The case of missing “van life” blogger Gabby Petito has whipped up an unprecedented frenzy of online sleuthing, with social media platform TikTok arguably leading the charge.
any TikTokers have been actively trying to solve the case of the 22-year-old, who went missing in late August while on a road-trip with her fiancé Brian Laundrie. The last confirmed sighting of Ms Petitot was in a video call with her mother on 25 August.
The FBI announced on Sunday that a body matching the description of Ms Petito had been discovered in the Grand Teton National Park area. And on Monday afternoon, the FBI confirmed that Ms Petito’s body had been discovered, adding that the death had been ruled a “homicide” while an official cause of death is to be released.
Mr Laundrie remains missing and as a ‘person of interest’ in Ms Petito’s case, a major manhunt is still underway to find him.
As of Tuesday, the #GabbyPetito hashtag on TikTok had more than half a billion views, with users sharing tips, poring over footage and developing theories about when and how the van life blogger went missing.
TikTok has thrown an intense spotlight on the case, and tip-offs from its users have helped investigators to swiftly narrow down both the time frame and the geographical area – both of which were initially vast – in which Ms Petito went missing.
On 17 September, TikToker Miranda Baker posted a series of videos saying that she and her boyfriend had picked up Mr Laundrie, who was hitchhiking, on 29 August at Grand Teton National Park. Ms Baker said she found the encounter “weird” as Mr Laundrie offered her $200 for a 10-mile ride, and urgently asked to get out when she mentioned she was on her way to Jackson Hole.
“Once I said Jackson Hole he became agitated,” she said in her post. “He seemed like he needed to get out, he was kind of antsy. And that’s when things got weird.”
“He kind of hurried out of the car, and then was like ‘I’m going to find someone else to hitchhike,’ and we’re like, okay.’ It was a weird situation.”
Ms Baker said she had notified the police. The North Port Police Department in Florida confirmed to The Independent that officers had spoken with the social media user.
“We have talked to her,” police spokesperson Joshua Taylor said in an email. “That is all I can confirm.”
Another TikToker, Jessica Shultz, also a “van-lifer”, provided potentially key information about the case too. She told the FBI she had seen a white van she believed to be driven by Mr Laundrie near Grand Teton National Park on 26 August. She also described his behaviour as strange and said Ms Petito was nowhere to be seen. This was just a day after Ms Petito’s last call to her mother.
“He was very awkward and confused and it was just him, there was no Gabby,” Ms Schultz said on TikTok in a series of videos she posted before the body believed to be Ms Petito’s was found.
“I called the FBI (on Thursday) and said, ‘Guys, look at Spread Creek,’” she told the San Franciso Chronicle. The body in question was indeed found near the creek on Sunday.
Ms Shultz said the FBI agent she spoke to said: “‘I’ve talked to hundreds of people, but you guys are the ones that really tipped us off to the right place, so thank you.’”
The other key social media tip-off in the investigation came from a family of YouTubers. Jenn and Kyle Bethune post video updates of their travels at their page Red White & Bethune, and when re-watching old footage, realised they’d seen the van on 27 August at the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area, where Ms Petito was eventually discovered.
“We came across a white van that had Florida plates, a small white van. We were going to stop and say hi because we’re from Florida too, but the van was completely dark, there was nobody there so we decided to continue on our way,” said Ms Bethune, while Mr Bethune added that the van appeared “abandoned”.
An extensive search for Mr Laundrie continues in the sprawling Carlton Reserve near North Port, Florida, and while video released by police on Tuesday showed officers using search dogs, drones and all-terrain vehicles to cover the 25,000-acre preserve, it’s yet possible that a social media-generated tip-off might again be key in helping police unlock the mystery of what happened to Ms Petito.