It is unclear if the internet sleuthing and frenzy of attention has contributed to the investigation. However, it has highlighted the connection between social media and public fascination with true-crime stories.
In a van she had decorated boho-chic, Petito, 22-year-old Petito and her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, set off on a cross country road trip in the summer months.
The couple recorded their adventures on video and invited others to join them on their journey. They shared scenes of happy couples cartwheeling along beaches, hiking up mountain trails, and camping in the Utah desert.
They argued along the way and Laundrie returned to Florida alone in her van in September. A body thought to be Petito was found at the Wyoming border of Grand Teton National Park. Investigators are still not sure how she died, but they have identified Laundrie, who is now missing as a person of concern.
Social media users were fascinated by the case, and they have been looking through the abundance of photos and video online for clues.
Joseph Scott Morgan, a Jacksonville State University professor in Forensics and an expert on high-profile cases of murder, said that "a lot of it has do with the cross country journey they were documenting." He added, "They are young and they are attractive people."
A police bodycam video of the couple, released last week by the Utah State Police, shows them after being pulled over in Moab in August. The van was seen speeding up and hitting a curb. Petito was crying after they got into a fight. Laundrie said tension had been building since they had been traveling together for several months.
Reddit, Instagram and YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube all picked up theories and observations.
Users have explored Petito's Spotify playlists, Laundrie’s reading habits, and the couple's digitally bookmark trails. One TikTok user claimed to have met Laundrie while hitchhiking.
A couple who record their bus journeys on YouTube claimed that they looked through their footage from near Grand Teton to find what they believed was their white van. They uploaded an image of the van with a large red arrow pointing at it and the words "We found Gabby Petito’s van." They claimed that this was what led investigators into the location where the body was discovered.
The FBI did not provide any details about the circumstances or say if other tips from internet sleuths were involved.
Michael Alcazar is a former New York City detective who was also a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He said that Petito's Instagram account provided investigators with places to begin and that social media has become a rich source of information.
Some users spread misinformation by reporting possible sightings, including Petito and Laundrie, that were incorrect.
Hannah Matthews, a TikTok user hailing from Salt Lake City, confessed to becoming obsessed with the case. She said she felt Petito was her and identified with her. She has created 14 videos that detail theories and provide updates about the case. One of the videos suggests Petito didn't write an Instagram post. It has been viewed nearly 2,000,000 times.
She said that the case seemed odd from the start and that she did more research with (collaborating) others on social media. "The case just kept growing and taking turns," she added.
On Tuesday, #gabbypetito had received over 650 million views on TikTok. Comparatively, the #FreeBritney posts on Britney Spears' attempt to end her conservatorship have gotten 1.9 Billion views.
Kelli Boling, an advertising and public relations professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said that there are many reasons people are drawn to podcasts. She has also studied how listeners react to true-crime podcasts.
She stated that domestic violence victims often find such cases fascinating and can use them to help with their own personal experiences.
Boling stated that some people find it appealing from a place where they can heal or seek justice for young women.
Although Petito's family is deeply sympathized, others have noticed a double standard in their racial perceptions. They complain that the media and internet sleuths are heavily invested because Petito is young and white.
Alex Piquero is a University of Miami criminologist. He said, "There are many women of color, especially immigrants, that this happens all the time and we never hear of it."
Petito was also found in the state of Texas. Between 2011 and 2020, 710 Native Americans were reported as missing from that state.
A same-sex couple living in a van was reported missing. They were later found dead at a Moab campsite. This happened not long after Petito's boyfriend and Petito were stopped there by police. Although the deaths of Crystal Turner and Kylen Schulte received some media attention, they were not as well-reported as the Petito case.
This case occurred at a time when cross-country travel is booming, particularly in vans and recreational vehicles. Perhaps this was due to the isolation caused by the COVID-19 epidemic. Piquero stated that the couple's plans seemed like something from a romantic movie gone horribly wrong.
He said, "It has this whole atmosphere of intrigue." "People believe they can solve crimes.