Gabby Petito’s disappearance and death and the police stalking of her boyfriend have generated a whirlwind online, with a plethora of wheelchair detectives and others sharing tips, possible sightings and theories via TikTok, Instagram and YouTube .
It is not known whether the attention spree and internet sleuths helped the investigation, but it highlighted the intersection between social media and the public’s fascination with real-life crime stories.
Months before her disappearance, 22-year-old Petito and her 23-year-old boyfriend Brian Laundrie embarked on a trip across the country in July in a van she decorated in bohemian-chic style.
They documented their adventure on video and invited social media users to follow the trip, sharing scenes of a seemingly happy couple cartwheels on a beach, hiking mountain trails and camping in the desert. from Utah. But they got into a fight along the way, and Laundrie drove home to Florida on her own in the van in September.
On Tuesday, the FBI confirmed that the human remains found at the edge of Grand Teton National Park were those of Petito, and that the Teton County coroner determined his mode of death was homicide. Investigators identified Laundrie, who is now missing, as a person of interest and raided his Florida home.
Social media users were mesmerized by the case and pored over the wealth of videos and photos online for clues. On the flip side, some users have been spreading disinformation, pointing out potential sightings of Petito and Laundrie that turned out to be false.
“A lot of it has to do with the trip across the country that they were documenting, taking to social media on this great adventure,” said Joseph Scott Morgan, professor of forensic pathology at State University of Jacksonville and an authority on high profile murder cases. And he added: “They are young people, they are attractive people. “
Another source of fascination: A police body camera video, released last week, showing the couple after being arrested in August in Moab, Utah, where the van was seen accelerating and colliding a sidewalk. They had fought and Petito was in tears, Laundrie claiming that tension had set in between them because they had been traveling together for months.
Theories and observations have gained traction on Reddit, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter. As of Tuesday, the #gabbypetito hashtag received more than 650 million views on TikTok.
Users took a look at Petito’s Spotify music playlists, Laundrie’s playing habits, and the couple’s digitally tagged tracks. A TikTok user said he hitchhiked Laundrie.
And a couple who document their bus trips on YouTube said they viewed some of their video footage near Grand Teton and spotted what they said was the couple’s white van. They posted a picture of it with a big red arrow pointing at it and the words, “We found Gabby Petito’s van.” They said this was what led investigators to the area where the body was found, although the FBI did not say what led to the discovery.
“There are a lot of different complicated reasons people are drawn to this, and it’s not all sinister or malicious or scary,” said Kelli Boling, professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Nebraska. -Lincoln who studied the public reception for podcasts on real crime.
She said those who are fascinated by such cases are sometimes domestic violence survivors who find this material can help them cope with their own experiences.
“Some people are really drawn to it by a place of healing or by the desire to find justice for the young woman,” Boling said.
While expressing sympathy for Petito, some have detected what they see as a racial double standard, complaining that the media and online detectives are heavily invested in the case because she is young and white.
“There are a lot of women of color, and especially immigrant women, it happens all the time, and we never hear about it,” said Alex Piquero, a criminologist at the University of Miami.
In the same state where Petito was found, at least 710 Native Americans were reported missing between 2011 and the end of 2020.
Meanwhile, a same-sex couple who lived in a van were reported missing and later found gunned down at a campsite near Moab, shortly after Petito and her boyfriend were arrested by police. The deaths of Kylen Schulte and Crystal Turner generated some media coverage but nothing to do with the Petito affair.
The case also came at a time when interest in traveling across the country, particularly in vans or recreational vehicles, is at its peak, possibly in reaction to the isolation imposed on people by the Covid-19 epidemic. The couple’s plans looked like something out of a romantic flick gone terribly wrong, Piquero said.
“It has all that air of intrigue,” he said. “People have a real fantasy that they can solve crimes. “
The Associated Press contributed reporting