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Culture > News

The Hunt for a Killer: The Gabby Petito Case

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Wisconsin chapter.

The Gabby Petito case has taken social media by storm, but should it have?

Like a lot of people, I consider myself a bit of a true crime junkie. I love reading, watching and listening to different forms of media on true crime. I’m even taking a class on the psychology of the criminal mind. It’s almost like a mystery game to try to catch the killer. While I partake in these activities, I recognize they can be biased. Behind every murder mystery, there are loved ones grieving the loss of their child, spouse, friend, etc. It often trivializes a human’s life and the pain involved with the loss of a loved one and can be a show of privilege. This is exactly what happened in the case of Gabby Petito.

Let’s start from the beginning. What is the Gabby Petito case? Gabby Petito was a 22-year-old girl who launched a YouTube channel called Van Life with her boyfriend Brian Laundrie. They set off on a road trip to visit national parks throughout the U.S. They documented their travels living in a van for their YouTube followers. Weeks after they began their adventure, Brian returned to his family home in Florida by himself and refused to talk about where Gabby was. Days later, she was reported missing by her parents and the FBI eventually found her body buried in a Utah campground. Then, it was reported that her boyfriend Brian also went missing and was believed to be on the run.

Molly Peach-Girl On Rock
Molly Peach / Her Campus

The public began to ask lots of questions. Who killed Gabby? Where was Brian and why wouldn’t he talk to the FBI? More and more details came out about Gabby and Brian’s often turbulent relationship. This led to an influx of social media “theories” on Tik Tok, Reddit, etc. about what really happened to Gabby.

First, this social media attention was not necessarily a bad thing. Another YouTuber found footage of Brian and the van in the exact spot where they found Gabby’s body, placing him at the scene of the crime. Many times, social media theories can be a great way to aid investigations and raise awareness for the case. People can use FBI tip lines to see photos of missing people and call-in information to find them. This revealed information that helped locate Gabby’s body and bring her home to her family, which was critical.

woman standing in front of a white van with her back against the camera, gradient purple sunset in the background
Searchlight Pictures

It would be unfair to not address the other side of this issue, the fact that people go missing every day with little-to-no acknowledgment. Gabby’s case was more publicized due to the fact that she was a pretty, white and popular social media creator. There are many missing persons, specifically minorities, LGBTQ+, disabled and other marginalized people who receive no media coverage. For example, according to the Seattle Times, between 2011 and 2020, over 700 Native American people have gone missing in the same area that Gabby Petito went missing yet have not been found. It is an injustice that every missing person’s case does not draw this much attention. So-called social media “sleuths” need to acknowledge that Gabby’s privilege did help her case, she was a human being and needed to be treated like one instead of a murder mystery game, however, they should bring as much attention to every missing person’s case.

Gabby’s case deserved media coverage. Her death, due to possible domestic abuse, was tragic. Her life mattered and she deserves to be treated as such. Her family deserves the right to grieve privately, without being bombarded by social media. She deserves to rest in peace and not have her killer glorified. Everyone who has ever gone missing or been a victim deserves this. Indigenous people who go missing deserve the same treatment, as do Black, queer, Asian, disabled, transgender and other marginalized people. Gabby deserved appropriate media attention, but so does everyone else.

Gabby’s dad acknowledged this when he created the Gabby Petito Foundation. They are dedicated to giving resources to assist in finding missing children and bringing them home. He created this foundation because he understood the privilege of Gabby’s case being highly publicized and he wants to help find other missing children. This is an incredible feat for a man going through the intense grief of losing his daughter. Perhaps some good will come from this horrific crime.

In conclusion, social media sleuths usually have good intentions. Being a follower of true crime is not a bad thing. We must remember, however, to give equal attention to all victims, not just a select few. It is important to humanize these victims, respect their family’s privacy/wishes and recognize the privilege media coverage brings. Social media sleuths can help draw attention and awareness to underreported cases while also supporting the higher-profile cases. Ultimately, Gabby’s life did matter, but so does everyone else’s.

Courtney Shady

Wisconsin '23

Courtney is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying psychology, education, and gender and women’s studies. She is from the suburbs of Milwaukee. In her free time, she enjoys drinking coffee, going to concerts, and loves hanging out with friends.