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Gabby Petito’s death is a homicide, autopsy finds; authorities search for fiance

The FBI said on Sept. 21 that a body found in Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming has been identified as Gabby Petito and that her death was a homicide. (Video: Reuters)

The human remains found in a Wyoming national forest Sunday are those of Gabby Petito, the FBI confirmed Tuesday, citing autopsy results that listed homicide as the manner of death.

The FBI is leading the criminal investigation into the death of the 22-year-old woman whose disappearance has attracted national attention. Officials continue to search for Petito’s fiance, Brian Laundrie, 23, nearly three weeks after he returned from a cross-country van trip without her and refused to help police investigate her death.

A body matching Petito’s description was discovered Sunday in a remote area of Bridger-Teton National Forest in western Wyoming. Statements from the FBI and Petito’s family suggested the remains were those of Petito, and the Teton County coroner confirmed the identity Tuesday.

A throng of Internet sleuths are on the Gabby Petito case. Why has it sparked so much interest?

As the search for Laundrie resumed Tuesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said officers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission would help investigators comb the 24,000-acre Carlton Reserve wilderness area near North Port, Fla.

Laundrie is considered “a person of interest” in the case. He has not been accused of a crime but refused to cooperate with investigators in the days after Petito’s family reported her missing on Sept. 11. Laundrie’s family members said they have not seen him since Sept. 14.

FBI searches the home of Gabby Petito’s fiance, Brian Laundrie

His parents told authorities that Laundrie indicated to them a week ago that he planned to hike the swampy reserve alone.

Before Gabby Petito's body was found, she was pulled over with Brian Laundrie on Aug. 12 in Utah. A clinical psychologist analyzed the footage for The Post. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

The search for Laundrie was initially suspended Monday after authorities had “exhausted all avenues in searching the grounds there,” according to North Port Police Department spokesperson Josh Taylor. Tuesday’s search of the Carlton Reserve ended about 7 p.m. after police found “nothing of note.” They plan to resume the operation Wednesday, according to a tweet.

The move coincided with the FBI’s arrival at Laundrie’s family’s home in North Port early Monday as part of the search warrant related to the Petito investigation. FBI agents were removing boxes of items from the home. Laundrie’s parents were seen by local news crews being escorted out of the home briefly before returning inside.

Laundrie’s attorney, Steven Bertolino, told The Washington Post in a text message Tuesday: “May Gabby rest in peace.”

He said Monday that there would be a news conference Tuesday afternoon on Long Island, but he canceled it later that day, citing a conversation he had with the FBI.

Richard Benson Stafford, an attorney for Petito’s family, thanked the news media Tuesday for giving the family “time to grieve.”

“We will be making a statement when Gabby is home,” he said in a statement.

News of Petito’s death brought empathetic statements from members of Congress representing places where Petito and Laundrie once called home.

Rep. Andrew R. Garbarino (R-N.Y.), whose 2nd District is where Petito completed her high school education, said Tuesday that he was “devastated” on behalf of Petito’s family.

“No family should have to face this unimaginable tragedy,” he said. “I pray they draw strength and comfort from Gabby’s memory and I pray justice is found.”

Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.), who represents the 17th District, where authorities have scoured North Point in search of Laundrie, said Tuesday that it was “heartbreaking” to hear about Petito’s passing.

“I’m praying for the North Port Police Department and all law enforcement officers working to find answers and bring justice for this young woman,” he said.

Several questions remain in the case of the young couple who once documented a seemingly idyllic “van life” on social media. Petito’s and then Laundrie’s disappearances have captured national attention, particularly on social media, where the couple extensively documented their travels. Laundrie returned from the trip on Sept. 1 without Petito.

According to a newly unsealed Florida search warrant for a hard drive belonging to Laundrie, the last text message sent from Petito’s phone to her mother, Nicole Schmidt, on Aug. 27 was “odd” and left Schmidt feeling “concerned.” The phone was powered off that day, and Petito “stopped posting anything on social media about their trip,” authorities say.

“The text message read, ‘Can you help Stan, I just keep getting his voice mails and missed calls,’ ” the warrant states. “The reference to ‘Stan,’ was regarding her grandfather, but per the mother, she never calls him ‘Stan.’ The mother was concerned that something was wrong with her daughter.”

Authorities added: “Per her family, this was not normal behavior for the subject, and they became more worried about her.”

A 911 recording recently released by the Grand County, Utah, Sheriff’s Office included a caller reporting a fight between a couple with a white van that had a Florida license plate, according to audio obtained by The Washington Post.

“We drove by them, and the gentleman was slapping the girl,” the caller said. “Then we stopped. They ran up and down the sidewalk. He proceeded to hit her, hopped in the car, and they drove off.”

The caller, who has not been identified, mentioned that the “domestic dispute” occurred near a store where a police report said Petito and Laundrie had fought. The people he described have not been confirmed by authorities to be Petito and Laundrie.

After Petito was reported missing, Utah police released body-camera footage of a traffic stop with the couple that occurred the same day as the 911 call. In it, Petito appears to be distraught and crying. Laundrie said the couple had a “minor scuffle” after Petito got angry at him for entering the van with dirty feet. Police determined that Petito was the aggressor who was “slapping at him,” and they separated the couple for the night, directing Laundrie to a hotel while Petito stayed in the van.

Melissa Hulls, the visitor and resource protection supervisor at Arches National Park, said she has played back the Aug. 12 incident between the couple in her mind. She told the Deseret News on Monday that she warned Petito that her relationship with Laundrie seemed “toxic.”

“I was probably more candid with her than I should’ve been,” Hulls told the newspaper. “I was imploring with her to reevaluate the relationship, asking her if she was happy in the relationship with him, and basically saying this was an opportunity for her to find another path, to make a change in her life.”

Hulls, who said police thought they had made the right decision when they left the couple last month, added, “This wasn’t a good day for anybody.”

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