What was Gabby Petito’s cause of death?

The disappearance and death of Gabby Petito in 2021 drew more public attention than perhaps any missing persons case in recent memory. So much so that Lifetime is being released just under a year after Gabby’s murder The story of Gabby Petitoa television film based on the crime.

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What drew so much attention about Gabby Petito’s case? Thousands of people go missing in the United States each year. So why did the disappearance and death of this 22-year-old woman make headlines around the world?

Gabby Petito’s death and final days

Brian Laundrie and Gabby Petito

Gabby Petito and her fiancé Brian Laundrie set off from Blue Point, New York on July 2, 2021 for a four-month overland trip. Her white van was pulled over by police north of Moab, Utah, on Aug. 21, 2021, in response to a 9-1-1 call about a domestic disturbance in a parking lot. Body camera footage showed Brian and a crying Gabby downplaying the incident described by witnesses. Neither of them wanted to press charges.

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On August 27, 2021, Gabby’s mother, Nichole Schmidt, received a text allegedly sent by her daughter. However, due to her “strange” nature, Nichole later assumed the message wasn’t actually from Gabby. According to police, the text read, “Can you help Stan, I just keep getting his voicemails and missed calls.” Stan is referring to Gabby’s grandfather, but she didn’t usually call him by his first name.

That was the day Gabby’s social media posts ceased, which was uncharacteristic for a young woman who documented so much of her life on Instagram and YouTube. Her family last spoke to her on August 25, 2021 in a call from outside of Grand Teton National Park in Jackson, Wyoming.

Gabby was reported missing on September 11, 2021, officially a missing person. Brian quietly returned to Florida 10 days earlier. As of September 13, 2021, he too was missing.

We now know that Gabby had been dead for over two weeks at this point. Her body was found on September 21, 2021 near Grand Teton National Park, already in a state of decay. The autopsy determined that Gabby Petito’s cause of death was strangulation.

Petito family reacts to Gabby Petito’s autopsy

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Gabby Petito from Moab Police Department video footage dated August 21, 2021

The release of Gabby Petito’s autopsy report on September 21, 2021 not only confirmed the body’s identity, but ruled the manner of death as homicide. A brief statement followed, issued by a lawyer, from the Petito family: “We will make a statement when Gabby is home. I will contact you to arrange a time and place.”

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In fact, a week later, mom Nichole Schmidt, dad Joe Petito, and stepdad Jim Schmidt held a press conference thanking social media users and the media for pushing the case forward.

“We need positive things to come out of the tragedy that happened,” Joe said. “We cannot allow her name to be misused.”

One question hung over the conference: Where was Brian Laundrie? Gabby’s fiancee and a person interested in her disappearance had not been seen for more than two weeks.

Who strangled Gabby Petito?

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Brian Laundrie (Photo: Instagram)

We may never know absolutely Certainty who was responsible for Gabby Petito’s death. That’s because the most likely suspect, Brian Laundrie, has not been able to swear an affidavit or stand trial. But given the circumstances leading up to Gabby’s death and everything that happened after, it’s almost certain that she was killed by her own fiancé. Brian even left a written confession in a notebook found near his body.

Brian Laundrie’s disappearance

As previously mentioned, Brian disappeared from his parents’ home on September 13, 2021, never to be seen alive again. For days afterwards, his family publicly requested that he be resurrected while denying any knowledge of his whereabouts.

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It turns out he had gone deep into the Florida wilderness to commit suicide. Brian’s remains were found at Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park on October 21, 2021. Coroners later determined that he had shot himself in the head.

What Brian Laundrie wrote in his notebook

In early January 2022, authorities announced that they had found a notebook near Brian’s body that contained an admission of Gabby’s murder. The letter appeared disingenuous and intended to apologize for his actions. Among other things, Brian wrote: “I ended her life … I felt it was merciful that she wanted it that way, but now I see all the mistakes I made. I panicked, I was shocked.”

He claimed a “freezing cold” Gabby had a “bump on her forehead” and was “begging for an end to her pain”.

Gabby Petito memorial

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Photo: Instagram

The Petito family held a memorial service on September 26, 2021 in Blue Point, New York and used an empty urn to represent Gabby. The FBI has yet to release her body.

“I don’t want you to be sad,” Gabby’s father Joe said at the beginning of the service. “Gabby didn’t live like that… I ask you guys to be inspired by how she treats people. She didn’t care, she really loved people. I couldn’t be prouder as a father.”

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In November 2021, a memorial bench surrounded by metal butterflies was dedicated in North Port, Florida, where Gabby lived. A makeshift memorial made of stones with handwritten messages was also created near the site in Wyoming where Gabby’s body was found.

However, the memorial with the greatest impact will be the Gabby Petito Foundation. It was founded in October 2021 by Gabby Petito’s family to support the search for missing persons and to help groups helping victims of domestic violence.

Why the Gabby Petito case drew so much attention

Due to Gabby Petito’s impressive social media presence, her disappearance was a magnet for crime investigators, who were able to follow the case in near real-time. That’s a big part of why there’s been so much public interest.

It was relatively easy to gather the facts of the case and create a likely timeline based on Gabby’s online posts from the road. She appeared to be a much more real and approachable person than many other crime victims, who are often only seen through family photos or video clips.

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Sarah Y. Kim

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