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When Gabby Petito disappeared, internet sleuths—armed with only their computers and a desire to help find the missing 22-year-old—jumped into action.
These sleuths combed the internet searching for clues, studying photos Petito had posted on social media, diving into trail maps from the Grand Teton National Park—the last place Petito had been camping with fiancé Brian Laundrie before she disappeared—and analyzing video that surfaced during the high-profile case.
“I think the hashtag ‘Find Gabby’ hit over a billion people,” her stepdad Jim Schmidt said in Peacock’s “The Murder of Gabby Petito: Truth, Lies and Social Media,” available to stream Friday. “We saw it as an opportunity to—to help, you know, get the word out there and it did.”
While Jim acknowledged social media can also lead to “a lot of crazy, bad stuff out there,” Petito's family believes that in her case it was invaluable to finding her remains in a remote area of the national park and bringing her back home to her loved ones.
“I always say it’s like a blessing and a curse, but in this instance, it was a blessing for us,” Jim said of social media.
Petito’s mom, Nichole Schmidt, also had high praise for the internet sleuths who devoted countless hours to her daughter’s case.
“They are incredible,” she said. “The sleuths, the internet sleuths, they do a great job. They really do.”
That includes people like Jen Bethune, a travel blogger who was trekking with her family through the park on Aug, 27. After learning of Petito’s disappearance, Bethune remembered seeing a white van with Florida license plates as they were driving through a remote area.
"The reason why we noticed the van is because we're from Florida and the van had Florida plates and we wanted to stop by and say ‘Hi’," Bethune told Fox News. "But the van was very dark, closed up, looked like no activity so we ended up continuing to drive."
Although they never stopped, Bethune remembered that the family had been recording video on their dash camera.
"I got chills all over my body and ran straight back to my laptop, got my GoPro footage, and lo and behold, Gabby's van was on there," she recalled.
The footage gave investigators a location where the white Ford Transit van had been parked around the time that Petito disappeared and authorities would later find her body not far from the location. Petito had been strangled to death.
"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 told Fox News.
Once the video surfaced, internet sleuth Brent Shavnore stepped in and used his video software skills to debunk a theory that the footage appeared to show someone digging in the background. While Shavnore was able to show that the dark form was more likely just a piece of the terrain, he did discover another clue while zooming in on the video.
“I was able to go through and blow it up and work my magic to stabilize it and essentially enhance the footage, but when I zoomed in, I saw the door (of the van) close,” he said in the Peacock documentary. “It completely blew my mind and sent a chill up my spine.”
Shavnore said the clue showed “there was life in that van” when Bethune and her family passed by.
That detail has been particularly meaningful to Petito’s mom.
“I watched that video of the van and had seen the door closing like probably 100 times,” she said. “I really believe that was Gabby closing the door on the van. So, I just kept watching it. I don’t know.”
Shavnore said he stepped in and decided to help after Petito’s story went viral because he had investigative skills that he thought could be helpful in solving the case.
“I feel like I’m pretty proficient in audio/video software specifically video software, so I would spend the better part of the night and the evening looking for clues, but there’s a community of people who’ve all done the same thing,” he said.
Social media influencer Riley Lively also spent hours on the case and was able to find Petito’s profile on a trail app, providing investigators information on the trails she had been hiking on before she disappeared.
“I thought that maybe I could help find her,” she said in “The Murder of Gabby Petito.” “I am really good at the internet. I set out my mission to see if I could find anything.”
Although she had never met Petito in person, Lively said she felt connected her after looking through Petito’s social media activity.
“A lot of people felt close with Gabby, getting to know her through her Instagram or YouTube. That’s how I related to her,” she said. “I saw myself in Gabby. She wanted to experience the world. … I mean, she seemed like she was always smiling and happy. Full of life.”
Petito’s own willingness to share her journey on the internet brought her to life for so many people across the world who were touched by her story.
“She wanted to put herself out there online for people to see,” her father, Joe Petito, said in the documentary.
Petito’s boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, was named a person of interest in her disappearance by police, but he vanished himself in mid-September before any charges were ever filed in her death. His remains were found the following month in Florida’s Carlton Reserve, where he told he family he planned to go hiking.
His family’s attorney, Steven P. Bertolino, has said he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Although Petito’s story didn’t have the ending her loved ones—and many of the internet sleuths—had been hoping for, her family said they’ve received letters from people who’ve chosen to leave an abusive relationship because of Petito’s case or have just been moved by the person she was.
“It makes me proud of her,” Nichole said. “She put herself out there and everybody fell in love with her and I am just really proud of her. Her and her legacy are going to do so much to help everyone.”
"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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