Influencers on social media networks work by influencing others. But before they can ever "influence," they need to first have a huge following.
Just like any other things on the internet, proper use of social media networks using unique and attractive content, the use of hashtags, and the ability to engage with the audience, is the main recipe for drawing attention.
When influencers get the spotlight, their followers tend to do some further digging, in order to know more about their idols. And uncovering facts about a person's real life on the web, has long been the common interests of some amateur internet detectives, as well as stalkers.
Things were mostly discrete, until Gabrielle Venora Petito went missing.
It all began when the 22-year-old Instagram influencer also known as Gabby, travelled in a road trip with her 23-year old boyfriend, Brian Laundrie.
That road trip that was documented using the hashtag #VanLife ended when Brian returned home without Gabby.
What happened after that, people who followed Gabby's activities, quickly scrambled in a massive internet sleuthing, dominating social media, and mesmerizing true crime communities, which led to headline news in the U.S., as well as some parts of the world.
Brian who came home without Gabby, swiftly disappeared, sparking an outrage that made it among the most viral crimes of 2021.
Things started when Gabby, a former pharmacy technician, met Brian at Bayport-Blue Point High School on Long Island.
In love, the couple began traveling around the western U.S. in a small van in June, chronicling their journey on Gabby's Instagram account. It was that popular hashtag #VanLife that united the nomadic communities around the globe, and Gabby made use of it to showcase her and her boyfriend's road trip.
And just like ordinary couple, they looked as though they were enjoying their every moment, travelling under the summer skies, and camping out under the stars.
According to reports, Gabby had saved up her money for months to make the trip possible.
Gabby's mother trusted Gabby to Brian in the weeks-long journey with a white 2012 Ford Transit van that they converted into a camper, not only because Gabby is already an adult, but also because Brian is Gabby's fiancé.
In fact, Gabby was already living with Brian at his parents' house.
When the two went to the trip, nothing was unusual at first. Gabby frequently posted updates, and things were looking well for the young woman.
Then, all of a sudden, Gabby's regular posts stopped. No updates from Gabby.
The communication stopped abruptly that even Gabby's family lost contact with her.
It was then on September 1, that Brian returned to his family's home in North Port, Florida, alone.
Worried without news about Gabby, the Petito's family reported her missing on September 11th.
When the news became public, the attempt to find the missing woman garnered widespread attention.
Internet detectives that went to work, helped the authorities to find Gabby, based on her posts, that spanned from the wilderness of Yellowstone, to the Grand Teton National Park.
As interest in the case grew, and among the many tips that came in to authorities, one was found to be the most crucial: someone spotted Brian driving through Grand Teton National Park on August 27, which was two days after Gabby's mother last spoke to her via Apple's FaceTime.
Footage showed that the van passed the area, providing clue to the authorities to narrow down the search area that would otherwise be significantly larger.
Connecting the dots, it was also realized that days before, a 911 caller reported seeing a man, later identified as Brian, slapping a woman repeatedly, chasing her, and also hitting her. The woman was later identified as Gabby.
“We drove by and the gentleman was slapping the girl,” the caller said.
Gabby was seen wiping away her tears while telling one officer that they had been fighting.
“I’m sorry,” Gabby said. “We’ve just been fighting this morning. Some personal issues.”
For this reason, the scene near the Arches National Park was only considered a "domestic dispute," and the police didn't do anything much about it, other than questioning the couple, to then tell Brian to spend the night at a nearby motel, and Gabby to sleep in the van, separating the two to calm them down.
The issue was considered resolved, as neither Brian or Gabby wanted to press charges.
The footage of the scene was released by the Grand County Sheriff’s Office in Moab, Utah.
But when the footage spread across social media, appearing on Instagram Stories and TikTok posts, many concluded that the couple's relationship was toxic, and Gabby's mental health was already deteriorating that then led to her disappearance.
Many also criticized the police who seemed to side with Brian, because at one point, they were explicitly joking with him about histrionic women and identifying Brian as "the victim."
However, the footage is an “insufficient evidence existed to justify criminal charges.”
