comb the swampy reserve

NORTH PORT, FL — By all appearances, “van life” couple Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie seemed happy — the perfect, adventurous couple — sharing Instagram photos and a YouTube video from their idyllic cross-country road trip exploring national parks in the western United States in a converted camper van this summer.

But the relationship of the North Port, Florida, couple wasn’t everything it appeared to be outwardly on social media. Their trek ended with Petito’s death by homicide in the mountains of Wyoming, and Laundrie disappeared from his parents’ home one month ago, Sept. 13.

During this months-long trip, Petito missed plans to meet up with friends on the road and stopped responding to text messages and phone calls from her family in New York, worrying those who cared about her.

Her family last heard from her at the end of August; they officially reported the 22-year-old New York native missing to Suffolk County police Sept. 11.

Petito’s body was found Sept. 19 near Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. On Tuesday, Teton County Coroner Dr. Brent Blue said her cause of death was homicide by strangulation.

Laundrie, 23, was named a person of interest in the disappearance and death of his fiancée. He returned to his parents’ Florida home, where both he and Petito lived for the past two years, alone, in her van.

Two days after Petito was reported missing, Laundrie was nowhere to be found himself. His parents told North Port police on Sept. 17 that their son had left for a hike at Sarasota County’s Carlton Reserve Sept. 14 — weeks later telling authorities he actually left their home Sept. 13 — and he hasn’t been seen since.

Wednesday marks one month since Laundrie fled his parents’ home. But are authorities any closer to finding him?

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Here’s everything we know about the case and the FBI-led search for Laundrie.

What We Know About Their Relationship

Both Laundrie and Petito are Long Island, New York, natives who met as teens while attending Bayport-Blue Point High School. When they first started dating, he was a year older — Petito was a sophomore and Laundrie was a junior, according to People.

Their relationship was on-again, off-again and friends sometimes couldn’t keep up with their current status. But they weren’t concerned, and one friend, Alyssa Chen, told People that “they had very low lows and very high highs,” but she “never saw any sort of physical abuse.”

Another friend, Ben Matula, said the couple “always had some drama.”

They took one of their longest breaks after Laundrie graduated in 2016. During this time, Petito finished high school.

They eventually got back together, though, and decided to skip college and build a different kind of life for themselves.

They moved to Florida, into Laundrie’s parents’ home, where his older sister and her husband were living at the time.

Together, they dreamed of traveling and seeing the world, taking on different jobs locally, mostly to fund their trips. Petito was a pharmacy technician and worked at Taco Bell at one point, while Laundrie worked at a Publix in North Port, according to CBS News. He also sometimes sold his artwork.

Petito’s closest friend in Florida, Rose Davis, said Laundrie is “very charismatic” and “a sweet person.” The couple was “cute” together, and he’d make her breakfast and do little things for her.

There was a darker side to their relationship, though, Davis said, according to CBS.

“When Brian wants something, he’s gonna get it. And I don’t mean in a physical way, he’s gonna force it. He’s just gonna … I don’t want people to say I’m calling him a full manipulator, but he’ll manipulate the situation to get what he wants out of it,” she said, recounting one night where he took Petito’s I.D. so she couldn’t go to a bar with Davis. “This was really upsetting to her, you know, you’re engaged. It’s not, you know, it’s not supposed to be like that.”

 

 

She also told the Daily Mail that Laundrie had “jealousy issues” and was “a little controlling.”

Living the ‘Van Life’

Petito had long dreamed of traveling and even hoped to become a travel vlogger and social media influencer.

In the fall of 2019, she fell even more in love with this idea when she and Laundrie took a West Coast road trip across California and Oregon, sharing their journey on Instagram.

She recalled the trip in a January 2020 Instagram post, saying, “Driving across the country all the way to California (and) Oregon was an absolute dream, wish I was back running down the beach looking at the Pacific Ocean.”

Months later, in May 2020, she shared another picture from that trip, this one featuring Laundrie.

“I can’t wait to get back to days like this, traveling the world with you and asking strangers to take our picture,” Petito wrote.

It was after this road trip that she bought her van — a white 2012 Ford Transit van — that they converted into a camper ideal for traveling long distances. In the back of the van, not only was there space for them to sleep, but it was also outfitted so they could cook meals on the road.

In early July, they left Florida for the trip of a lifetime, planning to spend several months driving across the western United States visiting national parks.

Their first stop, on July 4, was Monument Rock, Kansas, according to ABC7. Other stops on their trip were Colorado Springs and the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado. They also visited multiple parks in Utah – Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Mystic Hot Springs, Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park.

They documented the entire trip, posting photos from their adventures to Instagram. Petito even shared an eight-minute-long video about their “van life” journey on YouTube under the name “Nomadic Statik.” It was the only video she’d post before her death.

“She wanted to cross the country in the camper van and live the van life and live free. This was her dream,” her mother, Nichole Schmidt, told KSL.

