What to Know
- A missing Long Island woman's family is pleading for help finding her; she was traveling through Wyoming with her fiance on a "van life journey" and documenting her activities on Instagram and YouTube
- Gabrielle Petito's family believed she was in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming when she last contacted them; they haven't heard from her since the last week of August but reported her missing on Sept. 11
- The van has been recovered but police have not provided further details on where it was located, the condition of the van or what may have been found inside it
Police in North Port, Florida, announced that the fiancé of a Long Island woman who went missing while traveling through Wyoming is a person of interest in this case -- raising suspicion after it became known that he was in Florida 10 days prior to her being reported missing and due to the fact that he refuses to speak to authorities.
That man, Brian Laundrie, returned to Florida with the van the couple was using, but without Gabby Petito earlier this week. Petito's family released a statement Tuesday accusing Laundrie of choosing to "remain in the background" rather than provide answers as to the 22-year-old woman's whereabouts or why he left her alone as they were traveling in a "van life journey".
Authorities have said that Laundrie has not made himself available to be interviewed by investigators or has provided any details.
An attorney for the Laundrie family, Steve Bertolino of New York, said in an email Wednesday that the family “is remaining in the background" as the search continues and will have no further comment.
“In my experience, intimate partners are often the first person law enforcement focuses their attention on in cases like this and the warning that ‘any statement made will be used against you’ is true, regardless of whether my client had anything to do with Ms. Petito’s disappearance. As such, on the advice of counsel Mr. Laundrie is not speaking on this matter,” Bertolino said.
Bertolino called the person of interest label a formality that has "not really changed the circumstances of Mr. Laundrie being the focus and attention of law enforcement.
"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. The lack of information from Brian is hindering this investigation. The answers will eventually come out. We will help find Gabby and we will help find anyone who may be involved in her disappearance," North Port Police Chief Todd Garrison said in a statement.
Petito's family previously shared a statement also saying that Laundrie is refusing to answer questions that may lead to the young woman's whereabouts.
"The Schmidt and Petito family are going through the worst moments of their lives. Their beautiful 22-year-old daughter is missing and the one person that can help find Gabby refuses to help," the family said in a statement. "Brian is refusing to tell Gabby’s family where he last saw her. Brian is also refusing to explain why he left Gabby all alone and drove her van to Florida. These are critical questions that require immediate answers.
"The Schmidt and Petito family beg the Laundrie family to not 'remain in the background' but to help find who Brian referred to as the love of his life. How does Brian stay in the background when he is the one person that knows where Gabby is located? The Schmidt and Petito family implore Brian to come forward and at least tell us if we are looking in the right area."
The Petito and Schmidt family statement came just after an attorney representing the Laundrie family called this an "extremely difficult time" for all involved.
Laundrie and his family won't have further comment at this point, the statement said, while also noting "it is our understanding" that a search has been organized for 22-year-old Gabrielle (Gabby, as those close to her say) of Blue Point in or near Grand Teton National Park, where she was last thought to have been.
"On behalf of the Laundrie family it is our hope that the search for Miss Petito is successful and that Miss Petito is re-united with her family," the statement said.
On Wednesday, Petito's family issued another statement which read in part: "Brian, your silence is reprehensible! We beg you to do the right thing and help us bing Gabby home."
LATEST STATEMENT FROM GABBY PETITO'S FAMILY
Everyday the search for Gabby continues the Schmidt and Petito family becomes more desperate. They are frantically searching for answers and information in their daughter’s disappearance while Brian sits in the comfort of his home.
Brian claims he wants to sit in the background while we search for Gabby in the wilderness of the Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.
Brian left Gabby in the wilderness with grizzly bears and wolves while he sits in the comfort of his home. In his home!
Brian, how could you do this to Gabby? You selfishly remain silent while Gabby is all alone in the wilderness.
Brian, your silence is reprehensible! We beg you to do the right thing and help us bing Gabby home.
Brian, whatever happened in Wyoming, happened. The only thing you can control is what you do now. Tell us where Gabby is.
You tarnish you love for her with your silence.
Petito was reported missing on Sept. 11 by her family, but police say the family hadn't heard from her since the last week of August. She had been traveling with her fiancé in a white 2012 Ford Transit van when she stopped communicating.
Petito told her family that she and her fiancé were heading to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming when she last contacted them.
Police now say that Laundrie was alone when he returned to the North Port, Florida, home he and Petito shared with his parents on Sept. 1 — 10 days before she was reported missing.
Investigators recovered the 2012 van over the weekend at Laundrie's parents house in southwest Florida, but police did not share the condition of the van or what may have been found inside it. Investigators and the FBI fully processed the van for evidence Tuesday, but have yet to release information. According to Petito's relatives, the fiancé drove the van back to Florida alone.
Weeks before her disappearance, during the afternoon of Aug. 12, a witness called police after seeing Petito and Laundrie allegedly involved in an argument at a convenience store. According to the Moab City, Utah, police report obtained by News 4 New York, the two had been arguing when the interaction got heated especially on her end.
Laundrie said that when the two of them began arguing in town, he told her to "go take a walk to calm down," the report stated. Laundrie said he got into the van but Petito was afraid he would leave without her, so she tried to slap him. He responded by "grabbing her face and pushed her back" to avoid the blow, according to the police report.
