A 22-year-old woman is dead, so why is the overwhelming public response to treat her like a celebrity?
Three weeks ago, the world wasn’t familiar with the name Gabby Petito. Yet now, it yields more than 27 million search results on Google, and there are almost one million people following her Instagram account.
There’s been a real sense of mystery that’s surrounded the disappearance of 22-year-old ‘Youtuber’ Gabby Petito. And it’s not surprising to see why, when you consider that the sequence of events leading up to the recent, grim discovery of human remains that are “consistent” with the missing woman, reads like the blurb of a gripping Netflix crime drama.
In July, Gabby and her childhood sweetheart, Brian Laundrie, set off on a four-month cross-country trip of US national parks in a converted Ford Transit van. The pair were intent on documenting their trip on Instagram and via a new Youtube channel, and had even created a website of the same name – Nomadic Statik – from which they planned to share more of their adventure. The couple had got engaged in the summer of 2020, and this year decided to take off on a “van-life” trip after a shared desire to “downsize our lives and travel full time,” according to the description on Gabby’s Youtube channel.
But after just a month of travelling, on 1 September, 2021, Brian Laundrie returned home to Florida without Gabby. On 11 September, having been unable to get hold of their daughter, the Petito family reported her missing. North Port Police in Florida went on to announce that Laundrie was considered a “person of interest” in the case, but clarified that he had not been charged with any crime. Days later, Brian Laundrie went missing himself, and his family maintain that they haven’t seen him since 14 September. The FBI has subsequently been investigating the family home as a crime scene.
In the weeks since Gabby’s disappearance, the case has risen to prominence – not only among established news outlets online and in print, but across social media, too. On TikTok, the hashtag #GabbyPetito has over 634 million views, while hundreds of Reddit forums seek to dissect the facts of the case in meticulous detail. People are compelled, and they’re signing up to consume more. Prior to going missing, Gabby Petito was reported to have had less than 1,000 followers on Instagram. Now, as we await the results of an autopsy on the body found in Wyoming (believed to be that of Gabby), there are 923,000 people following the 22-year-old blogger on the picture-led platform – despite the fact she will never post on it again.
Perhaps the reason this tragedy has taken such a grip among users online is because it’s a palpable reminder of the stark comparison between reality and what we see on social media. Both Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie’s Instagram pages depicted an idyllic, curated version of their lives – a young, beautiful, couple taking to the open road; their wide smiles beaming as brightly as the sun. But the grim conclusion to this tale suggests that, in reality, things were far from rosy between the two.
The case invites this pause for reflection, but its element of mystery has also summoned a slew of armchair investigators, determined to solve the crime as if it were playing out in a six-part drama series on screen. And there has been much to comb through, which has only fuelled this wave of internet sleuths.
There’s the abundance of Instagram posts and the captions attached to them. There’s the lone video that sits on Gabby’s Nomadic Statik Youtube channel (currently at 3.8m views) depicting the couple in romanticised, slow-mo montages. There’s the audio of a 911 call from a passerby in the southern Utah town of Moab, who witnessed “the gentleman… slapping the girl.” And then there’s the bodycam footage taken by police on 12 August when they stopped the couple to investigate the incident, in which Gabby Petito can be seen crying and Brian Laundrie has visible scratches on his face.
The deep-dives and extensive analysis that have resulted are perhaps to be expected, considering such detailed evidence is rarely available to the public in a live case. And it must be acknowledged; such public interest has undoubtedly served to aid the pace of the investigation. The viral nature of the case meant it has attracted the eyes and ears of millions, and even led one fellow travel blogger to revisit her own footage where she discovered a clue that, ultimately, led police to the location of Gabby’s body.
In a clip filmed on 27 August by Jen Bethune at the Spread Creek Campground in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, she caught sight of Gabby and Brian’s white Ford Transit van. After reporting it to the FBI, investigators found what they believe to be Gabby Petito’s remains.
The disappearance of Gabby Petito has got all the ingredients of a true crime podcast. But the difference is, this is playing out in real time.
True crime has become an increasingly popular, morbid form of captivating entertainment over the past few years – so much so, Channel 4 has announced that a whole new channel dedicated to it will launched this autumn – but this isn’t a retrospective revisit decades later, after the dust has settled. Gabby’s family are grappling with real life emotions – fear, anger, grief – right now. All the while, well-intentioned onlookers are devouring every morsel of the case they can get their hands on, recording DIY TikTok news reports that compile the facts, all in a desperate bid to get to the bottom of it.
But we must remember that this is more than just a gripping ‘whodunnit’. This is the death of a woman who had her whole life ahead of her, and her heartbroken family must now pick up the pieces.