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16 Oct 2021 22:04
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  •   Home > News > International

    How internet sleuths and an obsession with true crime helped locate Gabby Petito

    While the case has captivated the world, how helpful is the feverish attention for the investigators who are trying to figure out what happened to Gabby Petito?


    In their search for Gabby Petito, investigators combed through countless tips from the public — some valuable, some the musings of an obsessed internet. 

    The story of the missing 'van life' traveller quickly started to feed America's intense appetite for true crime. 

    As the facts of the case emerged, so too did theories posted on TikTok, Instagram, Reddit and YouTube about what had happened to Gabby. 

    The investigation has become a crowdsourced whodunit — a murder mystery story being told while it's still being solved. 

    This week, the tale entered a tragic chapter. 

    After nine days of searching, the body of Gabby, a 22-year-old from New York state, was found and authorities confirmed she was a victim of a homicide. 

    There are still many questions to be answered, but just as the internet's investigators searched for Gabby, they also turned their attention to the task of locating her fiance Brian Laundrie. 

    This is what they found.  

    Gabby and Brian

    It's often said that social media allows people to showcase the highlights reel of their lives.

    For Gabby and Brian, their respective Instagram accounts cultivated a seemingly perfect existence for their hundreds of thousands of followers. 

    Both adventurers with a love of the outdoors and a desire to live the #vanlife, their feeds showcased America's beaches, deep canyons and sunsets. 

    Gabby, with her flowing blonde hair and beaming smile, was often in the frame, marvelling at the natural wonders around her.

    The couple reportedly first met in 2019 and got engaged about a year later.

    "You make life feel unreal and every day is such a dream with you," she wrote on an Instagram post announcing their engagement.

    In July this year, Brian and Gabby decided to convert a van into a camper and drive around America, documenting their journey on a YouTube channel called Nomadic Static.

    "Follow our van life journey for some awesome van life ideas, tips, hacks, camping spots and so many beautiful places to travel," they wrote on their page.

    Only one slickly produced video was ever uploaded.

    Whether Brian was involved in Gabby's death or not, it's clear cracks were beginning to appear in the relationship just weeks into their journey.

    On August 12, several people in a Utah grocery store called police after witnessing a young couple in an argument.

    Police tracked Gabby and Brian down on a remote road and pulled them over.

    A crying Gabby told the officer their fight began over the messy state of their van and she had slapped Brian because she feared he would take the vehicle and leave her stranded.

    She then alluded to deeper issues in their relationship.

    "I just quit my job to travel across the country and I'm trying to start a travel blog, so I've been building my website," Gabby can be heard saying in the body cam footage.

    "I've been really stressed and he doesn't really believe that I can do any of it."

    The officer decided not to press charges but told Brian to spend a night at a hotel so the couple had a chance to cool off.

    In the ensuing days, Gabby would Facetime and text her mother several times about their plans to drive from Utah to the Tetons ranges in Wyoming.

    The last text message on August 30 from Gabby simply read: "No service in Yosemite."

    But two days after that message was sent, Brian pulled their van into the driveway of his parents' home in Florida, 4,500 kilometres from Yosemite National Park in California.

    Gabby was nowhere to be found and despite her parents' pleas and intense pressure from police, Brian refused to say a word.

    Gabby was reported missing on September 11.

    Clues versus conspiracies

    The couple had been documenting their journey across the country, but when the trip took a dark turn and the Instagram and YouTube posts stopped, their followers remained.

    In fact, they gained many more.

    On Friday, TikTok videos tagged with #gabbypetito had been viewed more than 927 million times.

    The TikTok videos and Instagram comments about what happened to Gabby range from curious observations to deranged fabrications.

    On a platform like TikTok, where videos compete against one another for views, the interest in Gabby has seemingly shifted from concern for her welfare to a sport.

    "A lot of these social media people might be doing this to gain viewership," former New York Police Department detective and adjunct professor in law and police science Michael Alcazar told the ABC.

    "It's definitely inspiring a lot of social media people to become internet detectives and some might provide some good information — many won't — but that's for us to decipher as investigators."

    Under Gabby's last few posts on Instagram, those commenting theorise she might not have been the person behind them because up until then, she had always tagged her location.

    "I'm just gonna point out that these last two posts do NOT have location set up. The rest of her posts do! Did anyone notice that?" one says.

    Internet sleuths have come up with countless theories by delving into Petito's Spotify music playlists, Laundrie's reading habits and the couple's digitally bookmarked hiking trails.

    Mr Alcazar said sometimes people became fixated with "nonsense".

    "When people come up with their own theories … we think about it and if it's something useful we'll take it into consideration, but most of the time people don't have the experience and they might be delving into it a little too much," he said.

    "It's a deep dive into [what is] maybe nonsense."

    But gone are the days of missing persons photos on milk cartons.

