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The fervour surrounding Gabby Petito’s murder should make you uncomfortable


By Sarah Finnan
21st Sep 2021

Gabby Petito / Instagram

The fervour surrounding Gabby Petito’s murder should make you uncomfortable

We should not be treating Gabby Petito’s murder as if it’s a live-action episode of another true crime show.

Brian Laundrie and the case of the missing influencer; it’s the story that’s taken the US (and wider world) by storm. However, what started out as  genuine concern for Gabrielle Petito’s whereabouts, soon crossed over into dangerous territory and the fervour surrounding the investigation is uncomfortable, to say the least. 

Cross-country road trip 

News first broke of Ms Petito’s disappearance earlier this month when her family reported her missing on the evening of September 11. Believed to be on a cross-country road trip with her fiancé Brian Laundrie, Gabby was last seen on August 24 when she checked out of a Salt Lake City hotel with her partner of two and a half years – her last known location is believed to be Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. 

Setting off on their travels back in July, the couple documented the first part of their journey as “van-lifers” by way of an eight-minute-long video on their YouTube channel, Nomadic Statik. Explaining that they both wanted to “downsize [their] lives and travel full time”, the almost ten-minute long clip gives followers a glimpse into the duo’s 2012 Ford transit connect which they handcrafted to cater for their adventures. 

Flying solo

While the original plan was for the couple to be on the road together for four months, Brian returned home to Florida early on September 1, alone and in the same van that they had first set off in. 

Alarm bells started ringing and Gabby’s family officially filed a missing persons report 10 days later. Gabby hadn’t been seen or heard from for over two weeks at that point. Not only that, but Brian wouldn’t speak to the authorities about what he knew either. Investigators with the North Port Police Department seized the van, though any attempts they made to speak directly with Brian were fruitless and his family declined to make him available, passing over the information for his lawyer instead.  

Laundrie was named a person of interest in the case last Wednesday, one day after he himself went missing – though his family did not report his absence to the police for several days. According to reports, he’s believed to have headed to Florida’s Carlton Reserve with just a backpack in tow. That same day, the FBI removed Mr Laundrie’s parents from their home and began combing the house as a crime scene. 

What happened? 

Investigators are still working to piece the evidence from the past few months together but some details have emerged from the weeks prior to Gabby’s disappearance. On August 12, police in the town of Moab in Utah were called to a possible domestic violence incident involving the couple.

Bodycam footage has since been released showing Gabby visibly upset and complaining about her mental health to officers. She also admitted that the couple had been fighting more frequently. Law enforcement told the two to spend the night apart and Gabby left the scene in their camper van.

A witness also called 911 to say that he had seen a couple running up and down the pathway, with the man (fitting Brian’s description) then hitting the woman (fitting Gabby’s description) before they hopped back in a white van and drove off. 

Days later, their first YouTube video was posted. Viewed by over 3.8 million people, it suggests that everything is fine between the couple who can be seen hugging, smiling and kissing throughout. Regularly updating followers as to how their journey was going on social media, they abruptly ended towards the end of August as did the FaceTime calls Gabby would make to her mother. The last time her family heard from her was on August 30 when she text them to say, “No service in Yosemite”. 

Further developments were made in the case just this week when authorities confirmed that human remains “consistent with the description of Gabby Petito” had been found in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. Officials said that they were able to hone in on the specific area where her body was found after several witnesses came forward with tips. An autopsy is due to take place today to determine the cause of death and positively identify the body. North Port police continue searching for Brian Laundrie, who is still missing. 

Internet sleuths

While the widespread media coverage of the case is undoubtedly to thank for helping local authorities in locating Gabby’s body, there is a negative side to such public interest and the thirst for information has fostered a certain sense of fervour around the details. The rise in popularity of true crime in recent years has created a pool of people who fancy themselves amateur sleuths and some even seemed to take the case as a personal challenge they had to solve. 

Search Gabby’s name on TikTok and any number of conspiracy theories as to what actually happened to her pop up. The fixation on Gabby’s disappearance created a social media frenzy that you can’t help but question. Was the “concern” really genuine? Initially, maybe so, but the need to be au fait with every new development gave way to a competitive spirit, like it’s some kind of live soap, playing out day by day. 

The interest in this particular case could be down to several different reasons, but it of course helps that Gabby is a beautiful, thin, white woman. Both she and Brian already have huge social media followings (they’re aspiring travel influencers of sorts) and of course, there’s the added mystery of Brian’s subsequent disappearance. 

The public (or a small portion of it anyway) is treating Gabby’s murder like a live-action episode of a Netflix true-crime show… but, this is an actual case about an actual person. Gabby’s friends, family and acquaintances are still very much grieving her loss. The public obsession with it feels very uncomfortable. 

In fact, true crime as a genre is uncomfortable. It monetises other people’s trauma, glamourising murderers and extreme violence. There are of course positives to it as a learning tool too, but watching the social media reactions to Gabby Petito’s death play out makes a powerful case as to why the true-crime obsession has gotten out of hand.