When Gabby Petito and her fiancé Brian Laundrie embarked on their cross-country trip in June in her 2012 Ford Transit van, it was supposed to be the adventure of a lifetime. It ended up becoming a tragic tale that has captured the nation's attention, more questions than answers remaining. More than five days after Gabby's body was found in Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest—her manner of death was later determined to be homicide by the Teton County Coroner's Office —her followers, and especially her family, want to know: Where is Brian?
The revelation that Brian, 23, had seemingly disappeared was just one twist in the shocking saga since the 22-year-old YouTuber was first reported missing by her family on Sept. 11. Social media immediately took a vested interest in the ready-for-a-Netflix-docuseries story about an aspiring van life influencer and the boyfriend who came home early from their trip in his girlfriend's vehicle—alone. Then, Brian—and his parents—declined to speak with the authorities. From there, the updates came fast and furious, playing out like a Dateline special in real-time and everyone had an opinion.
But with thousands reported missing each year—the FBI had over 89,000 active missing persons at the end of 2020—what is it about this investigation that has captured the nation's attention?
"Gabby's case caught the public's attention during an important time after someone is reported missing," Oxygen correspondent Stephanie Gomulka told E! News. "Most fans of true crime know the hours and days after a person is reported missing are critical. Gabby was reported missing on September 11, but the timeline of when Gabby was last known to be seen or heard from stretches beyond that date. The details surrounding her disappearance and why her fiancé would return home without her also sparked instant questions and outrage from the public."
The Long Island native's picturesque social media feed, filled with sunsoaked images from her travels and thoughtful captions about living more with less, also helped the public immediately invest in her story, with Gomulka explaining, "People might relate to her or find her travel photos inspiring."
But, as we've come to learn, social media can be deceiving, often a highlight reel masking the reality of someone's life. On Aug. 12, Utah police responded to a 9-1-1 call that reported an alleged "domestic problem" between the couple, with the caller saying Brian was "slapping" Gabby, according to audio obtained by E! News. And a Sept. 15 search warrant of an external hard drive revealed that police believe there was "more and more tension" between the couple as the trip went on according to texts between Gabby and her mother.
Earlier this week, the influencers' friends have spoken out about traveling pair's alleged "toxic" relationship. "They had very low lows and very high highs," Gabby's friend Alyssa Chen told People. "But they really seemed to love each other."
But her Instagram feed also proved to be a small window in Gabby's life with Brian, one armchair detectives were immediately hoping to pry open ever more.
"Social media has a way of presenting a beautiful life," Gomulka said. "And so many have pored over her pictures to find what might be a possible reason for her initial disappearance or a clue as to what might have happened."
Reddit's forum about Gabby amassed over 100,000 members in less than 10 days and averages 6,400 comments per day, according to Subreddit Stats, a site that collects Reddit data. "This is absolutely the fastest case of growth I have ever seen on Reddit for any type of missing persons case," a moderator told Insider. When the FBI announced human remains had been found on Sept. 19, the moderators locked the page to avoid overwhelming the site.
But it wasn't just Reddit investigating the case from behind their computer screens, with Instagram users immediately examining the couple's feeds, noticing irregularities and leaving comments on Gabby's photos. "Every single Instagram post has the location tagged except for the last 2 which were posted after her family last FaceTimed with her," one user wrote on her last picture posted on Aug. 25, sparking conversation, debate and unfounded theories.
(One of the clearest signs of just how interested the public became in this case? On the day her disappearance began making headlines, Gabby had 17,000 followers on Instagram. On Sept. 24, she had 1.1 million. Brian, meanwhile, is now at 376,000 followers, up from 7,000.)
TikTok, meanwhile, became an unexpected source of sightings and clues in the investigation, with users on the platform sharing their alleged interactions with Brian, including one woman who said she picked him up hitchhiking in Wyoming and another who claimed to have spotted the van near where authorities found Gabby's body. (Police confirmed to Fox News they had spoken to the latter.)
The North Port Police Department has received "an influx of tips" about viral videos and posts, according to public information officer Josh Taylor, who told BuzzFeed News, "Social media has helped us solve a lot of crimes. You have to take the good with the bad; You might get a thousand completely insane pieces of information, but that one piece that might be the missing piece to the puzzle, it's important."
And that one vital piece of information can be hidden in the metaphorical haystack that is social media speculation. For example, some followers even noticed her roots were done in most recent photos.
"Sometimes it's not positive and can lead to a lot of vitriol or unfounded conspiracies," Gomulka explained, "but it also puts pressure on authorities and the media to stay focused on the case. Photos, video, and information made public—including a witness coming forward in a viral social media post—are further fueling discussion about the case. With many facts and details about the case made public, everyday people feel like they're a citizen sleuth or know as much as the detectives on the case."
Gabby's case—and the ongoing search for Brian, with a federal arrest warrant issued on a fraud-related charge for activities after her death—has proved how powerful social media can be in propelling a story, which, unfortunately, rarely happens for people of color who go missing.
According to the FBI's National Crime Center Information data from 2020, 35 percent of missing person reports are Black, but only 13 percent of the U.S. population is Black, and in Wyoming, where Gabby went missing, 710 Indigenous people—the majority of them women and girls—have disappeared in the last decade, according to a report published in January by the state's Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force. Nationwide, there are more than 2,300 missing Indigenous women, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute.
"For those of us who follow a lot of missing person cases, the national interest in Gabby's case brings to mind that sadly most missing person cases do not get this level of scrutiny," Gomulka said. "There are many cases Indigenous women or Black people that do not get the same attention as missing white people, especially on a national scale."
In a separate study conducted by the University of Wyoming and the Wyoming Division of Victim Services, researchers found that 42 percent of cases involving missing Native Americans received newspaper coverage in the state. Compare that to the 76 percent of missing white victims who received media attention.
"Organizations like the Black and Missing Foundation or the nonprofit Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women spotlight missing persons," Gomulka said. "Intense media coverage can lead to more resources from law enforcement or community members getting involved, which can help bring someone home safely or lead to a tip that breaks a case. Hopefully, the conversation surrounding Gabby's case can lead to more attention and resources for others."