When 23-year-old Brian Laundrie and his 22-year-old girlfriend Gabby Petito went hiking, Brian insisted on walking barefoot. If it were up to him, Brian said, he wouldn’t even own shoes. He’d become intent on “living with less” and encouraged Gabby to join him in a more natural lifestyle. He wanted her to “build up” her feet so that she, too, could ditch her shoes at the campsite.
Sometimes Gabby humored him and slipped off her shoes during their walks. But she would inevitably put them back on. The grounds of the national parks were blisteringly hot and rife with black widow spiders. There was also the matter of dirty feet; Brian and Gabby were on a cross-country road trip in a small van. When Brian returned to the campsite barefoot, he tracked dirt into the vehicle where they slept and made food. Gabby preferred to keep the area clean.
One day, about five weeks into their road trip (1), Gabby and Brian were hiking up three miles of steep terrain to the Delicate Arch, a rock formation in Utah’s Arches National Park. As advised by the park’s website, they had set out early in the morning to try to beat the heat. But by 6 a.m., it was already 91 degrees, and the day was only getting hotter. Despite Brian’s hard-earned calluses, his bare feet likely burned.
Gabby pranced beside him in her cushioned yet breathable REI hiking shoes. By 7 a.m., a small crowd was gathered around the Delicate Arch, admiring the view. Using her rubber soles for purchase, Gabby climbed onto a bare rock to get an unobstructed photo of the arch. As she stood there snapping pictures, other tourists gathered around her. Gabby was beautiful, with blond hair and blue eyes that matched the turquoise stone on her thumb ring. She looked good in photos. She looked good taking photos.
A man in the crowd called up to Gabby, asking how she liked her REI shoes.
Gabby got the sense that the man worked for REI, which was exciting. She dreamed of traveling full-time in her little Ford van, and other people had shown it was possible, subsisting on sponsorships from brands just like REI, documenting their voyages in converted buses, with children and dogs in tow. Those with moderate social media followings got free camping gear and other supplies to feature in their posts, which defrayed carrying costs. Some charged $100 per 10,000 followers. Others negotiated harder and could make as much as $700,000 in six months. Gabby didn’t need a lot of money; she just wanted a chance to support herself while living her dreams, and now the first step, a chance for a potential sponsorship, was right at her feet.
While Brian stood at the edge of the crowd, likely waiting for someone to ask him how he’d hiked all that way barefoot, Gabby launched into a well-received presentation to everyone below about how “awesome” her shoes were. Later, REI would reach out to her directly, saying they hoped the rest of her hike had gone well (2).
Brian was not as supportive. Lately, he’d been trying to convince Gabby that she couldn’t make a website by herself. Sometimes he made her feel like she couldn’t do anything right (3). But now, all at once, she seemed to be on the right path.
Maybe Brian didn’t know everything.
About two weeks later, Brian drove back to Florida alone. He parked in his parents’ driveway and stayed for about two weeks before he grabbed a bag and ducked back into the humid air, telling his mom and dad that he was off for one of his usual hikes at the nearby Carlton Reserve, a 24,565-acre state park that police would later describe as “vast and unforgiving.”
Over the next few weeks, local law enforcement would spend $200,000 per day searching for Brian in the endless swamps. They waded up to their chests. Water moccasins slithered past. Alligators splashed nearby. The park was infested with rattlesnakes and wild hogs. The Florida panther stalked there too.
Some speculated that life on the lam would be relatively easy for Brian, given his self-professed camping skills (4). People who’d met him would remember him saying he’d spent months living off the land on the Appalachian Trail (5). It was easy to picture him hunched in the bush somewhere, eating gator meat with his hands and building pit fires at night to avoid sending up smoke signals.
But others countered that perhaps Brian was not as outdoorsy as he seemed. His sister, Cassie, described his survival skills as “mediocre.” Law enforcement officials went further, profiling Brian as a spoiled boy who’d been coddled by his parents far too long to withstand any of the suffering endured by true survivalists. One former FBI agent theorized that Brian “may have escaped on a cruise ship.” Some said police were “chasing a ghost.”
So, which was it? Was Brian Laundrie a phony who’d been eaten alive by the elements before he could even rig a shelter?
Or had he embarked on the first real adventure of his life, sleeping during the day, hiking at night, and finally wearing shoes, so he could run?
Gabby Petito was a Pisces, an astrological sign known for being bad with boundaries, excessively romantic, and unable to remember, at times, whether something had actually happened or if she’d simply dreamed it. She loved sunflowers, butterflies, the color aqua blue, the Beatles song “Let It Be,” and marijuana (6), which narrowed her turquoise eyes into shimmering green slivers and made her hungry for M&Ms. A little boy for whom Gabby babysat later described her as “someone just living with rainbows.” (“She did things to the beat of her own drum,” his mom agreed.) She was beautiful, in other words, inside and out, which is another way of saying that she was kind to ugly people.
