gabby petito

At Gabby Petito Memorial, Dad ‘Couldn't Be More Proud' of Daughter's Impact

A candlelight vigil for the 22-year-old woman whose remains were found in a Wyoming national park last weekend was held Friday night in Long Island's Blue Point

NBC Universal, Inc. Community members will hold a memorial to honor Gabby Petito on Friday. Greg Cergol reports.

What to Know

  • Mourners are paying their respects to Gabby Petito, whose death on a cross-country trip has sparked a manhunt for her boyfriend. The 22-year-old Petito's family held a funeral home viewing Sunday in Holbook, about 35 miles east of New York City
  • Family members, friends, co-workers and people who didn't know her but were touched by Petito’s story attended the viewing. Petito was reported missing Sept. 11 by her parents while she and Brian Laundrie were visiting parks in the West
  • Her body was discovered last Sunday in a remote area in northwestern Wyoming. Laundrie and Petito grew up on Long Island but in recent years moved to Florida

The heartbroken Long Island community where Gabby Petito grew up has turned out in large numbers Sunday for a public memorial service one week after she was discovered in a Wyoming national park.

The funeral home in Holbrook where family and friends gathered by late morning opened its doors to the public, to old friends, community members and countless supporters touched by Petito. But before the public was ushered inside, the 22-year-old's father and stepfather shared a few words to a small crowd.

Gabby's father, Joseph, spoke with a specific message in mind for her close community gathered on Long Island. He asked that everyone leave the day's service not sad, but inspired by his daughter.

"When you leave here today, be inspired by what she brought to the table because the entire planet knows this woman's name now. And she's inspired a lot of women and a lot of men to do what's best for them first," Joseph Petito said.

"Put yourself first and do it now while you have the time. I couldn't be more proud as a father."

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to an organization where Gabby Petito's mother has been a longtime volunteer and also serves as a board member.

[Gabby's an] example for all of us to live by. To enjoy every moment of this beautiful world that she did. Love and give love to all, like she did," her stepfather, Jim Schmidt, said Sunday.

"It's okay to mourn for Gabby, and it's okay to feel sorrow and pain. But we want to celebrate her and how she lived her life."

A virtual viewing from inside the home was live streamed by the funeral home for the first hours of the memorial. Inside, dozens of floral arrangements and childhood photos of Petito lined the walls, some capturing her travels. One floral arrangement sent from Norwalk, Connecticut, read, “I don’t know you but your story broke me.”

Mourners were greeted with a placard bearing a poem titled “Let it Be” that began with the line, “Do not grieve for me for I am free.”

Lexi Ruiz recalled working with Petito at a cafe in nearby Patchogue that Ruiz managed. “She was always willing to help someone else," Ruiz said. "She was just such a light. Anywhere she went the room lit up. It’s nice to see so many people come together and support her family.”

Two fire trucks were positioned one on either side of the funeral home, each with its ladder extended, and a line of firefighters was seen filing into the building. Across the street, a chain link fence was adorned with posters featuring Petito's image and messages such as, “She touched the world.”

“She was a beautiful soul; she was full of life, always smiling,” said Desiree Keeffe, a friend of Petito's mother, Nicole. “She gave you love. She was just a beautiful soul. She touched everybody like she did now.”

A candlelight vigil for Petito was held Friday night at 7 p.m. in her hometown of Blue Point, where community members had held out hope she would be found alive. She was killed, a county coroner in Wyoming said this week, though exactly how -- and by whom -- remain matters of federal and local investigation.

As one childhood friend described Petito, "You walk into the room and she just lit up the entire room. She was always happy, always smiling. You'd never think anything like this would happen to her."

Petito went missing while on a cross-country road trip with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie. Laundrie has been indicted on a debit card fraud charge, an alleged crime investigators say happened after Petito was dead.

Her story captured national interest as it generated a whirlwind of news coverage and a frenzy of online sleuthing, with tips, possible sightings and theories shared by the hundreds of thousands online. Josephine Zambrano of Bayport, Long Island, says she was one of those people because she felt for Petito as a mother herself.

"We all have children. Whether you have daughters like I do, or you have sons. Everybody's just upset," Zambrano said Thursday at a local memorial site.

Many visitors left a $20 dollar donation for sand, paper bags and candles. The items are the making of luminaries, a way to light up the night in Petito's honor. All the proceeds will be donated to the Petito family, organizers said.

Among many tributes left for Petito, teal ribbons now line the Blue Point street where she grew up. The ribbons were left by Jennifer McNamara, a Petito family friend and the founder of the Johnny Mac Foundation who created the nonprofit after her husband, FDNY firefighter John McNamara, died of 9/11-related cancer.

"I want people to look at the ribbon and remember Gabby. Think of her eyes and how beautiful, vibrant and sparkling she was," McNamara said.

Petito's mother, Nichole Schmidt, is a longtime volunteer and current Johnny Mac Board Member, according to McNamara.

“Gabby Petito has become America’s child,” she added.

On Sept. 11, the family of 22-year-old Gabby Petito reported her missing to authorities in Suffolk County, New York. This is a timeline of events that led to the report and things that have occurred since.
Copyright NBC New York/Associated Press