Teton County Coroner Dr. Brent Blue confirmed the remains are those of Gabrielle Venora Petito, date of birth March 19, 1999. Coroner Blue’s initial determination for the manner of death is homicide. The cause of death remains pending final autopsy results. pic.twitter.com/JoHenMZ9UU
— FBI Denver (@FBIDenver) September 21, 2021
On September 19th, the FBI announced that authorities had located a body “consistent with the description of” Gabby, which was located close to the Grand Teton where her van had been caught on video in August before Brian drove it home alone.
Her body was discovered at the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area, in the Bridger-Teton National Forest on the east boundary of Grand Teton National Park.
A coroner for Teton County in Wyoming confirmed after an autopsy conducted on that Gabby was murdered.
Brian became a person of interest, and the case is then treated as a homicide, as the authorities upgraded the case to a criminal investigation.
"I do not believe the situation escalated to the level of a domestic assault as much as that of a mental health crisis," said the 911 responder in a report.
After a search warrant on Brian's house, it was then realized that Brian had fled the police and is then on the run.
This was then followed by a statement from FBI, which said that there is warrant out for Brian's arrest, "related to Mr. Laundrie’s activities following the death of Gabrielle Petito."
On September 23rd, Brian has been charged on with unauthorized use of a debit card.
Brian was indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly using a Capital One Bank card and someone’s personal identification number to make unauthorized withdrawals or charges worth more than $1,000 during the period in which Gabby went missing.
People refer Gabby’s case to the phenomenon of “missing white woman syndrome,” in which young, white women, who are particularly from middle- upper-class families, who also receive lots of media attention and publicity, suddenly go missing.
Gabby was so famous, not only because she was an Instagram user and the owner of a YouTube channel. She was famous because she was a young and beautiful woman, white and people were expecting good things from her.
Part of the urgency around her disappearance also stemmed from the possibility that she was lost alone in a vast wilderness and in need of help.
She lived so publicly and seemed so happy, and this is why she caught so many attention.
Gabby who fits the given criteria, received huge attention, whereas poorer and non-white women who disappear don't really get the spotlight.
Adjacent from the term “missing white woman syndrome,” is what is known in the crime community as the phenomenon of "missing and murdered Indigenous women," where women who are indigenous and not white, who vanished and were never recovered. Around 700 people were missing in Wyoming in a decade, and many remained unsolved.
Photos & details are available on the FBI’s Seeking Information poster. Relevant information may be submitted to the FBI at: https://t.co/nfbjZhvx8N, 1-800-CALL-FBI or 303-629-7171. Photos & videos may be uploaded to: https://t.co/IyvCGBdIia. https://t.co/P72jXrXRUK
— FBI Denver (@FBIDenver) September 21, 2021
#FBIDenver thanks the public for their continuing support of this investigation & the valuable tips that have been submitted.
We extend sincere condolences to Gabby’s family, friends, and all the people whose lives she touched.
— FBI Denver (@FBIDenver) September 21, 2021
While murder cases should be handled by the authorities, with the internet, a lot of sleuthing can be done, especially due to the abundance of information.
Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can become an amateur detective, and spend hours and hours on internet search engines and social media, visit online forums, scroll through endless comments, to mine data and court records.
While the many amateur online detectives crowded the case with too many disinformation and misinformation, others who contributed in the sleuthing have actually provided the authorities with additional information that would otherwise overlooked.
These people aren't paid, and they do their detective work with a common goal: solving it. To these people, web sleuthing is just a tricky true crime hobby. It's also these people who created more urgency in bringing Gabby home.
And Gabrielle Petito's case here marks yet another chapter of amateur internet sleuthing.
The internet is no longer a passive medium, as people can contribute and share. It's not anymore considered a place where people consume information in a one-way direction. This is because the digital world has transformed itself into an information highway.
After Gabby's death, her Instagram account, as well as her YouTube channel, Nomadic Statik, received an increasing number of followers and viewers.
Following the death of Gabby, the public began to have an increase of awareness of other missing person cases.
On October 20, the authorities discovered what appeared to be human remains, after retrieving some of Brian's belongings in the park in an area that was previously underwater due to flooding.
A forensic dentistry conducted confirmed that the skeletal remains is Brian's.