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Human remains consistent with description of missing Blue Point native Gabrielle Petito found; search for fiance suspended

Brian Laundrie and Gabrielle Petito in a photo

Brian Laundrie and Gabrielle Petito in a photo released by the North Port Police Department in Florida. Credit: North Port Police Department

Human remains consistent with the description of Blue Point native Gabrielle Petito were found Sunday in a national forest in Wyoming, where Petito was last seen before disappearing while on a cross-country road trip with her fiance, the FBI said.

The body was discovered in Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming, adjacent to the Grand Teton National Park, where the FBI and other law enforcement authorities had been conducting a massive search for Petito, 22, who was reported missing more than a week ago.

Petito's fiance, Brian Laundrie, 23, labeled a "person of interest" by police, returned to their Florida home alone in Petito's van on Sept. 1 and has refused to speak to police. He is now missing himself.

After two days of searching, the North Port Police Department on Monday suspended its search for Laundrie in a vast park and wildlife reserve in Sarasota County, Florida, according to The Associated Press.

The department said in a news release on Monday morning that it "currently has no plans to conduct a major search of the Carlton Reserve today."

On Sunday, Teton County, Wyoming, Coroner Brent Blue said an autopsy on the remains is scheduled to be performed Tuesday.

"Earlier today, human remains were discovered consistent with the description of Gabrielle 'Gabby' Petito," said Charles Jones, supervisory special agent at the Denver office of the FBI, speaking at a news conference Sunday in Wyoming. "Full forensic identification has not been completed to confirm 100% that we found Gabby, but her family has been notified of this discovery. The cause of death has not been determined at this time."

Jones added: "I would like to extend sincere and heartfelt condolences to Gabby’s family — Joe and Tara Petito and Jim and Nichole Schmidt. As every parent can imagine, this is an incredibly difficult time for the family and friends. Our thoughts and prayers are with them. We ask that you all respect their privacy as they mourn the loss of their daughter."

Petito's father, Joe Petito, tweeted a photo of his daughter in front of a wall with painted angel wings and said, "She touched the world."

Richard Stafford, the attorney for Petito's parents, asked the media to refrain from contacting the family and thanked authorities for their work on the case, saying: "Your tireless work and determination helped bring Gabby home to her parents. The family and I will be forever grateful."

The sad discovery capped eight days of a multistate investigation into Petito's disappearance that captured national attention.

Petito, described by friends and family as free-spirited with a zest for adventure, had along with Laundrie embarked on the cross-country camping trip with plans to stop at a series of national parks on their way to Portland, Oregon.

The couple — graduates of Bayport-Blue Point High School — left Long Island on July 2 in Petito's white Ford Transit van and documented their trip with photos on social media showing their travels through the sand dunes, mountains and canyons of the western portion of the country.

Steve Bertolino, the attorney for Brian Laundrie, reported missing by his parents in North Port, Florida, said in a statement Sunday night: "The news about Gabby Petito is heartbreaking. The Laundrie family prays for Gabby and her family."

The North Port police, which had been the lead agency in the case and continued its search for Laundrie Sunday, said: "Saddened and heartbroken that Gabby has been found deceased. Our focus from the start, along with the FBI and national partners, has been to bring her home. We will continue to work with the FBI in the search for more answers."

Laundrie's parents filed a missing persons report with North Port police Friday, telling authorities they had last seen their son Tuesday when he left home to go hiking at a nearby park.

Multiple law enforcement agencies, including some 50 personnel, had searched the Carlton Reserve in Sarasota County, Florida, on Saturday and Sunday for Laundrie, using police K-9's, all-terrain vehicles and drones to traverse the swampy landscape.

North Port police said they ended their daily search for Laundrie Sunday shortly before 6 p.m.

Bayport-Blue Point School Superintendent Timothy Hearney wrote a letter to the community announcing the news "with a heavy heart" and adding that it was crucial "during times of darkness, to come together and provide support to each other." He said grief counselors would be available to students.

Martin Guggenheim, a professor of clinical law at New York University, said that the government lacks probable cause to arrest the fiance in connection with the case, at least based on what’s been publicly disclosed.

"There is no doubt — merely knowing that he was with her a bunch of days before, and he refuses to answer any questions — they don’t quite have enough," Guggenheim said in an interview.

Failure to speak with the police is a constitutional right, and his silence cannot be used to secure an indictment, much less at trial, Guggenheim said.

"He’s done nothing that adds a feather on the probable guilt side with respect to securing an indictment, and that’s the government’s challenge here."

Determining the cause of death is a critical next step, said Fred Klein, a law professor at Hofstra University Law School. Authorities could also issue a warrant to examine Laundrie for relevant injuries, he said.

An autopsy might also show she died of a non-homicidal cause, such as a drug overdose or a medical episode, said Klein, former homicide chief for the Nassau County District Attorney's Office.

Petito's family last heard from her by phone in late August. She was reported missing by her mother on Sept. 11 to the Suffolk County Police Department.

Police in Utah interviewed the couple on Aug. 12 after a witness reported a domestic incident. A 1-hour, 17-minute body camera video, obtained by Newsday through a public records request, showed Petito and Laundrie telling Moab police officers that they had been arguing and got into a physical altercation.

"We've been fighting all morning and he wouldn't let me in the car before; he told me I needed to calm down," a crying Petito tells police in the footage, which was recorded two weeks before she last communicated with her family.

Moab police instructed Laundrie and Petito to separate until the morning and, in an official report, described the situation as a "mental health crisis."

The United States Attorney’s Office normally has exclusive jurisdiction for prosecutions in Yellowstone and joint jurisdiction with county prosecutors in Grand Teton and other federal enclaves. A spokesperson for that office could not be reached Sunday night.

With Matthew Chayes

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