Gabby’s classmate Brian Laundrie was 40 pounds overweight, with an underbite that made it look like he kept chewing tobacco in his lower lip. He sat alone in the cafeteria, identifying with the phrase “Eat the spaghetti to forget your regretti.”
Brian struggled with anxiety. Kids who claimed to know him later described his life as lonely. But over time, Brian grew to like being alone. He took long hikes by himself, finding meaning in the part of The Seventh Seal when Max von Sydow’s character says: “Through my indifference for people, I’ve been placed outside of their society—now I live in a ghost world, enclosed in my dreams and imaginings.” Survivalism fascinated him (7).
Over the course of his life, Brian made more drawings than friends. He was a skilled copycat artist, rendering faithful facsimiles of his favorite cartoons and comic books. He carved linocuts of images traced from the covers of Chuck Palahniuk novels. He screen printed T-shirts with faces of popular animated characters, like Bart Simpson and Hellboy (8).
“I will actually attribute all of my skill in painting to dissecting the works of [Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy],” Brian later boasted. “I have never attended any schooling for art, but because of my love of comics I never needed a second in a classroom.”
After entering high school, Brian decided to change; he adjusted his hairstyle and made a few friends who shared his interest in “guns and stuff.”
Still, Brian struggled socially. “Why did I say that? Why did I say anything I have ever said?” he sometimes wondered. “How am I supposed to tell friends about my mental health without feeling like a burden?”
Ultimately, Brian decided, “I gotta worry about my zen.”
He got into yoga. He lost 40 pounds.
By his junior year, he found the courage to talk to Gabby Petito.
Personality-wise, the two were opposites. Gabby was an extrovert. People described her as a bright light, whereas Brian’s idea of socializing involved having one or two people over to play with UV paint in the dark. Sometimes he hated the entire human species.
But Gabby loved the beach, and that gave them something to discuss. When the two first started talking, Brian’s parents had just purchased a new Florida vacation house in Sarasota County, a popular travel destination for college kids on spring break. Brian’s parents owned a couple of properties, actually. The one in North Port, Florida, had a swimming pool, and Brian had his own bedroom there, with a life-size Darth Vader helmet on one of the shelves (Gabby loved Star Wars). He also had a baseball hat collection, and a patriotic, red-white-and-blue gun, decorated in stars and stripes.
Gabby and Brian differed in their views on guns. Brian’s family collected them, while Gabby had once starred in a local artist’s low-budget music video, “Irreplaceable,” commemorating the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting.
But the two agreed on certain fundamentals:
Forensic Files, a television show about violent crimes that are solved using forensic science, was good.
They reminded each other of Frog and Toad, a collection of children’s stories about two seemingly incompatible best friends: a sleek, dashing frog, who is demonstrative and cheerful, and a toad, a mottled and stouter individual who is more solemn and occasionally disappears to be by himself.
So Brian and Gabby became friends—and perhaps to Brian’s chagrin, they would stay just friends for years.
More than 90 percent of graduates from Bayport-Blue Point High School went on to attend college. But in keeping with their reputations as nonconformists, Gabby and Brian decided on a different route; after graduation, Gabby embarked to Cape Fear, North Carolina, allegedly to follow a boyfriend, while Brian found work at a local Long Island garden center, where he lectured his coworker Michael on the benefits of yoga and was known for always having clean hands despite the fact that part of his job was supposed to entail working with plants and soil.
“I thought he was this weirdo,” Michael later recalled. “He never came across as the kind of person that would be the killing type. But he did have that tendency to be—I don’t wanna say the wrong thing and make him sound worse than he already is—he was kind of a guy who would get pissed off pretty quick.”
Gabby was HAPPY TO INVEST more in the trip. But when she started working 50 hours a week at Taco Bell, BRIAN WAS FURIOUS. He didn’t want Gabby to work; he wanted her to spend ALL HER TIME with him.
In Cape Fear, Gabby worked at a seaside restaurant called Smoke on the Water, where she made countless friends and worked in a hot kitchen, frying pickles and smoking brisket. Eventually, her pretty face and sparkling personality earned her a front-of-house hostess position. She loved the ocean and the Carolina Beach Boardwalk. She applied to Cape Fear Community College but never enrolled.
At the time, Brian was allegedly couch surfing back in Long Island. His parents had sold their home and taken off to Florida, leaving Brian, who wanted to stay in Bayport, to live off generous former classmates. By then, he’d made a few close female friends, all of whom considered him “like a brother.” Brian lived with one of those girls for six months and continued couch surfing until Gabby returned home.
