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Gabby Petito was always seen smiling in her social media posts as she embarked on one picturesque adventure after another—but the public got to see a much different side to the 22-year-old when she and her fiancé Brian Laundrie were stopped by Moab Police shortly before she disappeared.
Petito is seen in body camera footage crying hysterically as authorities questioned her and Laundrie about a physical altercation they had on Aug. 12 outside the Moonflower Community Cooperative in Moab, Utah.
Through tears, Petito told officers she'd been really stressed out about trying to launch her website—something she said Laundrie “doesn’t really believe I could do”—and that the fight between the pair had escalated.
“We’ve just been fighting all morning and he wouldn’t let me in the car before,” she said in the footage, adding that Laundrie “told me I needed to calm down.”
She admitted to hitting Laundrie first and said he grabbed her by the face during the altercation—yet, according to a 911 caller, Laundrie had been the one hitting Petito.
“We drove by and the gentleman was slapping the girl,” the caller said, according to a recording featured in Peacock’s “The Murder of Gabby Petito: Truth, Lies and Social Media,” available to stream Friday.
The footage of her daughter crying as she talked with police is painful for Petito’s mother, Nichole Schmidt to watch.
“I want to jump through the screen and just hug her and bring her home,” she said the documentary.
But Schmidt also believes the footage shows the public that Petito was a “real human being” with her own struggles.
“Everybody looks great on YouTube and Instagram, but people got to see, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s a real person with feelings,’” Schmidt said. “I think that touched everyone when they got to see that she’s hurting. It’s amazing how many people could relate to her.”
That relatability is what drew many to Petito’s story after the 22-year-old disappeared during the cross-country adventure in late August of this year.
“People would meet her and just fall in love with her,” Schmidt recalled in the special. “She just had this presence. I don’t know what it was, but it was just magical.”
After the body camera footage was released days after Petito was officially reporting missing by her mother on Sept. 11, the “internet went crazy,” according to investigative reporter Pei-Sze Cheng, who covered the case for Florida’s NBC 4.
Internet sleuths began scouring the footage to discover possible clues and others who believed they had spotted Laundrie or the couple’s van in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park around the time Petito disappeared took to social media to share their own accounts.
One of those travelers was blogger Jen Bethune, who spotted the couple’s van in a remote area of the park in dash camera footage she captured while traveling with her own family.
The footage placed Petito’s van not far from the area where her body would ultimately be discovered by authorities on Sept. 19. A coroner would determine she’d been strangled to death.
“With social media we found there’s a lot of crazy, bad stuff out there, but there’s also a lot of good stuff that can come out of it,” Petito’s stepdad Jim Schmidt said of the attention the missing persons case received. “I always say it’s like a blessing and a curse but in this instance, it was a blessing for us.”
Although police in North Port, Florida, where Petito lived with Laundrie and his parents, named him a person of interest in her disappearance, he was never charged in connection with her death and vanished himself in mid-September, after returning home to Florida in the couple’s van without his girlfriend.
His body was later discovered in the Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park, which connects to Florida’s Carlton Reserve in October. His family’s attorney announced last month that he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Although Moab Police stopped the couple back in August for a suspected domestic violence incident, authorities never made any arrests that day and decided to separate Petito—who was deemed the “primary aggressor” by police—and Laundrie for the night, according to a police report obtained by Oxygen.com.
In one haunting exchange made between two officers at the scene that day, one can be heard telling the other about why the state of Utah has a domestic assault code, which he says is “to protect people.”
“The reason why they don’t give us discretion on these things is because too many times women who are at risk want to go back to their abuser,” he said. “They just wanted him to stop and they don’t want to have to be separated. They don’t want him charged. They don’t want him to go to jail and then they end up getting worse and worse treatment. And then they end up getting killed.”
Schmidt hopes her daughter’s story—both the highs and tragic lows—can help others.
“I hope people are inspired by her,” she said at a September news conference, according to News Nation. “It means a lot to me that she has touched so many lives already.”
"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.
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