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#vanlife is a story for today

Blue Point native Gabrielle Petito seen on body

Blue Point native Gabrielle Petito seen on body camera footage from the Moab, Utah police department.  Credit: Moab City Police Department

There is much we still don’t know about the tragic case of Gabrielle Petito.

We do not know exactly what happened between her and fiance Brian Laundrie, while the two were in the middle of their #vanlife road trip from Long Island to the West Coast. We do not know why the journey by the two young graduates of Bayport-Blue Point High School ended so awfully. Human remains consistent with her description were found in a Wyoming national forest on Sunday.

We have more to learn about the responses of law enforcement entities in Utah and Florida. And we can only imagine the heartbreak felt by Petito’s family and friends, over the long days and nights that the 22-year-old was missing, and the longer days and nights to come.

But what is clear is how many people have been captivated by this saga. Human nature, and therefore the media, have always been drawn to crimes and tragic affairs of the heart, seen in tabloid noir photos and relentless cable coverage. But the fascination has perhaps intensified with the interactivity of social media platforms; amateur sleuths in Petito's case produced information and speculation that pressured law enforcement agencies to respond quickly. If anything positive can come from this sad story, it is the hope that other missing person cases can also be highlighted and solved.

Some of the fascination with this case surely also comes from the amount of material about Petito and Laundrie: the police body camera footage suggesting an altercation between them, and the way they documented so much of their time on the road. Their Instagram posts and YouTube video segment offer images and captions about hiking, rocky vistas and footsteps in sand. They are avatars and chroniclers of a perhaps-alluring, nomadic lifestyle by van, in which they do morning yoga and show off their neatly outfitted vehicle packed with decorations and pillows.

For many people who spent the pandemic stuck at home consuming true crime narratives, perhaps there was something beguiling about these young people driving picturesque highways, setting up a hammock in the desert, enjoying nature’s glory in the form of arches or starry skies. The #gabbypetito hashtag has been viewed hundreds of millions of times on TikTok. In recent days, her story was almost a real-time streaming event.

"I love the van," Petito says in a video uploaded weeks before her story became international news.

As we wait for whatever findings and revelations remain in Petito’s story, we already know that people can use social media to hide their true feelings and experiences, that their happy updates and soft-focus shots claiming that life is great can hide darker truths. We don't know yet what struggles lurked beneath the surface for Gabby Petito, only that too often in too many cases those struggles are submerged too long.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.