Gabby Petito and the Obsession with True Crime

Grace Cains, Staff Writer

For the past few weeks, the disappearance of 22-year-old Gabby Petito has been trending all over the news. Once her tragic story gained traction, people across social media were quick to begin theorizing about what happened to the YouTuber.

The timeline of Petito’s disappearance starts in June of this year when she embarked on a cross-country roadtrip with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie. Throughout the summer, Petito posted regularly on social media and kept in touch with her family. All contact with her stopped during the last week of August. The last message from Petito’s phone sent to her family read: “No service in Yosemite.” On September 11, her family officially reported her missing.

Three days later, her fiancé’s parents told authorities that Laundrie had disappeared from their home without his phone or wallet, only taking a backpack with him. Before leaving, Laundrie was a prime suspect in Petitio’s disappearance as he repeatedly refused to cooperate with authorities. A week later, human remains were found in Teton County, Wyoming, later confirmed to be Gabby Petito’s remains. After her body was found and Laundrie went missing, the FBI issued a federal arrest warrant for him. As of the time of this being written, Laundrie is still missing.

America’s infatuation with true crime isn’t anything new, but the uptick in websites like Netflix and Hulu streaming them have introduced younger and younger generations to stories of serial killers/strange disappearances. People today are more invested in murder mysteries than ever before. Although staying up to date with murder cases isn’t inherintly bad, some people have taken it too far, especially with Gabby Petito’s case. 

As of Friday, September 17th, the Tik Tok hashtag #gabbypetitio had 77 million views, and #findgabbypetitio had 16.6 million. The subreddit r/GabbyPetitio – created on September 13th – already has 33,200 members invested in her investigation. Users on Instagram have also made accounts dedicated to her, posting to share updates about the investigation as well as speculate what could have happened to her.

These posts seem harmless at first glance as their goal is mainly to spread awareness about Petito’s disappearance. However, many tend to ignore the backlash posts like these can cause. Obsession with Petito’s death is different from a murder mystery from a few decades ago, as her friends and family are still newly mourning her loss;  “aesthetic” posts about her case come off as insensitive to those close to her. Petito is not just a murder mystery spectacle. She was a real person who died unexpectedly and tragically. Before her remains were discovered, law enforcement hot lines were being spam called with “case followers” who thought they had seen her or thought that they had updates to her case, many of which gave officials the same information over and over again.

Todd Shipley, the president of the High Technology Crime Investigation Association, admitted that he is wary of these people, mentioning that “[some] people can point [law enforcement] to where the evidence is, because law enforcement may not find that immediately. The problem is that when they get 1,000 people doing that, then a lot of stuff gets lost in the pools…It’s the noise that causes law enforcement to use resources ineffectively[.]” There has also been speculation and criticism of people using Petito’s case to boost their own social media popularity.

When pointing out the flaws of true crime obsession, the amount of Indigenous people who go missing and are not recognized must be acknowledged. In a study that surveyed 71 cities in America, the Urban Indian Health Institute found that in 2016, there were 5,712 reported cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls. In Wyoming where Petito’s remains were found, 710 Indigenous people were reported missing between 2011 and 2020. Indigenous women are much more likely to go missing than white women, yet the media often neglects to acknowledge this. Recognizing the missing Indigenous women is not meant to take away from the tragedy of Gabby Petito’s case, but to encourage America to do better with it’s true crime coverage. The world needs to recognize the disportionate violence that occurs against Indigengous people and not only recognize the white girls who go missing.