An Incident in Moab, Utah

Their trip hit a snag after an Aug. 12 incident in Moab, Utah. That day, police responded to an argument between the couple outside the Moonflower Community Cooperative.

In a 52-minute video, which was recorded by Moab police officer Eric Pratt’s body camera during incident, Petito said Laundrie got physical with her during an argument.

While she noted she hit her fiancé first, she told police he grabbed her face, cutting her cheek. She tried to downplay the incident, though, asking to pay for a driving ticket rather than bringing charges against Laundrie.

No charges were filed, and no tickets were issued, but the couple was urged to separate for the night. Police helped Laundrie get a hotel for the night, while Petito stayed with the van.

In their report, police categorized the incident as a “mental/emotional health break.”

Pratt also included conflicting information on the police report from the incident, which the responding officers classified as “disorderly conduct,” according to People. The officer wrote that a witness reported seeing a man hitting a woman prior to their questioning Laundrie and Petito. Later in the report, he wrote that “no one reported that the male struck the female.”

Grand Teton National Park

Days after the incident in Moab, Laundrie flew home to Florida to empty their storage unit and move their belongings into his parents’ home.

Her parents’ attorney, Steve Bertolino, told Fox 5 Laundrie returned to Florida Aug. 17, flying from Salt Lake City to Tampa without Petito to empty and close their storage unit to save money since the couple was considering extending their road trip. He returned to Salt Lake City to rejoin his fiancée Aug. 23.

After they met back up in Utah, they drove to Wyoming, where they planned to visit the Grand Teton National Park. Petito’s body was eventually found in the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, which is near Grand Teton.

A witness, Nina Celie Angelo, saw Laundrie arguing with staff at the Merry Piglets, a Tex-Mex restaurant in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, on Aug. 27, Fox 13 reported. She said Laundrie seemed “aggressive” and stormed in and out of the restaurant.

Petito, who appeared “visibly upset,” went back in to apologize for him. This might have been the last time she was seen alive.

After this, she stopped responding to texts and calls from her family. Her mother received one final text from her daughter’s phone Aug. 30.

Schmidt thought the text, which read, “Can you help Stan, I just keep getting his voicemails and missed calls,” was odd. She told authorities it was a reference to Petito’s grandfather, whose name is “Stan,” though she’s never called him by his first name.

Laundrie Returns to Florida

On Sept. 1, Laundrie returned to his parents’ home in Florida alone in Petito’s van.

In the week and a half that followed, the Laundrie family didn’t respond to texts and calls from her family, who finally reported her missing in New York on Sept. 11.

That same day, Petito’s van was recovered from the Laundrie home by North Port police.

From the beginning, the family refused to cooperate with investigators. Laundrie didn’t speak with them that evening, or even come to the door, and his parents simply handed police the contact information for their attorney, Bertolino.

Days after Petito was reported missing, Bertolino said his client would “remain in the background” during the investigation. Laundrie was named a person of interest in the case Sept. 15.

On Twitter, North Port police Chief Todd Garrison begged Bertolino to encourage Laundrie to speak with police and asked anyone with information about her disappearance to come forward.

“As a father, I can imagine the pain and suffering Gabby’s family is going through. We are pleading with anyone, including Brian, to share information with us on her whereabouts in the past few weeks,” Garrison said in a statement. “The answers will eventually come out. We will help find Gabby and we will help find anyone who may be involved in her disappearance.”

Petito’s father traveled to North Port Sept. 16 for a police news conference, in which he made a public plea for information about her whereabouts. At that point, her body hadn’t been found and he encouraged anyone who might have information — including Laundrie and his family — to come forward.

“I’m asking for help from everyone here,” Joseph Petito said. “I’m asking for help from everyone at home. I’m asking for help from the parents of Brian, and I’m asking for the help of the family members and friends of the Laundrie family, as well.”

Laundrie Reported Missing

On Sept. 17, nearly a week after Petito was reported missing, the Laundrie family finally broke their silence and asked to meet with police — to tell them Brian was nowhere to be found and that they hadn’t seen him in days.

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They said that Brian Laundrie left their home Sept. 14 to go hiking in Sarasota County’s Carlton Reserve, a 25,000-acre preserve near Venice. Weeks later, they changed their story, telling police through their attorney that they actually got the date wrong, and their son left their home Sept. 13, one day earlier than they initially reported.

Laundrie drove the family’s Ford Mustang to the reserve, parking it nearby, Bertolino said. Police left an abandoned vehicle notice on the car, asking for it to be moved. His parents eventually picked up the car and brought it home by Sept. 15.

The location included on the incident report is 6968 Reistertown Road, the address for the Myakkahatcee Creek Environmental Park. The park is connected to the Carlton Reserve by a 12-mile trail, reports said.

Searching the Carlton Reserve

Since Sept. 18, authorities have focused their search for Laundrie on the snake- and gator-filled Carlton Reserve.

Various methods have been used to comb the swampy reserve, including K-9 dogs, ATVs, drones, helicopters, dive teams and airboats.

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