Missing Traveler

Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito.

The FBI announced Tuesday that the remains found in a national forest in Wyoming on Sunday have been positively identified as Gabrielle Petito, and said the 22-year-old woman’s manner of death was a homicide.

The FBI named Petito’s fiancé, Brian Laundrie, who she had been traveling with on a cross-country road trip, as a “person of interest” in her homicide. The FBI said Petito’s cause of death is pending the final autopsy results.

“The FBI and our parnters remain dedicated to ensuring anyone responsible for or complicit in Ms. Petito’s death is held accountable,” said FBI Special Agent in charge Michael Schneider. “Mr. Brian Laudrie has been named a person of interest. Anyone with information concerning Mr. Laundrie’s role in the matter or his current whereabouts should contact the FBI.

“I can confirm the body found in Wyoming is Gabby Petito,” the attorney representing Petito’ family, Rick Stafford, in a text message.

The FBI in Denver announced the news on Twitter.

Petito and Laundrie, both graduates of Bayport Blue-Point High School in Bayport, Long Island, who lived together in North Port, Florida, had left Long Island in July for the road trip that saw them make numerous stops at national parks and was supposed to end in Portland, Oregon.

But Petito stopped answering calls and texts from her family in late August, and Laundrie returned to their Florida home in her white van alone and refused to answer questions from police about Petito’s whereabouts. Police labeled him a “person of interest” in her disappearance. Laundrie, himself, has since gone missing.

A man who called 911 to report a physical altercation in Utah last month between Petito and Laundrie said he saw a man “slapping” a woman, according to the 911 recording.

“We drove by them and the gentleman was slapping the girl,” the unidentified caller told the 911 dispatcher, according to newly released audio of the Aug. 12 call. “We stopped, they ran up and down the sidewalk. He proceeded to hit her. Hopped in the car and they drove off.”

A report by Moab, Utah, police cited the 911 call, writing “it was reported the male had been observed to have assaulted the female.” But in police body camera footage of the investigation, police ultimately labeled Petito the aggressor. No charges were filed.

The release of the 911 call by the Grand County Sheriff in Utah came as police in Florida said Tuesday morning that they were resuming the search in a wildlife reserve for Laundrie, who police have labeled a “person of interest” in the disappearance of Petito.

Richard Stafford, the attorney for Petito’s parents, in a statement Tuesday thanked the news media “for giving the Petito and Schmidt family time to grieve” and added: “We will be making a statement when Gabby is home.”

The renewed search for Laundrie, who was reported missing by his parents after returning from the road trip and refusing to speak to investigators, comes a day after the FBI executed a search warrant at Laundrie’s Florida home. Agents were seen removing several boxes from the home, and a silver Ford Mustang was towed from the driveway. Police had searched the nearly 25,000-square-mile reserve and an adjoining park last weekend but paused the search of the area on Monday.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a temporary flight restriction over the search area Tuesday morning, an FAA spokesperson confirmed.

The North Port Police Department released a YouTube video Tuesday as authorities searched for Laundrie in a massive Sarasota County nature reserve.

Police Department Commander Joe Fussell, who is leading the search, said the search includes all terrain and utility terrain vehicles, drones and personnel from a local sheriff’s office.

“We will mix the resources and deploy them out so that if they encounter flooded areas or terrain that they cannot access with these wheeled vehicles we will deploy our drones directly into the wooded areas,” Fussell said in the video.

He called the terrain “very difficult” and primarily underwater. “Other areas that are dry we are trying to clear,” he said. “So we are expecting to get wet by the end of the day and check the entire area for Brian Laundrie.”

In a series of tweets Tuesday, North Port Police spokesman Joshua Taylor showed video of the “unforgiving terrain” being navigated by police, including swamps and deeply wooded forestry.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, in a tweet Tuesday, said: “I have directed all state agencies under my purview to continue to assist federal & local law enforcement as they continue to search — we need justice for Gabby Petito.”

Blue Point resident Beth Salata said in an interview Tuesday that she met Petito, who in high school dated her nephew, at a few family functions. Salta described feeling “sick to my stomach” watching the developments in the case.

“Just a beautiful, sweet girl, and it’s just tragic,” said Salata. “I’ve been following the story since it broke and it’s just very upsetting. ... It’s awful. I think (Laundrie) should come forward and talk about what happened. But he’s not doing that.”

Meanwhile, a separate search warrant obtained by police in Florida last week is shedding new light on the police investigation.

The warrant, granted last week by a Florida judge, allowed police detectives in North Port to search a computer hard drive found in the van that Petito and her fiancé had traveled in during their cross-country road trip.

Police have not said what they found on the hard drive, citing the active investigation.

Human remains fitting the description of Petito were found Sunday in Bridger-Teton National Forest — more than a week after she was reported missing by her family, according to the FBI.

Detectives found the black external hard drive in the van after it was seized through an earlier search warrant from outside Laundrie’s home on Sept. 11 — the day Petito was reported missing.

The police search warrant and accompanying warrant application, a nine-page document, also revealed new details about the days leading up to and after Petito’s disappearance.

Petito communicated with her mother, Nichole Schmidt, through “multiple text messages” and “many talks” while traveling in a van with Laundrie on their way to Portland, according to the police search warrant application, but “during these conversations, there appeared to be more and more tension between her and Laundrie.” The document did not provide details.

The document also cited an Aug. 12 physical altercation between Petito and Laundrie, which was investigated by Moab police, as evidence that Petito was “endangered, due to mental health concerns.”

On Aug. 27, the document said, Petito’s mother received an “odd text” from her daughter, which read: “Can you help Stan, I just keep getting his voicemails and missed calls.”

Detectives wrote that “Stan” was a reference to her grandfather, but according to her mother, she never referred to him by that name.

“The mother was concerned that something was wrong with her daughter,” the document said, adding: “This was the last communication anyone had with the subject. Her cellphone was no longer operational and she stopped posting anything on social media about their trip. Per her family, this was not normal behavior for the subject, and they became more worried about her.”

The detectives also noted: “Her cellphone has been turned off for approximately 15 days and there have been no sightings of her since August 27.”

Schmidt’s attorney, Richard Stafford, said previously that she received a text on Aug. 30 from Petito’s phone, but doesn’t believe it was written by her daughter. Schmidt reported Petito missing to police on Sept. 11.

A license plate reader near a highway exit captured the van, which authorities have said was driven back to Florida by Laundrie, entering North Port at 10:26 a.m. Eastern time on Sept. 1, according to the document.

Copyright 2021 Tribune Content Agency.