unsettling part of the Petito case, and the ensuing discussion has drawn attention to other missing persons cases and murders, including the double homicide of newly married couple Crystal Turner and Kylen Schulte just days before Petito was last spotted in Moab. That case is so far unsolved and is apparently unrelated to Petito’s disappearance.

While most true crime communities gather on localized internet forums or subreddits like r/UnresolvedMysteries, the Petito case is notable for its multiplatform spread, especially across TikTok, where many burgeoning web sleuths flooded the site with updates and speculation about the case. Other amateur investigators built on one another’s information, tried to create working timelines based on eyewitness sightings, and shared detailed photos of both Laundrie and Petito for identification purposes, leading to backlash and satirical responses about the true crime community’s overreach:


que up the spooky music guys we got another update #truecrime #psa

♬ original sound - Chaotic Stupid

As helpful as some of this information seems to have been in finding Petito, much of it was a deterrent. The same online activity that turned the case into a media sensation has also prompted ongoing discussion about whether internet sleuthing is ultimately a help or a hindrance.

This case may be unusual, but it’s part of an online sleuthing trend

Over the past two decades, missing persons cases have slowly become a major staple of internet “web sleuthing,” where amateur online detectives congregate and try to solve cases or assist in police investigations. If there is one case associated with web sleuthing’s rise, it’s arguably that of college student Maura Murray, who went missing in New Hampshire in 2004.

Murray’s disappearance slowly became a subsequent true crime phenomenon, as more people learned about her disappearance and became curious about her case. Though Murray has not been found, her case is still a touchstone for viral true crime cases in which entire communities join together in sustained efforts to solve the mystery.

Many similar incidents have become major cases for web sleuths, from viral missing persons cases (Lauren Spierer, Asha Degree, Brian Shaffer, Brandon Lawson, and countless others) to the infamous Delphi murders in 2017. While each of these cases has attracted plenty of social media attention, they don’t seem to have garnered the same intense interest that the Petito case has received in a relatively short period.

Part of the urgency around Petito’s disappearance stemmed from the possibility that she was lost alone in a vast wilderness and in need of help. Petito’s family “implore[d] Brian to come forward and at least tell us if we are looking in the right area” in the early stages of the investigation. But given that many missing persons cases have involved people in similar potential danger that receives very little attention, that’s likely not the only factor involved.

Another aspect concerned the transparency of the event and Petito’s social media presence. Like the 2018 murders of Shanann Watts, her two daughters, and her unborn son, Petito’s case had an undeniable hook due to her use of social media to present a carefully curated, positive image of her life, one that turned out to be an illusion. In fact, some people have been quick to draw comparisons between Brian Laundrie and Chris Watts, who appeared to be an attentive husband and partner, until he wasn’t. (Chris Watts later pleaded guilty to murdering Shanann and her children.)

Petito’s social media presence drove other users’ interest in the case, but much of the information coming from social media was predictably confusing or misleading. Many social media users claimed to have seen the couple in a variety of disparate locations, while others — including a couple who said they gave him a ride and a chef who thought he talked to him — claimed to have interacted with Laundrie while he was alone.

Possible witnesses also claimed to have seen Laundrie walking near his house on September 17, days after his parents said they had last seen him. That same night, a large public protest took place outside the Laundrie family home, where attendees called Petito “America’s daughter” as police pleaded for them to disperse. The protest was livestreamed.

It’s unusual for a missing persons case to generate so much emotional intensity that it results in not only the more typical candlelight vigils but also an outright protest against a person of interest. And as alarming as that might be, the situation continues to get thornier; a conspiracy theory has surfaced claiming that Laundrie is actually not in his early 20s, though his yearbook photos have reportedly confirmed he is, and Laundrie “age truthers” seem to be spreading the debunked theory wherever they can. This is the kind of internet activity that can hamstring a police investigation, especially in a case receiving so much media attention.

Petito’s case has generated disinformation and misinformation, but it also seems to have benefited from the millions of eyes scouring the countryside for Petito. Without the uncovered footage of her van parked on the side of the road in August, it ostensibly would have been difficult to pinpoint a reasonable search area. And had news of Petito’s disappearance not been so widespread, the couple who shot the footage might never have noticed the evidence they had inadvertently captured.

This is the kind of thing that changes the role of internet sleuthing. Some have accused true crime sleuths of capitalizing on cases for clout, overriding the wishes of victims’ families, and treating tragedies as public spectacles, all while potentially hampering investigations. (“We’re not characters in a story,” Maura Murray’s sister Julie Murray commented recently when the case once again made headlines following the discovery of human remains near where Maura went missing.)

Yet in the years since web sleuthing first began — arguably around the time the Websleuths forum was created in 1999 — this same brand of amateur sleuthing has played a major role in solving, or helping to solve, numerous crimes and missing persons cases. Among these sleuths are trained forensic artists who have assisted police in successfully identifying John and Jane Does around the globe. In recent years, “crowdsolving” has been floated by some investigators as a positive collective resource.

Just as the capture of the Golden State Killer served as a major tipping point for the use of ancestry websites and familial DNA in criminal cases, Petito’s case could become the tipping point for reframing web sleuthing, often seen as an obstruction and a nuisance in solving cases, as a potentially crucial public resource waiting to be used in similar cases in the future. Even now, other viral true crimes, most notably the labyrinthine saga of the Murdaugh family in South Carolina, are vying for the public’s attention and attracting new eyes to the case.

With Laundrie still missing — the search for him has focused on wetlands in southern Florida, as well as his family home — this case isn’t over yet. What remains to be seen is what role, if any, the internet will play in its conclusion.

Correction, September 21: An earlier version of this article misstated a connection between false internet rumors about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and a man’s death by suicide.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.