Hunt for Brian Laundrie: Social media's role in Gabby Petito's mystery homicide

Social media has proven to be a somewhat reliable source in the hunt for Brian Laundrie, a fugitive person of interest in the killing of his fiancée, 22-year-old Gabby Petito.

Petito, an aspiring travel blogger, and Laundrie were traveling cross-country in a Ford Transit van, documenting their experience on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube before the now-deceased young woman went missing.

Laundrie returned home to North Port, Florida, without Petito on Sept. 1. Petito's family reported her missing on Sept. 11. Laundrie's family later reported their son missing on Sept. 17, though the last time they said they saw him was Sept. 14. The mystery spans states across the country and a weekslong timeline of events.

RELATED: Gabby Petito: Timeline of 22-year-old woman's disappearance, death

The pros

"Social media has been amazing," Joe Petito, Gabby's father, said during a Tuesday press briefing. "That was very helpful in bringing our daughter home, so thank you very much."

Users on those social media platforms, as well as those on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and Discord, have been weighing in on the same questions for weeks now. What happened to Gabby Petito? Where is Brian Laundrie? Was Laundrie involved in Petito's killing?


Screenshot of Brian Laundrie from Moab police body camera footage on August 12.

Some of those social media users have provided useful information to both the FBI and their followers online, including Jenn Bethune, Miranda Baker and Norma Jean Jalovec.

Bethune, a travel blogger, identified Petito's van in video footage from a summer trip to Wyoming, parked on a dirt road in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, where law enforcement officials searched for signs of Petito for days before eventually discovering her remains.

"This community came together and brought Gabby home," Bethune said of her blogging community in a Sept. 21 Instagram post.

Baker, who was also traveling in Wyoming in late August, said in videos posted to TikTok on Sept. 17 that she and her boyfriend picked up Laundrie, 23, at 5:30 p.m. MD on Aug. 29 after spotting him hitchhiking on the side of the road. She said she spoke with police about the encounter.  

Norma Jean Jalovec, a seasonal Wyoming resident from Florida, told Fox News Digital last week that after seeing Baker's TikTok video, she realized she also picked up Laundrie on Aug. 29 and dropped him off around 6:30 p.m. or 6:40 p.m. MT at the Spread Creek dispersed camping area, where Petito's remains were discovered weeks later.

Both women hadn't realized they gave Laundrie rides until after seeing his photo and information on TikTok.

"There's no way I would have connected that unless I read her TikTok post," Jalovec said of Baker's TikTok video about picking up Laundrie.

What's more, Jalovec dropped Laundrie off at the Spread Creek dispersed camping area, where the deceased Petito's remains were found on Sept. 19, eight days after her family reported her missing. Teton County coroner Brent Blue last week said Petito died of homicide, though her final autopsy report has yet to be released.

Jalovec encouraged young people on social media to continue posting helpful information.

"All of it together let authorities know" where to search, she said.

The mystery began on social media as Petito worked to form a professional travel blog over the summer. She and Laundrie have about a year's worth of photos together on Instagram, though their van trip began in July. Petito posted photos with geolocations on Instagram and documented some of her hiking and camping experiences on outdoor-based apps called AllTrails and The Dyrt, sending social media users down a rabbit hole of research into Petito's disappearance.

Even after her remains were discovered, social media users became arguably more invested in using social media to find Laundrie on Facebook groups and Reddit threads that often include phrases like, "I might be wrong, but…" and, "So I did a little digging..."

RELATED: What’s next in search for Brian Laundrie?

The cons

But social media has also proven itself to be a facilitator of deceit. 

In the most obvious sense, Petito's posts on Instagram, TikTok and elsewhere present a lifestyle full of travel, photography, reading and romance that some young women may have envied. 

The Wall Street Journal recently revealed how Instagram researchers tapped to examine the app's impact on young users' mental health over the past three years found that "teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression," according to internal documents. A person's life presented on social media may differ from that person's reality, sometimes creating unrealistic expectations for young people.

Offline, Petito's life — as police bodycam footage from Moab, Utah, obtained by Fox News suggests — seemed more complicated than what her social profiles displayed.

The footage shows the aftermath of a fight between a distressed Petito and a calm Laundrie, who tells police the scratches on his face were from Petito striking him. Fox News Digital first reported the Aug. 12 domestic incident – which led to no arrests.

RELATED: Gabby Petito body camera video reveals emotional encounter with boyfriend Brian Laundrie

A police report and bodycam video previously obtained by Fox News each concluded that Petito appeared to have been the aggressor, but a 911 caller said he saw Laundrie "slapping" Petito and hitting her — a stark contrast from the relationship Petito presented on Instagram.

Social media has also facilitated other forms of deceit from those following the story.

One TikTok user posted a video on Sept. 25 speculating that the Laundrie family has a third son named Joe Petito based on her own extensive research. She found a link between a juicer company belonging to Laundrie's father, Chris Laundrie, and a plumbing company in New York. The plumbing company in question denied any connection to the Laundrie family, and records only show the Laundries having two children.

There have been spottings of men who resemble Laundrie from a distance in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and elsewhere. There have been theories from psychics and tarot card readers. Users have wide-ranging theories about Laundrie's parents, who have said very little since Petito's family reported her missing, and how they are involved in the case. 

And for those who do have useful information to share, some are afraid to speak on the record to the news media out of fear of retaliation from more radical social media users.

In that sense, while social media has played a significant role in helping law enforcement locate Petito's remains and search for the disappeared Laundrie, it has also provided a place for users invested in the story to post conspiracy theories that get considerable attention due to the high-profile nature of the case.

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