Gabby Petito and her boyfriend Brian Laundrie embarked on what should have been a life-changing cross-country trip, but only one of them returned home.
When 22-year-old Gabby Petito and her boyfriend Brian Laundrie set out on a cross-country trek to visit the country’s national parks in a converted camper van, it seemed like an idyllic adventure.
An eight-minute video Petito created documenting their journey showed the couple kissing, holding hands, doing cartwheels on the beach and taking in the breathtaking landscapes.
But just days after posting the video to YouTube in August, Petito disappeared and the picturesque vacation took a dark and deadly turn.
The once vibrant, bubbly young woman would be found the following month dead in the vast Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
Laundrie—who police said had returned home to Florida in the couple’s van without her—quickly became a person of interest in her disappearance, but just as the case was ramping up, he disappeared himself and investigators were left to try to piece together what happened to the young couple that had once seemed so in love.
A Promising Beginning
Petito and Laundrie first met while attending Bayport-Blue Point High School in Bayport, New York, but the couple didn’t start dating until after graduation, Fox News reported, citing a family spokesperson.
When Laundrie’s family moved to Florida, Petito accompanied him, continuing the romance and living with him and his parents at their North Port home for more than a year before the cross-country adventure, according to local news outlet WFLA.
Petito happily announced their engagement on Instagram on July 2, 2020, alongside a photo of the pair eating sushi together, captured during their first date.
“Brian asked me to marry him and I said yes!,” she wrote. “You make life feel unreal, and everyday is such a dream with you.”
The couple decided to fulfill their dream of visiting the nation’s parks the next year and embarked on the trip on July 2 from Blue Point, New York in a 2012 Ford Transit van they had converted into a camper, NBC News reports.
Petito’s mother, Nichole Schmidt, said in Peacock’s new documentary “The Murder of Gabby Petito: Truth, Lies and Social Media,” available to stream now, that she had been excited for her daughter.
“I was like, ‘People don’t always get to live their dreams all the time and you’re doing it. This was your goal, your dream, and you saved your money and look what you’re doing,’” Nichole recalled. “I was proud of her. I really was.”
“I worried. I told her to be careful, be safe, you know, make sure that—to be aware of your surroundings. Don’t trust everybody,” Schmidt said. “But I felt safe because she was with Brian and I felt that she would be OK.”
After leaving New York, the couple traveled through Kansas, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, posting photos of their adventures on social media along the way.
"It seemed like they were seeing the world with the person they loved," Laundrie’s high school friend Ben Matula told People. "They were living the dream that all of us want to do. But they were doing it. All their friends were either still in college or searching for entry level jobs, and they're out there killing it. I was jealous, and I know I'm not the only one. I was happy for them."
A Stop By Police
But before long, cracks started to emerge in the couple’s relationship.
Friends of the couple told People the pair had always had a complex relationship, appearing to have a healthy partnership one moment and “toxic” relationship the next.
“They had very low lows and very high highs. But they really seemed to love each other,” Petito’s friend Alyssa Chen told the news outlet. “When things were good, you’d be like ‘Why can’t I have a relationship like that?’ When they were bad, you’d be like ‘Oh my God, just break up and spare yourself from the drama and everyone else from having to hear about it.’”
Tension between the couple boiled over on Aug. 12 when a man called 911 after seeing the pair in a physical argument outside the Moonflower Community Cooperative in Moab, Utah.
“Earlier in that day, she posted to Instagram. I would say they looked like a couple very much in love, but then again, it’s all about what you see on social media,” Angie Angers, a reporter for Bay 9 News Florida, said in the Peacock documentary. “It became pretty clear that Gabby’s Instagram photos of the two of them, just loving their adventures together, smiling, holding onto each other this was hiding a more complex or even tumultuous relationship.”
The 911 caller told the dispatcher he saw a “gentleman slapping the girl,” according to the recording featured in the Peacock documentary.
“He was slapping her?” the dispatcher asked.
“Yes,” the caller said. “They ran up and down the sidewalk. He proceeded to hit her, hopped in the car and they drove off.”
A witness, identified only as Christopher, would later tell police that “something definitely seemed off” between the couple during the altercation and said he believed they had been “fighting over a phone,” according to a witness statement to Moab Police, obtained by Oxygen.com.
