IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Gabby Petito's social media presence might be the key to solving her case

In the information age, an influencer’s tragic story has taken on a life of its own.

Gabby Petito’s last post on her Instagram account was Aug. 25. A series of photos shows a smiling, beautiful young woman, sun-kissed and happy, holding a miniature pumpkin in a few, with the caption “Happy Halloween.” But the FBI's announcement late Sunday tragically suggests that Petito won’t be able to celebrate Halloween.

Petito’s social media presence has provided law enforcement with some evidence crumbs.

Human remains were discovered yesterday in Grand Teton National Park, in the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area in Wyoming. An autopsy will be conducted this week to confirm the identity and cause of death, but the FBI advised that it suspects that it is Petito’s body. On Monday morning, the FBI executed a search warrant on the family home of Petito’s fiancé, Brian Laundrie.

This news was heartbreaking for the Petito family and for others who were all holding out hope that she would be found, safe and alive.

Petito’s disappearance has generated an intense investment by the public into what happened and in the search for her whereabouts. (At the same time, her disappearance has also generated furor over the location of her now reportedly missing fiancé, Laundrie, but for obviously different reasons.)

But why such a level of interest in Petito’s case? There are several answers, all of which are speculative. Her standing as a social media influencer certainly played a role, creating more media coverage of her disappearance than the average case. Petito and Laundrie shared a YouTube travel channel and each has an Instagram page with hundreds of thousands of followers, and branded themselves on multiple other platforms.

Petito’s social media presence has provided law enforcement with some evidence crumbs in assisting them in piecing together her last days. Her life and her relationship with Laundrie are documented in photos and videos of the couple exploring the outdoors, living in a van together.

As we all know, social media traditionally shows a user’s “ups” and little-to-none of their “downs.” How realistic was the portrayal of Petito’s life? Did she hide or mask an ugly side of her relationship with Laundrie to appeal to her social media followers? Social media has given unusual context to her disappearance and has given the public a sense of direct connection with Petito herself.

In some instances, that connection has potentially provided material assistance in the investigation. A pair of YouTubers discovered that they had inadvertently filmed Petito’s white van Aug. 27 before she went missing. Their video posted over the weekend depicts the area in Grand Teton National Park's Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area, which is where the human remains were found by authorities Sunday. The YouTubers then gave the footage to the FBI.

Petito and Laundrie embarked from Florida on July 2 for an anticipated four-month cross-country road trip, driving a white van registered in her name. The couple planned on camping and visiting various national parks, which she planned to documented on Instagram. Pictures of their adventures with the hashtag “#vanlife” show Petito looking happy and in love with Laundrie.

As we all know, social media traditionally shows a user’s “ups” and little-to-none of their “downs.”

On Aug. 12, while in Utah, a Moab City Police Department officer initiated a traffic stop on the couple’s white van. In the bodycam footage from that police officer, he notes that the van was driving erratically, speeding and hitting the curb.

Footage shows the officer encountering a crying Petito in the passenger seat. She explains that she is crying due to “personal issues,” that she and Laundrie were fighting, and that she was distracting Laundrie while he was driving. Laundrie tells the police that “issues between the two had been building over the last few days.” The officer removes Petito from the van and she continues to cry and is visibly upset. Laundrie has visible injuries to his face (scratches on his cheek) and he admits that Petito scratched him, but that he was pushing her away. He claims that she grabbed the wheel and that is why the van hit the curb. Upon questioning by the police, Petito states that she did hit Laundrie’s arm, but denies grabbing the steering wheel.

Eventually, other police units arrive on the scene. Petito and Laundrie are separated and ordered to spend the evening apart from each other. The Moab City officer orders that the two not be in contact with each other, even via text, until the following day. Laundrie was taken by the police to spend the night at a hotel, the location of which was not disclosed to Petito. Petito was given the van to use until the following day. Ultimately, the police labeled the incident as a “mental/emotional break,” not a domestic assault.

On Aug. 25, Petito FaceTimed her parents and told them that they were leaving Utah and heading to the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. That is the last time her parents spoke with her. Five days later, on Aug. 30, Petito’s mom gets a text, allegedly from her daughter: “No service in Yosemite.” Her mother doubts that it was Petito who sent her that text message. And that is the very last time Petito’s family was in contact with her.

Then, bizarrely, on Sept. 1, Laundrie returned to his house in North Port, Florida, driving the couple’s white van. Petito was not with him. Laundrie did not notify the authorities that Petito was missing or that she was not with him. Ten days later, Petito’s family reported her missing. Immediately, Laundrie refused to cooperate with law enforcement; according to his attorney, he had invoked his Fifth Amendment right.

Notably, in times like these, silence only fuels more suspicion. Although we are far from a jury trial in this case, it is worth to note that as a prosecutor, one of the issues that is always raised during jury selection is whether a prospective juror expects to hear from the criminal defendant during his trial. Although that defendant is under no obligation to testify, it is only natural for there to be an expectation that a defendant would want to provide some kind of explanation of the facts and the circumstances of his case.

On Sept. 15, the department issued a public plea to his lawyer, Steven Bertolino, asking for his help in finding Petito and for him to have his client, Laundrie, contact the police to arrange a “conversation.”

On Sept. 17, Bertolino reported his client missing and that his “whereabouts are currently unknown” after his family reported that they had not seen him since Sept. 14. With Laundrie now having vanished, there is the very palpable fear that so many questions regarding Petito’s disappearance and possible death will remain unanswered.

Needless to say, many people has been wracked with questions about the case. Why wouldn’t Laundrie speak with law enforcement? What, if anything, is he hiding? Why didn’t he immediately report Petito to be missing? Even if he had no involvement in her disappearance and possible death, his refusal to share information with the authorities only heightens the public’s suspicions about his role.

Police have been searching for Laundrie in Carlton Reserve, a 25,000-acre park located 13 miles north of North Port, Florida, after Laundrie’s family said Sept. 17 that they believed he went there earlier in the week, with his backpack.

But the North Port Police Department announced Monday morning that they have no further plans to search the reserve for Laundrie, stating “We currently believe we have exhausted all avenues in searching of the grounds there.” The police department also is now cutting off media interviews — interesting timing, considering the FBI’s press conference Sunday night.

Smartly, the North Port Police Department had taken to social media to seek assistance in searches for both parties. The police routinely posted Twitter updates on the investigation, asking the public to contact the FBI with any tips on their whereabouts.

The psychology and strategy of making this plea via Twitter was excellent: exert public (and perhaps even private) pressure on Laundrie and his family, as well as his attorney, by making it known that Laundrie was not cooperating with law enforcement.

In years past, most of the information being disseminated by the police was via press conferences or news releases. As we wait for more developments, we can expect to learn more information, and faster, with our access to instant, real-time updates, as well as a broader reach for authorities’ pleas for help. Petito’s case proves that times are changing in the world of criminal investigations. Hopefully, it’s a positive change in terms of solving them.