It was almost as if he was waiting for her.
Gabby returned to Suffolk County in January 2019. Winter on the South Shore of Long Island paled in comparison to what Gabby had seen in Cape Fear (9). She longed to travel again. Ever since meeting Brian during her sophomore year, she’d felt like, “I just wanna do fun, cute adventurous shit with someone.”
Brian felt the same.
The two started hooking up that July. For their first real date, they ate sushi on the beach, wearing aqua blue sweatshirts that matched Gabby’s eyes. To Gabby and Brian’s high school friends, the relationship seemed toxic from the start. “One minute, they’d be all over each other,” a friend later recalled, “the next minute, he’d be like, ‘We’re fighting.’ They always had some drama.”
As someone who lit up a room, Gabby inspired envy wherever she went. Her female friends from high school were more like enemies. At best, they wanted to be her, and at worst, they sneered at Gabby, pushing her away when she came to them with problems. “Why can’t I have a relationship like that?” they wondered whenever things between Gabby and Brian seemed to be going well—but when the relationship was rocky, the same girls ridiculed, “Oh, my God, just break up and spare yourself from the drama and everyone else from having to hear about it.”
No one doubted that Brian, in his own suffocating way, loved Gabby. But his insecurities warped his idea of what counted as “romantic.” When Gabby visited Brian at the garden center and chatted with Michael, Brian would come up behind her, draping one of his conspicuously clean hands over Gabby’s shoulder, and pull her in for a kiss that left everyone but him feeling awkward.
It likely upset Brian that Gabby’s parents still thought the two were friends. Why was Gabby keeping him a secret?
Brian wanted everyone to know that Gabby belonged to him.
That fall, a decision was made: Brian and Gabby would quit their jobs and travel full-time for a few months.
They drove from Long Island to California, stopping in Texas, where Gabby wore sweatpants that said “Stop Looking at My Dick,” and Colorado, where Gabby raved about the marijuana. With a lollipop in one hand and a vape pen in the other, she climbed Pike’s Peak until the air around her felt thin. While Brian drove the Nissan Sentra, she sat in the passenger seat, a blunt pinched between her thumb and forefinger. Green prairie whipped by on either side. Sorry, New York, she thought, but you’re nothing compared to this. At night, they slept in Walmart parking lots, reclined in Gabby’s Nissan, and watched shooting stars through the windshield. The trip ended at the Santa Monica Pier, where they rode what Brian called “a Ferris Wheel with a serious view,” and Gabby asked Brian to photograph her standing in front of Zoltar, an animatronic fortune-telling machine. After the Santa Monica Pier reposted the photo on its official Instagram page, Gabby started to think that she might be able to make it as a travel blogger.
Meanwhile, Brian likely wondered when Gabby would post a picture of him. For the entire trip, he’d been taking portraits of Gabby, which she posted on Instagram. But Gabby would not upload any photos of Brian until March 17, 2020, nearly eight months into their relationship. High school acquaintances who followed their 2019 cross-country trip online were likely surprised to learn that Brian had been on the journey at all.
At times, Brian might have felt uncertain about whether he was Gabby’s boyfriend or her photographer. He surveyed the dirty, polluted streets of Los Angeles and decided, “LA sucks.”
But on the windy beach in Santa Monica, Gabby’s hair tickled his face. The blue sky reflected in her sunglasses—and it hit Brian that he’d never loved anyone so much in his entire life.
Almost as soon as they arrived back to Long Island, Brian convinced Gabby to move with him to Florida. They could stay at one of his parents’ properties, rent-free, and spend all their time together, like an extension of their road trip.
At first it was fun. Gabby and Brian hung hammocks on the beach, and painted flowers on an old piano they found on the street. But not long after they relocated south, Brian’s parents sold the condo (10) where Gabby and Brian had been staying (11) for free, forcing them to move in with Brian’s parents, who lived in a small yellow house surrounded by lawn ornaments (12). To secure his hold on Gabby, Brian proposed marriage. Gabby said yes. But Brian had no way to support his fiancée. He sold bookmarks online for $4, and hadn’t had a real job in months. While researching alternative living arrangements, he briefly considered moving with Gabby into a storage container (13), but even that option turned out to be prohibitively expensive.
Luckily, there was a solution to Brian’s problem: a new craze called Van Life. Couples across the globe were making the decision to downsize their lives, trailblazing across countries in vans and filming the adventure for their followers on social media.
Surely, Brian could convince Gabby to take the leap with him. She was an aspiring travel blogger. It was a win-win situation.
In December 2020, (14) Gabby, who’d been working consistently since her 2017 restaurant job in North Carolina, purchased a Ford Transit Connect van in her own name. Over the next few months, she and Brian worked hard to convert it into something resembling what they’d seen online. The popular Van Life vans had bathrooms and butcher-block countertops.