“I think the male took the female’s phone,” he wrote. “It appeared that he didn’t want her in the white van.”
According to Christopher’s account, Laundrie got into the driver seat as Petito followed behind him.
“At one point she was punching him in the arm and/or face & trying to get into the van,” he wrote. “She eventually climbed in/over him & over to the passenger seat.”
The witness reported hearing Petito say, “Why do you have to be so mean?” after climbing into the van.
A Moab Police officer stopped the van just outside Arches National Park.
Body camera footage released by the department showed an officer walking up to the side of the vehicle where he found Laundrie sitting behind the wheel and Petito, crying hysterically, in the passenger seat.
Officers asked the pair to get out of the van and separated them as they talked to each person about what happened.
“We’ve just been fighting all morning and he wouldn’t let me in the car before,” Petito said, adding that Laundrie told her she “needed to calm down.”
Petito told officers that the couple began to argue earlier in the day while she was working on her blog about their adventure and tried to blame the incident on her anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“Sometimes I get really frustrated,” she said.
Petito admitted that she hit Laundrie because she told police she was afraid he would leave her without a ride. When asked if Laundrie had struck her, she told officers that he’d had grabbed her in the face during the heated exchange, adding “But I hit him first.”
Laundrie had visible scratches on his face and told police that he had been trying to de-escalate the situation and wanted them to take some time apart.
“I said, ‘Let’s just take a breather. Let’s not, you know, go anywhere, let’s calm down for a minute’ because she was getting a little worked up,” he said.
Police deemed Petito the “primary aggressor” but determined it had been more of a “mental/emotional health ‘break’” and decided to separate the pair for the night rather than arresting either person, according to a police report obtained by Oxygen.com.
Before authorities left, Melissa Hulls, the visitor and resource protection supervisor at Arches National Park, warned Petito that the relationship with Laundrie might be “toxic," according to The Deseret News.
“I was imploring with her to reevaluate the relationship, asking her if she was happy in the relationship with him, and basically saying this was an opportunity for her to find another path, to make a change in her life,” Hulls said.
Just weeks later, Petito had vanished.
A Baffling Disappearance
Petito's mother, Nichole Schmidt, told ABC News that she last spoke to her daughter on August 25, as she and Laundrie were leaving Utah to go to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
“She sounded good and excited to continue her trip and excited to start her YouTube channel,” Schmidt said through tears. “She seemed OK.”
“Can you help Stan, I just keep getting his voicemails and missed calls,” it read.
Schmidt thought the message was unusual because “Stan” was referring to Petito’s grandfather, but Petito never called him by his first name.
“This was the last communication anyone had with the subject,” North Port police said.
As the days passed and Schmidt was unable to get a hold of her daughter, she grew increasingly concerned and officially reported her missing on Sept. 11.
“The thoughts that were going through my head is something really bad had happened to her, whether it was, you know, an injury, lost or something, I needed to get in touch with her,” Schmidt said in the Peacock special.
While worry was mounting for Petito’s family, police said Laundrie returned home to Florida in the couple’s white van on Sept. 1 without her.
Once Petito was reported missing, Laundrie refused to speak to police and his family referred authorities to their attorney, Steven P. Bertolino.
“On behalf of the Laundrie family, it is our hope that the search for Miss Petito is successful and that Miss Petito is reunited with her family,” Bertolino said in a statement to Oxygen.com at the time. “On the advice of counsel, the Laundrie family is remaining in the background at this juncture and will have no further comment.”
Petito’s family voiced frustrations that messages to Laundrie and his parents weren’t getting returned and urged the Laundrie family to tell them where their daughter was.
“It gave me more fear something was really bad,” Schmidt said in “The Murder of Gabby Petito” of the lack of communication.
Just shy of a week after Petito was reported missing, on Sept. 17, Laundrie’s parents summoned North Port police and FBI investigators to their home to report that Laundrie had disappeared himself several days earlier, according to a statement from police in which authorities also voiced their “frustration” with not being able to speak to the family earlier.
Laundrie’s parents initially told police their son left their home on Sept. 14 to go for a hike in Sarasota County’s vast Carlton Reserve—but later said through their attorney that their son had actually disappeared one day earlier on Sept. 13, WFLA reported.
