After Gabby Petito’s death is confirmed as strangulation, key questions remain

Key questions remain unanswered after Wyoming coroner confirms Ms Petito’s death was a homicide

Bevan Hurley
In New York
Tuesday 12 October 2021 21:33
Coroner: Cause Of Death For Gabby Petito Is Strangulation
Leer en Español

As a coroner ruled that Gabby Petito died by strangulation, key aspects of the investigation into her disappearance and homicide remain shrouded in mystery.

Teton County Coroner Brent Blue revealed new details of Ms Petito’s death during a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.

Dr Blue said judging from the decomposition of the body, it had been in the wilderness for three to four weeks prior to being discovered on 19 September.

That places the date of death some time in the days leading up to 29 August.

The autopsy ruling in the death of Gabby Petito

Ms Petito was reportedly last seen alive on 27 August by a witness at a restaurant in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

She texted her mother Nichole Schmidt that day, with the text setting off alarm bells because it mentioned her grandfather by his first name Stan.

Ms Petito’s parents reported the 22-year-old missing on 11 September, sparking a nationwide investigation into her whereabouts.

Her boyfriend Brian Laundrie had returned home alone to his parents’ home in North Port, Florida, on 1 September.

He ignored desperate pleas from Ms Petito’s family trying to find out why she suddenly stopped communicating with them.

Mother Nichole Schmidt said in an interview last week that she instinctively knew her daughter was dead when she heard that her daughter hadn’t returned to Florida with the van

Since then, Mr Laundrie has gone on the run from authorities, been named a person of interest in his girlfriend’s disappearance, and been charged with fraudulently using a bank card to obtain $1,000 in cash after Ms Petito’s death. While an arrest warrant allows authorities to take Mr Laundrie into custody, he has not been accused of a crime related to Ms Petito’s death.

As the case attracted national media attention and was pored over by an army of digital sleuths, video emerged of the couple’s van parked on the side of a dirt road in a remote area of the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

Authorities narrowed their search for Ms Petito and on 19 September, announced they had found remains belonging to the missing woman.

As the manhunt for Mr Laundrie approaches its third week, here are the key unanswered questions in the case.

FBI agents have reportedly visited an AT&T store where Brian Laundrie was spotted buying a burner phone on 14 September

Gabby Petito was strangled to death, but will further details about the circumstances of her homicide be released?

The autopsy ruling released on Tuesday afternoon provided the first clear answers about how Gabby Petito was killed.

Dr Blue has ruled Ms Petito’s death was homicide by “manual strangulation-throttling”, and hinted that due to the length of time she spent “in the wilderness”, completing the autopsy had been a challenging task.

The autopsy investigation included analysis by a forensic anthropologist, which involves skeletal analysis.

A forensic entomologist was also employed: their specialty is in examining insects, whose specialty is how insects aid in bodily decomposition.

Citing Wyoming state law that only allows manner and cause of death to be released, Dr Blue also declined to say give any further details about injuries found on Ms Petito’s body, the condition her body was found in or whether toxicology tests had turned up any drugs in her system.

Ms Petito’s remains were located near Spread Creek, Wyoming, in an area where bears, mountain lions and other dangerous wildlife are known to frequent.

Dr Blue declared her death a “homicide” after a preliminary autopsy on 21 September.

It is likely to take a criminal trial for all of these details to come to be known.

Where is Brian Laundrie?

Brian Laundrie is the subject of a nationwide manhunt led by the FBI and involving local law enforcement agencies in at least five states.

Police seized the van on 11 September from his parents’ home, but have since admitted they didn’t spot Mr Laundrie that day.

Mr Laundrie’s parents initially told police he left home on 14 September and was heading to the Carlton Reserve near his home. They later said he left the home on 13 September.

They reportedly went looking for him and found his Ford Mustang vehicle parked near the reserve.

His parents informed authorities he’d disappeared on 17 September, and said he had left home without his wallet or cellphone.

North Port Police initially led the search of the reserve using drones, all-terrain vehicles, dogs and inflatable boats. They were joined by several police forces and a specialist dive unit from the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office.

The search of the 25,000-acre, alligator-infested reserve was hindered by torrential downpours.

An experienced rancher who lived beside the reserve for the past 30 years said there was no chance anyone could have survived there.

The search has since been scaled back.

“I don’t think you’re going to see those large scale types of efforts this week,” department spokesman Josh Taylor said.

As police scoured the Carlton Reserve, sightings of Mr Laundrie came in from the Florida panhandle and Mobile, Alabama.

Each sighting was reported to authorities, investigated, and ruled out.

Another witness came forward to say he was confident he had seen Mr Laundrie hiking the Appalachian Trail on Saturday 2 October.