But it soon became clear that Brian and Gabby’s van was too tiny for the “tiny home” they had envisioned. It had an extraneous row of seats in the middle (15). The remaining space in the back was too small even for Gabby, who was five feet five, to stand up or lie down (16).
Even if they gutted the middle seats, an expensive process, a single mattress would fill up the entire vehicle. Where would they stuff their bags and their camping stove? Maybe they could build custom storage under the bed…but that cost money too.
Reality hit hard: They had sunk Gabby’s savings into a van that was essentially the same as Gabby’s Nissan Sentra, only with a bigger trunk. There would be no kitchenette or toilet. They would need to cook and poop outside.
Gabby was happy to invest more in the trip. But when she started working 50 hours a week at Taco Bell, Brian was furious. The idea of her ringing up burritos and jumbo Sprites for other men likely irked him. He didn’t want Gabby to work; he wanted her to spend all her time with him.
Then Gabby and her new friend Rose, whom Gabby had met online, made plans to attend ladies’ night at a local line-dancing joint. Brian pleaded with Gabby to stay home. When that didn’t work, he screamed at her. But Gabby grabbed her purse and left anyway.
When Gabby was on her way to pick up Rose, she discovered that Brian had taken her ID. Gabby drove home to confront him.
The fight escalated; Brian pushed her; she slapped him. To Brian’s frustration, Gabby fled to Rose’s house.
There, Gabby confided in Rose that Brian suffered from what Gabby called “episodes,” in which he heard voices and couldn’t fall asleep because they were so distracting. She told Rose that she and Brian fought a lot and that the fights sometimes turned physical—but never anything outright violent, Gabby said, and she blamed herself for the altercations.
Sensing Gabby was holding something back, Rose said, “You need to tell me the deep of what happened.” When Gabby wouldn’t, Rose gently coaxed Gabby to reconsider her engagement to Brian.
“You’re young and Brian is a little controlling,” Rose said, hastening to add, “But do whatever makes you happy, and I’m here to support you.”
Meanwhile, Brian stewed. Luring Gabby away from Long Island, into a house where she would not need to pay rent, had likely ensured in his mind that he would finally have Gabby to himself, with no outside obligations like family, friends, or work to divide her attention. Later, a longtime criminal profiler would say he suspected that Brian’s “entire self-worth” was rooted in the relationship with Gabby, and that without her, “he’s got nothing.”
Then, in June 2021, Gabby’s dad moved from New York to Vero Beach, Florida, in part to be closer to Gabby. Gabby’s family didn’t know about the screaming and shoving, but Gabby had confided in her mom, Nichole, that she felt like things were moving too fast—Gabby had been excited at first, she said, when Brian had initially proposed to her, but now she was starting to think, “We’re very young.” Gabby even told Nichole that she and Brian weren’t engaged anymore—they were back to being boyfriend and girlfriend—though whether or not Gabby ever shared this with Brian is unknown.
That same month, Brian decided that he and Gabby would start the road trip early. They embarked on July 2, 2021.
One month later, blistering heat, stinging flies, and unrelenting wildfire smoke were conspiring to drive Brian insane (17). Sleeping in a tent, on account of the van’s cramped quarters, offered little protection from smoke inhalation, which is known to cause neurological issues, like stress and confusion. Worse, Gabby’s attention was divided between him and her phone, as she generated content for Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok. That she’d finally started posting pictures of him, along with loving captions, did little to lessen Brian’s anger. The whole point of the road trip, in his mind, was to isolate Gabby, but thanks to the internet, she was connected to the world.
The tension between them first snapped on August 12, when Gabby retreated to an air- conditioned coffee shop in Moab for six hours to toil on their Van Life website while Brian seethed across the table, pissed off at how “OCD” Gabby was being (18). Finally, he snatched Gabby’s phone and keys, and made for the van, threatening to abandon her. When Gabby caught up with him on Main Street and lunged for her phone, Brian slapped her in the face.
Visitors to Bridger-Teton were NOT SUPPOSED TO CAMP outside designated areas. But Gabby and Brian’s LOCATION BOASTED a scenic view of the surrounding mountains. And there was NO ONE AROUND to hear them fighting.
A passing driver saw the slap and called 911, watching as Brian slid into the van and started the engine. Somehow, before he could drive away, Gabby managed to wriggle across his lap into the vehicle.
Who knows what they talked about, speeding out of Moab. Brian was driving at 45 mph in a 15-mph zone. It wasn’t long before police lights flashed in their rearview mirror.
As a result of the 911 call, police were on the lookout for a white van with Florida plates. Officer Daniel Scott Robbins, who was nearing the end of his police training, had been trailing the van for about a mile. He wondered aloud if the driver was intoxicated.
