By Wednesday, the disappearance of Gabby Petito was officially a national news story. The 22-year-old New Yorker set out on a cross-country road trip with her 23-year-old fiancé, Brian Laundrie, on July 2, documenting their travels out west in a tiny van on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. But on September 1, Laundrie returned to his home in Florida with the van and without Petito.
On September 11, Petito’s family reported her missing. She was last seen checking out of a Salt Lake City, Utah hotel on August 24 and last spoke to her family from Grand Teton National Park on August 25. She reportedly sent a text message to her mother on August 30, writing, “No service in Yellowstone.”
Laundrie has not made any public statements about the matter and is not cooperating with investigators. He has been named a “person of interest,” but, according to North Port Police Chief Todd Garrison, the police aren’t interested in bringing Laundrie in for questioning just yet,
“Right now, this is a missing person case and our focus is to find Gabby,” Garrison said in a statement.
Petito would not have been considered an Instagram influencer before she disappeared—she had fewer than 1,000 followers—but since her disappearance, her account has gathered nearly 200,ooo. And for many social media users, Laundrie is already guilty, a point of view that was confirmed Thursday following the release of Utah police body camera footage of the couple in mid-August. (Laundrie has not been arrested or charged with a crime.)
From NBC News:
The footage captured the officer separating the couple as they individually described the incident that prompted the report of a potential domestic incident. Petito could be seen wiping away tears as she told the responding officer she was struggling with her mental health.
“I’m sorry,” Petito said after the officer asked her why she was crying. “We’ve just been fighting this morning. Some personal issues.”
Laundrie added: “It was a long day. We were camping yesterday.”
In the nearly hourlong video, the couple admitted to arguing all morning. When the officer asked Laundrie about scratches on his face, he responded: “She had her phone and was trying to get the keys from me. I said, ‘Let’s just step back and breathe,’ and she got me with her phone.”
Laundrie’s Instagram account still allows comments, which largely range from “WTF did you do to her???” and “You have a real Chris Watts vibe about you” to “the devil has a special place for you.”
Some are even using the comment section as a true crime forum of sorts, hypothesizing how and where Laundrie might murdered his fiancé. And at least one true crime YouTube channel, EVIL_EXISTS, is dedicating its new content to Petito updates; the account event uploaded a video compiling all of Petito’s TikToks from the road trip.
Some of the response feels more like spectator sport than anything else—another mystery to devour Investigation Discovery style. It’s a description that the creator of wheresgabby.com would resent.
“I heard about Gabby’s case a few days ago,” said the site’s owner, a 20-year-old university student, traveler, and aspiring journalist who declined to be identified by name. “I got compelled to her case, and understood the importance of utilizing a platform, such as Instagram, for the better good; in this case, spreading awareness.”
The student created the Instagram account @gabby.petito just over 24-hours ago, and it has already received over one million impressions. But the account is already courting some controversy, specifically about the pastel-forward aesthetic that is being used to spread awareness about Petito’s case.
“I understand and appreciate all feedback,” they said. “In no way the choice of style is meant to disrespect Gabby nor her family. I agree, the style is definitely not a traditional way to go about [it], but the reason why I decided to create posts like that was in the effort to share the posts on their story.”
On a platform where appearance is everything, it makes sense to use trendy and eye-catching design choices to draw attention. But what about the username? Instead of using @WheresGabby like the website, the student used @gabby.petito, which comes up via search far easier than Petito’s actual Instagram account @gabspetito. The account has already been mistaken for Petito’s.
“Our page is not to impersonate her,” said the person behind @gabby.petito. “We have updated our bio and linked her Instagram account. We do apologize and we encourage people to give their feedback since as mentioned, this is a community!”
That community appears to range from miscellaneous concerned citizens, human trafficking obsessives, wannabe sleuths, and fellow campers. Project.vanlife, an Instagram account boasting over 1 million followers, posted about Petito, is using its influence to urge anyone with information about Petito’s whereabouts to contact either the North Port Police Department or Petito’s father, Joseph, who has posted about his daughter’s disappearance on his Instagram account as well.
Petito’s disappearance has already culminated into true crime fodder: A pretty white girl, a seemingly harmless boyfriend, a cross-country road trip, and a sea of social media content for strangers to pore over. Still, no one should lose sight of the fact that at the center of all of this intrigue is a missing woman and her terrified family.