Gabrielle Petito left Long Island in early July with her fiance in her beloved white van, destined for the West Coast, with plans to go hiking and camping in some of the country’s most scenic locales.
Petito — a 22-year-old who grew up in Blue Point and quit her job at an organic juice bar to hit the road with her fiance, Brian Laundrie, 23 — documented their journey with posts on social media and kept in touch with family through FaceTime calls. They used #vanlife as a constant hashtag in their posts, which often showed them smiling in affectionate poses, as they documented their travel through the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado and Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah.
"We hiked up here in about 100° and it was so nice coming back to our campsite, watching the sky fill with dark clouds, and view the lightning storm in the nice cool air of the light rain," Petito wrote in a July 16 Instagram post of the two nights she and Laundrie spent camping at Zion National Park.
Petito and Laundrie, who met in high school and had been dating for more than two years, were engaged to be married. They had postponed their wedding due to the coronavirus pandemic and instead decided to embark on the cross-country camping trip. They planned to stop at a series of national parks along the way. The final destination was Portland, Oregon, where the couple planned to stay with a Petito family friend.
The trip of a lifetime
The trip was not a surprise to those who know and love Petito, known as "Gabby" to her family and friends. She enjoyed camping and was trying to start a video blog, showing off her travel adventures.
"She's just like a free-spirited, flower child … somebody that is always seeking for deeper things in life and for meaning in life," said Maija Polsley, 45, of Manhattan, a family friend. "Not many just pick up and say, you know, let me go across the country. That's her type of a soul."
But the steady stream of text messages and calls back home abruptly stopped in late August, the last time her family heard from her before her mother reported her missing to the Suffolk police on Sept. 11. Police investigating Petito’s disappearance — as well as her family — have expressed frustration that Laundrie, who returned home to North Port, Florida, in the van without Petito, has refused to speak to investigators.
"We don’t eat, we don’t sleep, we’re just actively looking for her," Petito’s mother, Nichole Schmidt, said at a news conference. "We just want to find her and bring her home."
Police have described Laundrie as a "person of interest" in the missing persons case, which is also being probed by the FBI, and said his lack of cooperation was "hindering" the investigation. His attorney has said Laundrie, who police said is unemployed, is refraining from talking to police on his advice.
In a stunning development Friday, Laundrie's parents filed a missing persons report for their son, saying he left their home to go hiking at a local park on Tuesday and they haven't heard from him since, North Port police said. Authorities on Saturday embarked on a massive search for Laundrie at a vast nature reserve in Sarasota County, Florida.
Police in Florida, the lead investigators, have said the couple — graduates of Bayport-Blue Point High School who lived together in North Port — have no criminal history or record of prior interactions with law enforcement.
But a police body camera video of a sobbing Petito talking to police in Utah as they investigated a physical altercation between the two last month during their road trip has raised questions about their relationship. Laundrie told responding officers, according to a police report, that the trip had created an "emotional strain" on the couple.
Petito’s family has declined to comment on the video.
Laundrie’s sister said it was "typical" for her brother and Petito to argue and then take a break from one another.
"Whenever they’d fight they would take a little break, come back and be fine. Because that’s what you do in a couple," Cassie Laundrie told ABC's "Good Morning America" in an interview Friday. "She’s like a sister and my children love her and all I want is for her to come home safe and sound, and this to be just a big misunderstanding."
Amanda Villegas, who grew up with Gabrielle Petito’s stepmother, Tara, and has known her father, Joe, since they were teenagers, remembered seeing her bedroom wall covered with freehand sketches she made at her father’s house in Selden before Joe Petito moved to Florida in June.
"It was just nothing but all of her artwork that she drew," said Villegas, 40, of Center Moriches. "Her bedroom wall was just beautiful, stunning. So creative. So imaginative."
She loved the van life
Her parents said she saved up for the trip and converted her van into a camper.
"She loved that van life. She was about that life," said her father. "Clothes didn't impress her. Cars didn't impress her. Experiences — that's what impressed her."
The couple had posted a video on Aug. 19 to their YouTube channel, and created an accompanying blog called "Nomadic Statik." They described a desire to "downsize our lives and travel full time." Their first cross-country trip, in "a little Nissan Sentra," saw them "spending way too much on gas, food, and Airbnb," they wrote in the introduction to a nearly eight-minute video posted to YouTube.
"We quickly realized we had to come up with a solution if we wanted to continue traveling and living nomadically, so that's why we handcrafted our own tiny van, a simple 2012 Ford transit connect, utilizing space with unique designs and features. Creating a space for both artistic expression and distance hiking. Thank you so much for watching, and we hope you tag along on our journey wherever the van takes us!"