Once Brian pulled onto the shoulder of the road, Robbins parked behind him and approached on foot.
Gabby rolled down the passenger window, her face red and wet with tears, and apologized profusely. Brian smiled as if nothing was wrong.
“How come you’re crying?” Robbins asked Gabby.
Brian eyed Gabby warily from the driver’s seat.
“Some personal issues,” she said.
“It was a long day,” Brian interjected, talking so fast that Robbins would later ponder whether he might be on drugs. “Flies and stuff.”
Robbins invited Gabby to talk to him in private.
She stood hunched near Robbins’s squad car, unable to stop crying, already blaming herself for the altercation. “It’s just…some days, I have really bad OCD.” It was unclear whether a doctor or Brian had diagnosed her with the disease.
Sounding kind and patient, Robbins asked about the road trip.
Gabby stood up a little straighter. She gestured at the van with both hands, like a presenter on Wheel of Fortune. “I quit my job to travel across the country.” Suddenly, her face crumpled, as if she might cry again, as if overwhelmed by the prospect of what she said next. “I’m trying to start a blog—so I’ve been building websites and I’ve just been really stressed.” She gazed up at the sky, as if to keep the tears back with gravity. “But he doesn’t really believe that I could do any of it.” Her voice quavered. “He really stresses me out.”
“Well,” Robbins interjected. “Why don’t we do this: Why don’t I sit you down in the backseat of my car.”
Tears filled Gabby’s eyes. The prospect of getting into a squad car terrified her. She seemed to think she was in trouble.
“You’re not in any trouble,” Robbins promised—then he amended himself. “I’m not going to be putting handcuffs on you.”
The mention of handcuffs made it seem as if Gabby were, in fact, in trouble—not enough trouble to require handcuffs, but trouble nonetheless.
As more squad cars pulled up behind them, Robbins shut her in the back of his police cruiser, the same place where criminals sat.
Staring through the unbreakable divider, Gabby would not have been able to open the door from the inside. The notion that she was “not in any trouble” was, understandably, in question for her, as she watched Robbins approach her beloved white van to talk to Brian.
Brian leaned forward nervously in his seat, talking to Robbins through the passenger window.
“You talked to Gabby, right?” Brian asked, one of his thick eyebrows vaulted above the other. He wrung his fingers in knots, looking afraid.
Robbins left him hanging. “Let’s go ahead and get you to step out of the vehicle, all righty?”
Moments later, Robbins questioned Brian on the roadside. “You wanna tell me about those scratches on your face?”
Brian had two tiny red cuts, one on his right temple, about a centimeter in length, and one underneath his right eye, the size of a pinprick.
“She gets really worked up sometimes,” Brian said. “What happened this morning was that, she was trying to set up a little website blog”—he mimed typing—“so I gave her time. We really had a nice morning…but she just got worked up as we were trying to get going—she had a cell phone in her hand, that’s why I was pushing her away.”
Robbins didn’t ask why Gabby’s cell phone provoked pushing, or why Brian would lock Gabby out of a van that was registered in her name.
“I know I shouldn’t push her,” Brian said.
A male park ranger had joined them by this point, and Brian turned to him beseechingly.
“I was just trying to push her away to go, ‘Let’s just take a minute, step back, and breathe.’ ” He pointed to the scratches on his face. “She got me.”
When Robbins headed back to his vehicle, he found Officer Eric Pratt, a big man with a beard, talking to Gabby.
“Did he hit you, though?” Pratt was asking.
Gabby cried, indicating that he had—but she had hit him first, she claimed. Her account didn’t match the 911 caller’s. But the men had not listened to the 911 call. They decided that Gabby had been the “primary aggressor” in her altercation with Brian.
Pratt joined Brian at the van, pointed a jaunty finger at him, and announced, “You are the victim of domestic assault,” causing Brian to laugh out loud.
Pratt, citing the importance of being anti-sexist (because women can victimize men too), quickly enlisted Robbins, an inferior ranking officer, to get Brian a hotel for the night. His room would be paid for by Seekhaven, the local women’s shelter. Gabby could sleep outside.
Before leaving Gabby alone in the wilderness, Robbins asked whether she had any messages of love to convey to Brian, coaxing, “Want me to let him know that you love him and that you’ll see him tomorrow?”
Gabby didn’t answer. In a squeaky voice, rusty from tears, she said, “Make sure he doesn’t forget a phone charger.”
Back at the van, Brian seemed psyched about the hotel, gushing to a male park ranger, “Thank you, thank you!”
“She does have a couple messages for you,” Robbins said, putting words in Gabby’s mouth. “One: She says she loves you, she’s looking forward to seeing you tomorrow. Two: Don’t forget a cell phone charger.”