When Laundrie got back into the van, Petito hit him in the arm before trying to climb through the driver’s side window. He had apparently "locked her out and she was trying to find a way in," the report stated.
Officers said they pulled the van over near the entrance to Arches National Park and saw Petito crying uncontrollably in the passenger seat. She told officers that she was struggling with her mental health.
“At no point in my investigation did Gabrielle stop crying, breathing heavily, or compose a sentence without needing to wipe away tears, wipe her nose, or rub her knees with her hands,” Officer Daniel Robbins said in his report.
Laundrie reportedly told Robbins that emotional tension had been building between him and Petito and that they were arguing more frequently because they had been traveling together for four to five months. After speaking to both Petito and Laundrie, police categorized the incident as a mental health crisis that was emotionally driven, with the couple professing to love each other and blaming the altercation on months of traveling and mental struggles.
In the end, there were no significant physical injuries or violence and no charges were filed, according to the report. Following the incident, the police suggested the two should stay apart for the night until they composed themselves emotionally and were in a better mental state. It was at this point that Petito kept possession of van for that night and Laundrie was driven by police to a hotel.
Petito's family has continued their search for her in Wyoming, trying to trace her last steps but don't know where to look. Her mother, Nicole Schmidt, blasted the last person known to have seen her.
"Why won't he talk? I don't care what the situation was at this point. I just want to know — did he drop her off somewhere? Did they get into a fight? Did he just leave her? I just want to know," she said.
The young woman last posted photos on her Instagram profile on Aug. 25 — which was also the last day she spoke to her mother — and several social media users have commented on her pictures, praying for her safe return. Comments on her fiancé's profile have turned accusatory but police have not linked him to the disappearance.
However, on Tuesday police said that Petito's Instagram page was surprisingly taken down — something they are looking into.
North Port Police said the search remains a missing persons case because there is no evidence that a crime even occurred, but said they were interested in speaking with him to get as much information as possible. Laundrie has not cooperated with police thus far, they said.
"I think most people would think that this individual might have some details as far as the last time he saw her, the last whereabouts," said North Port Police Department's Josh Taylor at a press conference. "I think it has not been helpful that we have not been able to talk with him."
Taylor said that police went to the home on the evening of Sept. 11 to speak with Brian and the family, but they were given information for the family's attorney. Police on Wednesday released new pictures of the van the couple had been living and traveling in, and said they will be looking at cellphone records and security video to piece together what happened. Security video from various places that could assist in the investigation had already been gathered by police.
Joe Petito, the father of Gabby, is livid over Laundrie's lack of cooperation with the investigation, which also involves the FBI.
"If you want to help somebody or you hope someone gets something done, or if you have information, or let's say you don't have information, you let people know," Petito said. "You make yourself available so you can get those answers and then move on. You don't do what he's doing, that's crap."
The family of Petito previously posted a message on a Facebook group created to help search for her that read, "WE ARE ONLY LOOKING FOR GABBY AT THIS TIME." They also said the two had been dating for at least two years. They first met in high school but later rekindled their relationship.
The family said they liked the fiancé and approved of the trip the two were taking at the time. Petito left for the journey on July 2 from her mother's home. Her mother told multiple news outlets she had last received texts from her daughter's phone on August 27 and 30 but she never spoke directly with her.
"I just believe she's in danger because she's not in touch with us. She could be stranded somewhere in the wilderness," said Schmidt. "The first couple of days I wasn't getting responses. Day eight, day nine I got really concerned and figured she couldn't be off the grid for that long."
The couple appeared to have recently started a channel together on YouTube where they documented their "van life," a popular lifestyle and genre on the platform. Their first video was posted on Aug. 19. It featured 8-minute long footage of their travels in their white van.
"Gabby's 22 years old, she a beautiful soul inside and out. She's artistic, creative, loving caring and free-spirited," said her step father, James Schmidt, on Monday. "We love her, we miss her and we want her to come home."
"Gabby, we love you, if you're hearing this, grab somebody's phone and call us, contact us. We will come get you in minutes, minutes. We will do anything we can," Petito's father, Joe Petito, said in an interview with NBC New York on Tuesday. "Let's focus on finding Gabby. We don't know where she is, she's still missing. She still needs our help."
A day before, he told Newsday his daughter's disappearance feels like "drowning with your hands tied behind you."
He added: "You can't describe it. There's nothing you can do. You can't control anything."
Gabrielle Petito is described as a white female, about 5 feet 5 inches tall and 110 pounds. She has blonde hair and blue eyes, and several tattoos, including one on her finger and one on her forearm that reads “let it be."
Various agencies aside from Florida and New York authorities are assisting in the investigation to Petito's whereabouts.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the National Park Service said: "We are coordinating with multiple law enforcement agencies as part of the investigation into Gabrielle Petito’s whereabouts. As the investigation is ongoing, we do not have any further information to provide at this time."
Suffolk detectives are asking anyone with information on Petito’s disappearance to contact Crime Stoppers at 1-800-220-TIPS.
The FBI has also set up a national hotline to receive tips: 1-800-CALLFBI.