NORTH PORT, Fla. – Police were returning Sunday to the vast Carlton Reserve in search of the fiancé of Gabby Petito, the 22-year-old blogger whose own disappearance has fueled a massive law enforcement and social media effort to solve the complex, cross-country mystery.
Police have described Brian Laundrie, 23, as a person of interest in the missing persons case involving Petito, 22, who was last seen in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming in late August. Laundrie returned here alone from the couple's weeks-long trip Sept. 1, only to disappear himself last week.
Nearly 100 area residents gathered Saturday night at a "Light of Hope" vigil to show support for the Petito's family. Vigil attendees tied green ribbons and placed memorabilia at the community tree that stands in front of North Port City Hall. The tree will remain an official gathering place for residents and visitors who wish to add candles, letters or cards in support of finding answers.
Lisa Correll, a North Port resident and concerned mother, said she doesn't know Petito personally. But she says the incident has shaken the community, and residents should do whatever they can to make sure Petito’s family feels their love and support.
“Everyone is thinking of her, her family, and what they’re going through,” Correll said.
Laundrie and his family had declined to discuss Petito's case with police – until Friday, when family members filed a missing persons report for Laundrie, North Port Police spokesman Josh Taylor told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, part of the USA TODAY Network.
The family said they believe Laundrie went to the reserve earlier in the week and had not returned. North Port police, FBI and other agencies are conducting a search of the 25,000-acre, Sarasota County preserve. Authorities used drones, scent-sniffing dogs and all-terrain vehicles in the reserve. Investigators took some of his clothing from his parents’ home Friday night to provide a scent for the search dogs.
Petito's mother, Nicole Schmidt, last reported speaking with her daughter on Aug. 25, and the family filed a missing person’s report Sept. 11. The FBI in Denver said agents were conducting ground surveys at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming with help from the National Park Service and local law enforcement agencies, seeking clues to Petito’s disappearance.
The case is a social media obsession. On TikTok, the hashtag #gabbypetito has gained more than 275 million views, and many creators are sharing updates – often of unconfirmed reports, screenshots of texts from amateur sleuths about their theories and their own feelings about the case.
Some of the creators more actively posting about the case have changed their bio to: "Let's help find Gabby Petito." Subsequent hashtags include #findgabbypeitito and #gabbypetitoupdate have drawn more than 30 million views and 22 million views respectively. The #brianlaundrie hashtag has more than 100 million views.
Some of the information includes leads. Miranda Baker, in videos posted to TikTok, said she and her boyfriend had picked up Laundrie who was hitchhiking, on Aug. 29 at Grand Teton Park in Wyoming. She said they notified police of the brief meeting.
"He approached us asking us for a ride because he needed to go to Jackson (Wyoming)," she said. "We were going to Jackson that night so I said 'hop in,' and he hopped into the back of my jeep."
Baker said Laundrie told them that he had been camping alone for a few days, that his girlfriend was in their van posting on their social media page. Authorities in Utah have said Laundrie and Petito had been involved in an incident Aug. 12 in Moab, but responding officers filed no charges and instead instructed the couple to spend the night apart. She was to stay in the van while Laundrie was taken elsewhere.
Baker said she thought it was "weird" when Laundrie offered to pay $200 for a short ride, but that a few minutes later Laundrie asked to get out of the jeep and left.
Two days later, Laundrie returned home to Florida without Petito. Laundrie's lawyer, Steven Bertolino, has said he instructed Laundrie and his family not to discuss the case with police.
On Instagram, the top account when searching Gabby Petito's name is @gabby.petito, which started posting three days ago, and is "a community dedicated" to Gabby.
Twitter is also being used to spread information and updates about the Gabby Petito case, and some users even posting memes about how they're attempting to solve the case.
A subreddit (r/GabbyPetito) dedicated to Petito has 72,000 members. Some of the rules of the subreddit include "No Doxxing/Posting Personal Information," and "No Rumor-Mongering or Misinformation."
Baker says on her TikTok posts that she is willing to do anything to help authorities solve the case.
"I am really just hoping that they find her," B said.
Bacon reported from Arlington, Va., Connor from Washington DC; Contributing: Christine Fernando, USA TODAY; The Associated Press