Brian grinned at this, and laughed to himself. The subtext seemed clear: Women are nags, but what would we do without them? We’d never remember the stupid little things. Our homes, or vans, would be a mess.
“You’re gonna be in a hotel room watching TV,” Robbins congratulated Brian. “It’s probably been a few months since you actually got to sit down and relax.”
Before driving into the wilderness by herself, Gabby asked Robbins if she could know where Brian would be staying that night, since she would need to collect him in the morning. When Robbins said he couldn’t reveal the location of the hotel, Gabby began crying.
“I just don’t usually drive the van so I wanna make sure it’s not, like, far,” she said. Brian had been making Gabby feel dependent on him. The van was registered in her name, but in her mind, she could not safely drive her own vehicle.
Robbins walked Gabby to her van, taking a meandering route so that she and Brian would not interact. In her arms, Gabby cradled the bottled waters that police had given her.
“Something I want you to know,” Robbins said, telling Gabby the location of someplace she could shower, “for like, four or five bucks—it does my wife wonders when she gets stressed out.” He pantomimed yelling at his wife: “It’s like, ‘Get in the shower. Come on, get in the shower!’ ”
What was Gabby supposed to say to this? Her face was red. She looked thirsty and scared. Perhaps she was remembering that the bottled waters she carried were forbidden. Brian hated plastic (19).
As Robbins drove Brian to the hotel, the two agreed that women can be difficult. Robbins told Brian about being on the road with his wife, back when he was still a trucker—how as time went on, the humongous semi had started to feel like “an eight-by-eight cage.”
Brian commiserated: Gabby got up on his nuts sometimes too. “Like, I’m trying to paint, or something, or make myself a snack—”
“Well, that was one of the major advantages of having her with me,” Robbins interrupted, returning to his wife, “because I was driving and she wasn’t, she was able to go back, get into the cooler, make us lunch, or whatever, you know? So. There was that as an advantage!”
The Bowen Motel offered creature comforts like cable television and an outdoor heated pool. Brian’s stay there would cost the local women’s shelter around $150. According to its website, Seekhaven refused to house men at its physical location and only provided financial resources to men in what the shelter called “emergency situations.” During his questioning of Gabby, Pratt recorded himself saying to Gabby, “There is two people saying they saw him punch you.” (20) Prior to blaming herself (a common occurrence among victims of abuse), Gabby confirmed that Brian hit her.
But when Pratt filed paperwork about the incident, he explicitly wrote, “No one reported that the male struck the female.” An investigation would later confirm that Pratt filed an erroneous report (21). He identified Gabby as the primary aggressor and blamed the altercation on her “serious anxiety.”
“She was struggling with her mental health,” Robbins agreed in his report. “At no point in my investigation did Gabrielle stop crying, breathing heavily, or compose a sentence without needing to wipe away tears.” Perhaps another cop would stop to wonder whether getting slapped, then interrogated about it—and eventually labeled “the aggressor”—might have caused Gabby’s distress. But Robbins proceeded to diagnose Gabby as being in “a manic state,” (22) when in reality it was Brian who’d been so excitable that Robbins had commented on it, asking if Brian was always so “hyper” and whether he took any medications.
Ultimately, Robbins seemed to discredit Gabby’s statements solely because they conflicted with Brian’s, writing, at one point, that Brian’s version of events “was not consistent with Gabrielle’s statement, further suggesting her confused and emotional state…. After evaluating the totality of the circumstances, I do not believe the situation escalated to the level of a domestic assault as much as that of a mental health crisis.”
“Thank you so much, for everything!” Brian gushed to Robbins in the hotel lobby.
“No problem, nice to meet you, Brian, have a good one,” Robbins said.
Two weeks later, on August 27, Gabby and Brian drove an hour south from their next campsite to eat lunch at Merry Piglets, a Wyoming Tex-Mex restaurant that served spicy margaritas and prided itself on servers’ ability to carry four large drinks at once in only two hands. In a few days, Rose would be flying out to see Gabby, which gave Gabby something to look forward to. She just needed to get through a few more nights with Brian—increasingly cold nights, it turned out, spent playing tug-of-war over the only blanket they’d packed.
Nina Angelo and Matthew England, a couple seated next to Gabby and Brian at Merry Piglets, noticed that Gabby seemed sad that day and Brian seemed pissed off. At one point Brian stormed out of the restaurant and Gabby trailed after him, crying. Brian charged back inside, directing his aggression at the all-woman staff. He and Gabby then left the restaurant without paying. Their server followed them outside. Finally, they settled their bill on the sidewalk. Afterward, Brian walked in and out of the restaurant several more times, apparently seething.
