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#Vanlife that Ended in Tragedy

During the summer months of 2021, 22-year-old Gabby Petito and 23-year-old Brian Laundrie were living inside a white 2012 Ford Transit as they traveled around the county. The engaged couple shared their adventures across the various national parks of the West with their hundreds of followers on social media. During their travels together, Gabby worked hard at creating a blog dedicated to capturing the views and precious moments.

Under the username, Nomadic Statik, she uploaded a professionally-edited video titled, “Beginning Our Van Life Journey” which shows the van’s artistic interior, smiles, her dancing, and Brian’s shy behavior. The #vanlife trip started on July 2nd and was supposed to end on October 31st. Unfortunately, the beautiful scenery would crumble before the journey could be completed. 

A couple with the world to see

The cross-country trip was planned months in advance. In the year prior, the official declaration of the Covid-19 pandemic caused the whole world to temporarily slow down as everyone was impacted by the situation in one way or another. Many dreams had to be put on hold, especially ones that involved large crowds. On July 2nd, 2020, Gabby and Brian got engaged, but their plans for a beach wedding in Florida were canceled that year. For months, the pair would live seemingly normal lives in the Sunshine State as they both adjusted to the changing world. Seemingly inseparable, the couple often appeared in videos and photos together. 

Both of them attended Bayport-Blue Point High School in Bayport, New York. Gabby was described by friends as a social butterfly while Brian was said to be a heavyset outcast that was a year older than her. They would know each other, but the two officially become a couple not long after Gabby graduated high school in 2017. Soon after, she moved in with Brian and his parents to a house in North Port, Florida. The young woman worked as a pharmacy technician while her boyfriend sold his watercolors along with digital artwork under a business called Bizarre Design. The people who knew the couple personally often described their relationship as “rocky.” In one alleged incident, Brian hid her ID when she planned on joining a girls’ night out. 

The adventure’s sudden end 

To outlookers, they appeared to be a loving couple that had their ups and downs like everyone else. Gabby’s white Ford Transit was converted to a cute, cozy livable space before both of them headed off on the #vanlife adventure. The couple traveled and often camped at national parks in Kansas, Colorado, and Utah. On August 12th, in Moab, Utah, someone called 911 when they saw a physical altercation between the two. The caller said, “We drove by and the gentleman was slapping the girl.” Gabby was grabbed by her face and pushed back. She was locked out of the van but was soon able to open the driver’s door before going inside. Police drove to the scene and spoke with the couple. While distraught, she blamed herself for starting the altercation over a messy space, blaming it on OCD. Brain, with scratches on his face, even began to joke with the Moab police, adding that his fiancé who was “trying to start up a little website, blog” was just hysterical. The police described him as the potential victim of domestic assault. Gabby spent the night in the van while Brian stayed inside a hotel. 

The beautiful young woman was last seen in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming on August 25th. A person on Instagram claimed the pair were involved in an argument inside Merry Piglett’s Mexican Grill in Jackson Hole, Wyoming on August 27th. Brian was described as very angry. The two left without paying. On the 30th, her mother, Nicole Schmidt received an odd text from her number that read, “Can you help Stan, I just keep getting his voicemails and missed calls.” Stan is the name of her grandfather but she never called him by his first name. As for Brian, he drove back to North Port completely alone on September 1st. He hired an attorney soon after returning home. From September 6th until the 8th, the Laundrie family went camping in Fort De Soto Park. According to Brian’s sister, who joined the Memorial weekend trip, Gabby was not mentioned even once. On September 11th, Gabby’s family reported her missing and this odd case would very soon catch the attention of media from all over the world. 