By the time he disappeared, police had already named him as a “person of interest” in Petito’s disappearance, but stressed that they still weren’t sure that any crime had been committed.
Petito’s Remains Are Discovered
Investigators would get their answer on Sept. 19 when the FBI announced that remains believed to belong to the 22-year-old had been discovered in Grand Teton National Park—the last known location where the couple had been camping before Petito disappeared, according to the FBI.
Dr. Brent Blue, the Teton County coroner, would later confirm in a press conference that Petito had been strangled to death in what has been ruled a homicide.
“The body was in the wilderness for three to four weeks,” he said.
Investigators discovered the remains, in part, after a series of witnesses came forward on social media to report that they had interacted with the couple or Laundrie in Wyoming around the time Petito disappeared.
Miranda Baker posted a series of TikTok videos stating she and her boyfriend had given a ride to someone resembling Laundrie on Aug. 29 before he suddenly asked to get out of the car. Travel blogger Jen Bethune also told Fox News she spotted the couple’s abandoned vehicle not far from where Petito’s body would later be found.
"I am so sad that we couldn't bring her back alive, but to be able to bring her back home to her family or to help with that is everything," Bethune said of speaking to investigators about seeing the van.
The grisly discovery of Petito’s remains left her family heartbroken.
In memory of his slain daughter, Joseph Petito posted a photo of his daughter standing next to a mural with angel wings.
“She touched the world,” he wrote on Twitter, alongside a broken heart emoji.
The family was also intent on getting justice for Petito and pleaded with Laundrie to turn himself in to authorities.
“The Laundries did not help us find Gabby. They’re sure not going to help us find Brian,” the family’s attorney Richard Stafford said, according to CNN. “For Brian, we’re asking you to turn yourself in to the FBI or the nearest law enforcement agency.”
Just days after Petito’s body was found, the FBI secured an arrest warrant for Laundrie for unauthorized use of devices after his girlfriend’s death. According to NBC News, the FBI alleged “that Laundrie ‘knowingly and with intent to defraud, used one or more unauthorized access devices, namely a Capitol One Bank debit card’ and personal identification numbers for two accounts.”
In the weeks that followed, investigators scoured the “vast and unforgiving” Carlton Reserve, which spans 25,000 acres, for any sign of Laundrie.
“It is currently waste deep in water in many areas,” North Port Police wrote in one update. “This is dangerous work for the search crews as they are wading through gator and snake infested swamps and flooded hiking and biking trails.”
Protesters camped out in front of the family’s Florida house, while reality TV star Duane “Dog The Bounty Hunter” Chapman chased down leads sending him to Fort De Soto Park—where the family had camped just days after Laundrie returned to Florida. After showing up at the Laundrie’s home, Brian’s mother called police on the reality star.
As the frenzy to find Laundrie continued, rumored sightings became frequent, with one hiker insisting they’d spotted Laundrie along the Appalachian Trail.
Laundrie’s Remains Are Discovered
The search would come to an end on Oct. 20 when FBI Tampa Division Special Agent in Charge Michael McPherson announced in a press conference that Laundrie’s apparent remains had been discovered, along with his backpack and a notebook, in the Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park, which connects to the Carlton Reserve.
“These items were found in an area that up until recently have been underwater,” McPherson said.
The family’s attorney announced last month that Laundrie had died from a gunshot wound to the head.
“Chris and Roberta Laundrie have been informed that the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head and the manner of death was suicide,” Bertolino told WFLA. “Chris and Roberta are still mourning the loss of their son and are hopeful that these findings bring closure to both families.”
Authorities have yet to reveal what information, if any, was discovered from Laundrie’s belongings that were left near his body.
While Petito’s family may never know exactly why the couple’s romance ended in such tragedy, they’ve turned their focus to helping victims of domestic violence through a new foundation, known as The Gabby Petito Foundation, in honor of their daughter.
“I think starting the foundation is a way of us grieving and then getting through this,” Schmidt told WFLA. “Some mornings I wake up and want to save the world and I know I can’t do that, but I’ll die trying, and that’s Gabby’s legacy.”
"The Murder of Gabby Petito: Truth, Lies and Social Media" will air on Oxygen on Monday, January 24 at 9/8c. It's also available to stream on Peacock now.