    As the case of Gabby and Brian was exploding across social media, one fellow van life traveller noticed the posts and realised she had been very near to the couple's last known location. 

    She went digging through her archive of home videos.

    What she came up with was not a wild, speculative theory, but a solid piece of evidence.

    Kyle and Jenn Bethune and her family travel around the US in a converted bus and they were in Grand Teton National Park at the same time as Gabby and they remembered seeing a white van.

    On the night of Saturday, September 18, the couple found a video they had filmed on the outskirts of the park. 

    "Lo and behold, we saw it, clear as day," Kyle Bethune said in an interview with the New York Times

    On Sunday afternoon, Gabby's body was found near the van's location in the video. 

    The couple had informed the FBI and uploaded the video to social media — it quickly went viral.

    Authorities have not confirmed this is what led them to Gabby's remains, but Mr Alcazar believes it was a great help and that the social media hype ultimately sparked the series of events that uncovered the video. 

    "People can refer to her image, his image right there on their phone, they'll never forget it and it's quickly accessible and shareable," he said.

    "I think we had a quick solution to finding Gabby's remains because of that. It was definitely very, very helpful."

    Trouble with true crime

    The internet has long been a space for amateur detectives to debate and, in some cases, even solve crimes.

    In 2012, those commenting on a US car site helped police solve a fatal hit-and-run by identifying a part that had fallen off the suspected vehicle. 

    But the internet's passion for true crime has also resulted in witch hunts and ruined lives.

    The Boston Marathon attacks of 2013 saw thousands of people swarm a subreddit page called Find Boston Bombers.

    Frenzied Reddit users engaged in what one newspaper referred to as a "racist Where's Wally", picking out the handful of brown-skinned people in the crowd of spectators.

    Several people, including a 22-year-old man who had been missing for several weeks and would later be found dead, were wrongly accused of terrorism.

    Mr Alcazar said he believed true crime podcasts and television shows that glorified the investigative process were "poison". 

    "People think they can solve a crime in half an hour. They think it's that easy," he said.

    "Law enforcement wants to develop a strong case. It's got to be done carefully because everything is for courtroom presentation."

    On Friday, a search for 'Petito' in Spotify returned 40 episodes of true crime podcasts that had been made about her death.

    There is already a podcast called Going West set up on September 16 dedicated exclusively to updates on her case.

    "They don't really care about the case. They just want to take advantage of the time and to draw [listeners]," Mr Alcazar said. 

    But millions of people go missing every year, so why such a feverish interest in Gabby? 

    In many ways, Gabby was the perfect victim for online detectives: Young, beautiful and white, with a substantial online presence to comb through.

    US commentators were quick to point out that while the violent death of a young woman was always a tragedy, the murders of some women — often Indigenous, Latina and black — remain invisible.

    It's a concept referred to as "missing white woman syndrome". 

    For Gabby, not only did she have multiple police departments searching for her, she had millions of people online on her side. 

    "I think it took everyone by surprise how fast it spread through social media and how emotionally people got invested into Gabby's story," Mr Alcazar said.

    Next chapter

    One of the biggest twists in this tale is that Brian went missing and a manhunt was launched. After refusing to cooperate with police, he went for a hike.

    His family last saw him on September 14 and police have been searching bushland in Florida this week, trying to locate the man who is now a person of interest in Gabby's homicide.

    Authorities have also issued an arrest warrant for Brian after laying fraud charges. They allege he made unauthorised transactions on a bank card after Gabby went missing.

    The internet turned its attention to Brian too. 

    One Facebook user posted a grainy image of a man with a backpack taken from a remote camera.

    "I'm not saying this is the guy but whoever was on my trail camera this morning in Baker, Florida strongly fits the description of Brian Laundrie, authorities have been contacted," his Facebook post read.

    And with that, a raft of new theories were blasted across TikTok.

    The social media frenzy and the true crime obsession may unearth some helpful clues, but at this point of the investigation, there are some real-world implications for a case with this much attention.

    Mr Alcazar said he was sure investigators were keeping some known details out of the public sphere. 

    "I don't think they've published the cause of death yet. I'm sure they know it," he said. 

    "Because they're probably afraid people are going to come forward and say, 'Oh yeah, I did it'." 

    As well as people claiming the crime for its fame, the former detective said this level of attention could impact any eventual murder trial. 

    "It could come into play if we do arrest the perpetrator — if it is Laundrie — so many people are so familiar with this case, it's going to be hard to select a jury that hasn't heard about the case, who cannot be biased by what they saw on social media," Mr Alcazar said. 

    Online, Gabby was seemingly living a life worth following but as evidence in her homicide emerged, it became clear her reality was one filled with stress and anguish.

    In truth, Gabby was more than a character in a story. She was a person with loved ones and a rich life left to live who became a lonely victim in a deadly crime.

    © 2021 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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