America’s daughter

The 22-year-old who was in regular contact with friends and family would not simply run away. The Laundrie’s continuing silence had captured the attention of many internet sleuths as many early theories began developing. Photos that showed Gabby’s angelic smile were seen online regularly. Strangers became emotionally invested in the story as she reminded them of their own daughters, friends, or girlfriends. Gabby was later referred to as “America’s daughter” by a number of media outlets. Every small development was reported seemingly daily. On September 15th, Brian was named a person of interest by the North Port Police then was reported missing two days later. The FBI charged him for illegally using his missing fiancé’s credit card between August 30th and September 1st with payments totaling more than $1,000. Online spectators grew impatient with demanded more action from investigators. The interest in the case would grow with each coming day. Some TikTok users claimed that they were communicating with the young woman from beyond the grave. There were also those who revealed the gruesome details of her death, which was obviously extremely disrespectful to Gabby and those closest to her. 

A couple that travels with their three children around the United States by RV noticed that they actually stumbled upon the parked white van when they looked at their footage from August 27th taken at the Grand Tetons area at about 6:00 pm. The GoPro footage taken from the front was posted on their YouTube channel called Red White & Bethune. At the time of their video, the family wished to greet whoever was inside the van, but the vehicle appeared abandoned. The footage was seen on September 19th, the birthday of their 7-year-old son that passed away in a car accident 10 years prior. A few hours after the post was made public, the FBI confirmed that they found human remains in Teton County that fit the description of the missing van lifer. On October 12th, autopsy results showed that Gabby died as a result of strangulation 3 to 4 weeks before her body was found. 

The seemingly endless search for Brian

Protestors demanded justice for Gabby as they stood outside the Laundries’ Florida home seemingly 24/7. Some of the neighbors even allowed protestors to camp in their backyards. Meanwhile, Brian’s parents would stay silent, as requested by their attorney, Steven Bertolino. Many Internet sleuths were convinced that the family was withholding crucial information. Duane Chapman, known as Dog the Bounty Hunter, also became involved in search efforts. 

The parents said that they last their son on September 13th and that he went for a hike in the Carlton Reserve. Days after, there were a few seconds of footage from Instagram live showing some wooded area. On a YouTube channel called White Noise OpEd Commentary, there were claims that he also live-streamed a 2 or 3-second image of a boat surrounded by water. Internet investigators were quite sure that he updated his Spotify playlist while on the run. The FBI would take over the search for Brian in the vast Florida wilderness. He was supposedly spotted by a flight attended at an airport in Canada and by someone else in Tillman’s corner in Alabama, among many other places. A lookalike was even swarmed by a Swat Team at an Appalachian Trail hotel.

The weeks-long search for Brian came to an end on October 21st. Brian’s parents visited the Carlton Reserve, a trail that their son frequented and his last known location. The parents directed FBI agents and the North Port Police to the area where items belonging to Brian were found, among them was a notebook and backpack. Most of the area was surrounded by water for weeks. Authorities also found “partial human remains.” Thanks to dental records, it was soon confirmed that the skeletal remains were those of Brian’s. They were in fact skeletal despite the fact that he was not deceased for an extended period of time. However, the natural environment could have impacted the speed at which the body decomposed. His remains were transferred to a forensic anthropologist for further examination regarding the cause of death. On November 23rd, Bertolino revealed that Brian died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. It was also soon revealed that the parents noticed a gun missing at the home, but did not notify the police. 

History made

During the summer months of 2021, Gabby and Brian documented moments of envied freedom that were often accompanied by filters, which helped to further beautify the scenery. We will likely never know the details of what went on between the two. Brian’s parents allegedly described him as feeling down before he was about to hike in the Carlton Reserve that last time. Bertolino said that he was “grieving,” but later said that he used a poor choice of words. 

Many people online asked the question of why this case was given so much attention when many people go missing each year. The answer to that is not simple. When the search efforts were underway to find both Gabby and Brian, authorities had found 9 bodies of missing persons. Because of this case, some women and men online wrote that they left abusive relationships because they learned to recognize the signs. In 2013, Gabby appeared in a music video for the song Irreplaceable by Deb Henson that was released after the Sandy Hook shooting. A teenage Gabby holds a white sign that reads “I’m irreplaceable.” Henson stated that the “song was written to help bring awareness to violence against kids.” Gabby’s family founded the Gabby Petito Foundation that helps organizations that search for missing people.

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