Let's talk about the Gabbie Petito case
How the murder of an aspiring travel blogger swept the nation
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I love listening to true crime podcasts as much as the next person. Whether I’m doing the dishes or riding the subway into Manhattan, chances are I’ll be immersed in the latest episode of Crime Junkies.
As this SNL sketch demonstrates, there is something almost morbidly comical about the way so many of us choose to “relax” by watching a murder documentary or listening to a true-crime podcast. But, as we absent-mindedly listen to the twists and turns of the latest murder mystery, it can be easy to forget that these stories involve real people whose lives were tragically cut short. It can be difficult to remind ourselves that the documentary we’re currently enjoying while sipping a glass of red wine, is recounting some of the worse moments of a person’s life.
One such case dominating headlines is the murder of Gabbie Petito. For those who haven’t been following, Petito was a young 22-year-old woman aspiring to be a travel blogger. Earlier this summer, Petito set out on a cross-country van trip with her former fiancé/current boyfriend, Brian Laundrie (age 23). Petito had been working at an organic juice bar as a self-described nutritionist when she made the decision to quit her job in pursuit of her other passion: travel.
What followed was a slew of idyllic Instagram posts capturing Petito and Laundrie embarking on a #vanlife. The snapshots portrayed this all-American couple kissed beneath the Corona Arch in Moab, laughing over campfire meals, and posing in front of scenic views. Beneath the surface, Petito and Laundrie’s relationship was less than ideal.
In police bodycam footage obtained prior to her disappearance, a crying Petito can be seen visibly upset over a recent altercation between her and Laundrie. Witnesses to another altercation between Petito and Laundrie—this time taking place at a restaurant—reported Laundrie’s aggressive behavior, while Petito’s friends remember their relationship as being worrisome and toxic.
Mere weeks after the police incident, Petito suddenly went dark on social media. When Laundrie drove all the way back to Florida from Wyoming without Gabbie by his side, the mystery of what happened to Petito began to captivate the entire country.
Where did she go? How could Laundrie have driven cross-country without reporting her missing? Why did the Laundrie family lawyer up immediately following his return?
Social media sleuths, frenzied media, and true crime lovers poured over the details of the case until Gabbie’s body was sadly found in the wilderness of Wyoming days later. Laundrie—who is said to have escaped into the Florida wilderness—is now on the run with police and the FBI having issued a warrant for his arrest.
In the weeks that followed, Petito’s case has kicked up a lot of emotion. The way the case has been covered in the media stands in stark contrast to the hundreds of missing people whose cases don’t receive a fraction of the same media attention. The only perceivable difference? Gabbie Petito was a white woman.
As this New York Times article describes it, “the disappearances of people of color tend not to generate the same volume of media interest, despite their occurring at a higher rate. A report from the University of Wyoming found that 710 Indigenous people were reported missing from 2011 to 2020 in the state where Ms. Petito’s remains were found.”
The “missing white people syndrome” that the NYT describes focuses on the racial disparities that exist in true crime coverage. “White victims tend to be portrayed as being in very safe environments, so it’s shocking that something like this could happen,” explains Danielle Slakoff, an assistant professor at California State University, who researches criminal justice and the media. “The Black and Latino victims are portrayed as being in unsafe environments, so basically normalizing victimization.”
As tragic as the murder of Gabbie Petito is, it doubles as a grim reminder that the same media attention used to quickly locate her body and bring resolution to her family should be granted to the hundreds of other families waiting for resolution in their loved one’s disappearances.
Whenever a woman goes missing while traveling, the focus of the story tends to shift to the woman having the audacity to globetrot alone. But, in the case of Petito who was not alone, I’ve seen a few articles tout the dangers of her choosing to travel and live out of a van.
This case is not about a woman traveling and falling victim to a trip gone bad. Rather, this is a case about domestic violence and femicide at the hands of a man. According to a recent article from The Guardian, it is estimated that a staggering three women a day are killed by domestic violence in the United States. To position this case as anything other than domestic violence is to miss the uncomfortable truth about how women are treated in this country and the failures on a police and government level to protect them.
In a recent article from the NY Post, travel influencers shared their thoughts on the van lifestyle. Tying it to the Gabbie Petito case, the people in the article discuss the mental, emotional, and physical stress left unseen in the idyllic images that #vanlifers post. Now, I could go on forever about social media, our tendencies to only share curated moments, and the adverse effects on everyone when we choose to filter our realities through rose-colored lenses.
I could speculate on how social media is dangerous to younger and more impressionable generations, and I could even venture to guess at the number of young people who have made a major life decision based on the false realities seen on their social feeds. But, let me step back.
In the Gabbie Petito case, the media attention came after social media around her disappearance took off. The frenzied interest of Tik Tok users is what led to the media covering Petito’s case where it was mentioned 398 times on Fox News, 346 times on CNN, and 100 times on MSNBC, according to a Washington Post tally.
In the end, it is up to all of us to collectively push awareness on missing person cases and draw attention to the facts. Whether it’s paying attention to missing people of color or looking at Petito’s case as domestic violence—we, as true crime listeners, have more power than we think to bring a family resolution.
Crime Junkies podcast, Our Black Girls, and Canada’s Highway of Tears
If you want to hear more details about the Gabbie Petito case, listen to this episode from the woman-hosted Crime Junkies. Although the episode was recorded in the hours before Gabbie’s body was found, it offers crucial details into the days leading up to and after her disappearance. Crime Junkies is not only an excellent true-crime podcast, but founder and host Ashley Flowers makes an effort to spotlight the stories of people of color.
To support and help spread awareness of overlooked missing person cases, visit Our Black Girls, which focuses exclusively on the often untold stories of Black girls and women who have gone missing or, in some cases, were found dead under mysterious circumstances. Launched by journalist and activist Erika Marie Rivers in 2018, Rivers spends her nights combing missing person databases, archived news footage, old articles, and whatever other information she can find to piece together these stories.
Read this article in The Cut that begs the question: where is the media attention for missing indigenous women? Also listen to this episode of Crime Junkies, which focuses on Canada’s Highway of Tears where dozens of women and girls (many of which are Indigenous) have disappeared over the decades.