“This guy is freaking me out,” Nina said to Matthew.
Gabby followed Brian back into the restaurant and reluctantly asked for a refund. When the manager refused, Gabby apologized on Brian’s behalf before turning to Brian and pleading, “Please, let’s just go!” (23)
Finally, they did.
Later that night, (24) Brian and Gabby locked up the van in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest and crossed one of the streams that ran along the one-way dirt road. A crude footbridge had been constructed out of tree limbs. They walked five more minutes to their campsite, where they’d built a firepit encircled by large, smooth stones from the surrounding creeks. Visitors to Bridger-Teton were not supposed to camp outside designated areas. But Gabby and Brian’s location boasted a scenic view of the surrounding mountains. There was no one around to hear them fighting. Nobody for Gabby to befriend, or to come to her aid when Brian inevitably lost his temper.
Some would later wonder if he did it while Gabby was sleeping. She was small but scrappy, the kind of kid that fought back—when Brian had tried to steal her van, Gabby had catapulted herself into the car like a ninja. Back in Florida, she’d slapped and shoved her way past Brian to ladies’ night. But she was only 110 pounds, and once Brian got on top of her, it was game over. He wrapped his hands around her neck and squeezed until the whites of her eyes turned red.
The tightness around Gabby’s throat lit up her brain’s panic centers. As her amygdala kicked into high gear, pain flooded her body. Her head felt like it was going to explode. Black and white circles peppered her vision, making it difficult to see Brian’s face or discern his state of mind—what was he feeling as he choked her? Fury? Nothing at all? Gabby couldn’t talk him down this time. The words caught in her throat—she couldn’t breathe, or speak, or scream.
The campsite stayed eerily quiet. Gabby kicked her bare feet. Her lips began to swell. Blood vessels burst in and around her eyes like tiny red fireworks.
Brian tightened his grip, slamming Gabby’s head against the rocky ground over and over. It was a long, deliberate process. Death by strangulation, one of the most lethal forms of intimate partner violence, can take up to four or five minutes.
For roughly the same duration as her favorite Beatles song, “Let It Be,” Gabby suffered in silence, and knew what was happening to her.
She died afraid.
When it was over, Brian moved Gabby’s body to a more secluded part of the campsite (25). A necklace of bruises circled her throat. Her pupils were dilated. Her muscles were starting to stiffen. It was easy to picture Brian crouched over her, wondering, as he often did, “Did I do something wrong? Why won’t you talk to me? Did I mess up? Where’d you go? Should I apologize? Am I bothering you? Sorry? What did I do? Are you busy? Is it my fault? Are you okay? What happened?”
Eventually, he covered her in a blanket.
“An effort was made,” Brian had decided. “It hurt itself in its confusion.”
Brian grabbed Gabby’s keys, ATM card, and phone. To create the impression that Gabby was still alive, he sent text messages back and forth between their two phones and proceeded to hike 27 miles north to Colter Bay, occasionally sleeping on a tarp he brought with him, intent on creating an alibi that he’d been nowhere near Gabby at the time of her death. On August 29, around 5:45 p.m., Brian flagged down a passing driver, Miranda Baker, and offered her $200 to drive him 30 minutes south to Jackson Hole. Brian told Miranda he’d left his wife at Spread Creek to do a little camping by himself and wanted to get back as soon as possible. As they drove to Jackson, Miranda texted her mom to say that she’d picked up a hitchhiker. Miranda’s mom texted back, asking if Miranda had lost her mind. She demanded that Miranda share her location in case Brian killed her.
But Miranda wasn’t scared; Brian seemed calm. The two made pleasant small talk. “I’m alive,” Miranda texted back after Brian left the car. “Don’t worry—he was very nice.”
After returning to the van, Brian began driving, stopping now and then to spend a total of $1,000 from Gabby’s checking account. He followed the highway signs to Florida, periodically swiping through Spotify to add breakup songs to his “Mtn Tops” playlist.
Perhaps, like many people his age, Brian pictured his life as a movie, and as he left his fiancée to rot, he wanted the right soundtrack for that strange and distinguishing moment. He settled on soaring songs about broken dreams, holding hands, and tomorrows that will never come.
“Your future self is watching you right now through your memories,” he thought.
The songs about lost love suggest that maybe Gabby had, in fact, dumped Brian at Merry Piglets. Perhaps he was fixated on that angle of the story, relishing the moody music about getting dumped to remind himself that he was the victim in this situation, just like the Moab police had said.
Later, Gabby lay on the rocky embankment that sloped toward a crystal blue creek. In a sense, she’d finally won her tug-of-war with Brian; the gray, crocheted coverlet they’d been fighting over lately was pulled up over her head, a thin but welcome barrier against the cold night air. Moonlight filtered through the open weave. Stars freckled her cheeks. The Grand Teton Mountains surrounded her, containing more than 200 trails that she had yet to hike.