Laundrie first appeared in Petito’s Instagram posts on March 17, 2020 — one year after they started dating. The two met and had been friends in high school, Petito’s mother said.
"One whole years worth of adventures and stories down," Petito wrote, "and a lifetime to go."
Less than four months later, she announced their engagement on Instagram, posting a selfie of the two smiling with their heads together on their first date at a beach.
"Brian asked me to marry him and I said yes!" she wrote. "[You] make life feel unreal, and everyday is such a dream with you."
The next day, he wrote on Instagram under a photo of the two smiling at each other: "My biggest fear is that one day I’ll wake up and it will have all been a dream, because that is what every second has felt like since the moment we found each other."
She visited Long Island in July
Petito, who had been living with Laundrie and his parents in North Port, traveled to Long Island in the summer to visit her family and attend her 18-year-old brother’s high school graduation, her mother said. Petito and Laundrie departed on July 2 in a 2012 Ford Transit van, police have said. The white van, with Florida plates, was registered to Petito.
"We hugged," said Nichole Schmidt. "We gave them some money because they needed it. They’re kids, you know. They were excited about the trip."
Just two days later, the pair had made their way to Monument Rocks, an ancient landmark in Kansas. In a photo on Instagram, Petito posed in the center of one of the arches.
"There’s no place like the tiny home we built," the photo caption read. She tagged Laundrie and added: "#vanlife."
Savanna Neuhaus, who was friends with Petito in high school, described her as an adventurous young woman. She lost touch with Petito after high school but has followed her Instagram posts.
"She was never somebody that was about material things," said Neuhaus, 22, of Port Charlotte, Florida. "She was just very, very nice and very sweet. For me, it was shocking because she finally got to do what she wanted to do. She finally got to travel the world … It's very scary."
Neuhaus also remembered Laundrie, who was a year ahead of them in school.
"He was nice," Neuhaus said. "From what I knew from high school, he was very sweet. He’s like was one of those kids that would never hurt a fly."
On July 8, Petito posted photos of herself on Instagram in Colorado Springs, Colorado, standing in front of a baby blue wall with painted black and white flowers. Two days later, she posted from the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve about three hours away.
"Turning this Ford transit essentially into a camper was such an adventure in itself, but I couldn’t love the way it turned out more!" Petito wrote in a photo caption. "All the places it’s brought us so far have been amazing! As soon as we got to the Great Sand Dunes I didn’t want to leave, there was so much to hike!"
She added that they planned to stay at the campsite for two days. "I’m so grateful we got such an awesome spot to spend the night and surf the dunes! And the night sky here was insane! never seen so many stars!"
The couple next spent several days at a series of national parks in Utah, with her posting photos alone and sometimes with Laundrie posing in front of the striking orange canyons. Petito didn’t post photos from Aug. 1 to the 11th.
The couple's altercation
But on Aug. 12, she posted about she and Laundrie hiking in Arches National Park in Moab, Utah. That same day, Petito and Laundrie were involved in a physical altercation, according to Moab police, and the ensuing police investigation along a rural road outside the national park was recorded on police body camera video.
Petito admitted hitting Laundrie in the arm, leaving him with some light scratches, and said he grabbed her face. But police ultimately pressed no charges after Petito denied she was trying to cause Laundrie "physical pain" when she slapped him, an apparent requirement for a charge under Utah law, according to the officers. Moab Police Chief Bret Edge did not respond to a message seeking comment on why officers declined to press charges.
An investigating Utah officer who interviewed Petito and Laundrie separately wrote that Laundrie said they had been traveling together for the last four to five months, causing "issues between the two."
"That time spent created emotional strain between them and increased the number of arguments," the officer wrote.
Police instructed the couple to stay away from one another for the night and Petito left in the van while police drove Laundrie to a nearby motel.
Laundrie, who also posted photos from the couple’s travels on his own Instagram page, last posted pictures from Moab on Aug. 13.
According to police, Petito last spoke to her family on either Aug. 24 or 25 from near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
"She said she was having a great time," Schmidt said.
Schmidt has said, through her Bohemia-based attorney Rick Stafford, that the family does not believe a text from Petito’s phone on Aug. 30 came from Petito.
Police have said Laundrie arrived back to his North Port home, where he lived with his parents and Petito, on Sept. 1. Stafford said Schmidt, worried that she hadn’t heard from her daughter in several days, texted Laundrie’s parents on Sept. 10 and 11, but got no response.
Schmidt reported her daughter missing to Suffolk County police on Sept. 11.
"She's not in touch with us, and she could be alone somewhere, stranded somewhere in the wilderness, and she needs help," the mother said.