Dennis Davis, 53, said a man in a vehicle pulled up next to him to ask for directions on Waterville Road near the border of North Carolina and Tennessee.

Dog the Bounty Hunter has joined the search for Brian Laundrie

The FBI’s Denver office is leading the nationwide search for the missing 23-year-old. They took over as the lead agency from North Port Police in late September.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Ms Petito’s parents said the Laundries had not helped them locate their daughter, and they doubted that they would assist authorities to find their son.

Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman joined the search for Mr Laundrie last month, and claimed he was following up on strong leads received from the public.

He has since withdrawn from the investigation after suffering an injury.

His estranged daughter Cecily Chapman said his involvement was a “publicity stunt”.

Questions remain about exactly when Mr Laundrie left his parents’ home, what possessions he had with him, whether he’s been receiving assistance from anyone since he left, and how police failed to anticipate he would leave the house.

The Petito family sat down for a new interview with Fox News last week

North Port police said they had Mr Laundrie under surveillance as best as they could legally before he left.

Authorities are working on the assumption that Mr Laundrie is still alive and is actively evading their attempts to locate him.

Friends have said he is a skilled survivalist who has spent months living alone in the wilderness along the Appalachian Trail.

Other theories have suggested he may have left the country, committed suicide, or been attacked by wildlife.

There was renewed focus on the Carlton Reserve last week, and Mr Laundrie’s father joined the search of the swampland.

Ms Petito’s parents have called for Mr Laundrie to turn himself in, and that they want him to spend the rest of his life in a prison cell.

A sign in support of Gabby Petito in Holbrook, Long Island

Why did Brian Laundrie buy a new phone?

Last month, it was reported that Brian Laundrie purchased a new burner phone in the days before he went missing.

Laundrie family attorney Steve Bertolino later said he had purchased a new phone as he had lost his regular phone. Mr Bertolino said the phone was with the FBI.

“To my knowledge they did purchase a new phone and it’s the same phone that Brian left home and which the FBI is in possession of.”

The FBI is refusing to comment on whether the phone they have is Mr Laundrie’s regular phone.

An image from Gabby Petito’s Instagram shows her and Brian Laundrie at Fort De Soto Park in Florida

Why did the Laundries go camping, while ignoring desperate requests for help from the Petito’s?

Among the more puzzling aspects of this case is a camping trip taken by Mr Laundrie and his parents, Christopher and Roberta, to the Fort De Soto Park campsite in Pinella County over the Labor Day weekend.

It’s been confirmed that the Laundries arrived at the campsite on 6 September, and they stayed either one or two nights.

Brian Laundrie had visited the campsite with Ms Petito in February, posting photos as they explored the abandoned ruins there.

Christopher and Roberta Laundrie have denied any knowledge of their son’s whereabouts, or Ms Petito’s death.

They initially declined to speak to authorities and ignored text messages from Ms Petito’s mother Nichole Schmidt.

Mr Laundrie’s sister has said she is no longer in contact with her parents.

Gabby Petito investigation: 911 call reveals Brian Laundrie seen hitting, 'slapping' her before disappearance

Could authorities in Utah have done more to protect Ms Petito?

Police in Moab, Utah, responded to a 911 call on 12 August after a witness said they saw Mr Laundrie hitting and slapping his girlfriend.

Bodycam footage was later released, and shows a distraught Ms Petito tell officers she was responsible for starting the argument,

The almost hour-long video shows officers from Moab City Police Department separating Ms Petito and Mr Laundrie.

She told officers she slapped her fiance because she feared he was going to drive off without her following an argument. The incident was classed as a “mental/emotional health break” rather than a domestic assault.

The incident is the subject of an investigation by the City of Moab.

“At this time, the City of Moab is unaware of any breach of Police Department policy during this incident. However, the City will conduct a formal investigation and, based on the results, will take any next steps that may be appropriate.”

Domestic violence experts who reviewed the footage say better training of domestic violence is required to recognise when victims are in potential danger.

Investigators are continuing to search for Brian Laundrie

Will Brian Laundrie be charged in connection to Gabby Petito’s death?

Mr Laundrie is wanted on charges of bank fraud, and will be arrested if he is found.

Many have questioned whether he will face homicide charges, or be named a suspect in his partner’s death.

The FBI has jurisdiction over any further federal charges, and have given no indication of additional charges against Mr Laundrie.

They may want to wait until the autopsy is completed and a cause of death has been released.

“We urge individuals with knowledge of Mr Laundrie’s role in this matter or his current whereabouts to contact the FBI,” special agent in charge Michael Schnedier said.

A special hotline has been set up at 1-800-CALL-FBI or 303-629-7171, and tips can also be submitted at www.fbi.gov/petito.

The FBI have vowed to bring anyone who is “complicit” in Ms Petito’s death to justice.