By then, Gabby’s precious Ford Transit was long gone. But even if she’d been aware of its absence, Gabby might have felt relief. Unlike Brian, she didn’t want to live in a van forever. Someday, Gabby wanted a big house that was at least two stories tall, with a volleyball net strung across the backyard and an outdoor projector screen, so that she and Rose and all the other friends Gabby had yet to meet could sit under the stars and watch Netflix together. A pool would be nice.
Once Gabby started thinking about it, there were so many things she had yet to do. She would learn to knot her hair in an easy chignon. She would tattoo “so it goes” on the inside of her elbow. She would dress her future children in tiny shirts that said “Happy,” and take them to the beach at sunset, and hold them against her chest to keep them warm. She was only 22 years old.
Her life was just getting started.
Hale is the author of the forthcoming book, Slenderman: Online Obsession, Mental Illness, and the Violent Crime of Two Midwestern Girls.
2. @gabspetito (Instagram). REI commented on Gabby’s post about that day: “looking like a great hike!”
3. Daily Mail. Gabby’s friend Rose Davis: “Everything she did, I feel like he thought was wrong.”
4. People. “He is out in the wilderness, I promise you,” Davis told People, echoing observations from a coworker and cops who have said Gabby’s on-the-run boyfriend is capable of surviving alone in the wilderness.
5. Yahoo News. Also mentioned on Brian’s Instagram (@bizarre_design_). Brian Laundrie’s Instagram account and other social media have been deactivated.
8. According to Brian’s Bizarre Design posts on his Instagram, Pinterest, and Depop accounts
9. Summers in North Carolina are objectively more beautiful than winters in Long Island.
10. Property Shark, 5100 Linksman Place, North Port, Florida 34287
11. @hereweare.3 (Rose Davis’s TikTok); @bizarre_design_ (Brian’s Instagram); @NomadicStatik (Brian and Gabby’s TikTok) photos of windows and floors match interiors from property listing for 5100 Linksman Place, North Port, Florida 34287, sold in March 2021. At the time of their road trip later that July, Brian and Gabby were living with Brian’s parents on Wabasso Avenue, according to Gabby’s and Brian’s respective families, as reported in multiple news outlets.
12. Photos of 4343 Wabasso Ave., North Port, Florida 34287, posted by various news outlets
13. Fifteen pins on Brian’s Pinterest board, “Our House,” are of converted storage containers.
15. Ford.com listing for Ford Transit Connect. The van has two rows of seats—five seats total. Gabby and Brian needed only two seats.
16. YouTube “Nomadic Statik,” Gabby and Brian’s one and only Van Life video, shows Gabby enjoying a snack in the back of the van. To fit, she sat down, with little leg room to spare.
17. timeanddate.com; Fox News; Brian’s statements to police on body cam video on August 12
18. The ensuing account comes from the Moab Police Department body cam videos unless otherwise noted.
19. @bizarre_design_, combined with Brian’s statements on the Moab police body cam video
20. Statements made by Officer Eric Pratt on his own body cam video
21. Statement on Investigative Review of Aug. 12 Petito-Laundrie Incident. The investigative report ultimately concluded that Pratt and Robbins made multiple unintentional mistakes, including failing to listen to the 911 call before the stop. They photographed Brian’s injuries, but none of Gabby’s, and lost the photos they did take. They questioned Gabby about hitting Brian, but never questioned him about hitting her. Their biggest mistake, according to the investigative report, was not citing Gabby for domestic violence assault.
22. “Mania” is a medical diagnosis. Medicalnewstoday.com
24. Merry Piglets occurred on August 27, 2021. On the 29th, Brian began hitchhiking alone—acting strangely, according to those who picked him up, not wanting anyone to get too close to the campsite where Gabby’s body was later found. Based on his September 1 arrival back in North Port, Florida, Brian would have needed to leave Wyoming by August 30 at the latest. Gabby’s remains were found on September 19. The coroner determined that Gabby’s corpse had lain in the wild for three to four weeks, pinpointing her time of death sometime between August 27 and 29.
25. According to news reports, Gabby’s body was found on the declined slope of a creek bed. But there were no signs of a struggle on the ground itself, indicating that Gabby was likely not murdered at the site where her body was found, and suggesting that Gabby might have been killed inside the tent, then carried out and placed on the creek bed. (The tent was then packed up and carried away, taking any signs of struggle with it.) Furthermore, Gabby’s corpse was barefoot; her shoes were found near her body, indicating she might have been in the tent at the time of her death, since campers will often take off their shoes and leave them outside the tent door.
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