MIAMI – The disappearance and death of Gabby Petito and the police hunt for her boyfriend have generated a whirlwind online, with a multitude of armchair detectives and others sharing tips, possible sightings and theories by way of TikTok, Instagram and YouTube.
Whether the frenzy of attention and internet sleuthing has helped the investigation is not clear, but it has illuminated the intersection between social media and the public's fascination with true-crime stories.
Months before her disappearance drew more than a half-billion views on TikTok, Petito, 22, and 23-year-old boyfriend Brian Laundrie set out on a cross-country road trip over the summer in a van she decorated boho-chic style.
They documented their adventure on video and invited social media users to follow along on the journey, sharing scenes of a seemingly happy couple cartwheeling on a beach, hiking on mountain trails and camping in the Utah desert.
But they quarreled along the way, and Laundrie returned home alone to Florida in the van in September.
Over the weekend, a body believed to be Petito's was discovered at the edge of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. The FBI announced Tuesday that a coroner determined the body was Petito's and her death was a homicide, but officials didn't disclose details pending final autopsy results. Investigators are seeking Laundrie as a person of interest in the case, focusing on a swampy Florida preserve where he is believed to have gone with a backpack last week.
Social media users have been fascinated by the case and have been poring over the wealth of online video and photos for clues.
“A lot of it has to do with the cross-country journey they were documenting, going on social media on this grand adventure,” said Joseph Scott Morgan, a Jacksonville State University professor of forensics and an authority on high-profile murder cases. And he added: “They are young, they are attractive people.”
Another source of fascination: a police bodycam video, released last week, showing the couple after they were pulled over in August in Moab, Utah, where the van was seen speeding and hitting a curb. They had gotten into a fight, and Petito was in tears, with Laundrie saying tension had been building between them because they had been traveling together for months.
Theories and observations picked up steam on Reddit, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, TikTok and Twitter.
Users have delved into Petito's Spotify music playlists, Laundrie's reading habits and the couple's digitally bookmarked trails. A TikTok user reported having picked up Laundrie hitchhiking.
And a couple who document their bus travels on YouTube said they went through some of their video footage from near Grand Teton and spotted what they said was the couple's white van. They posted an image of it with a big red arrow pointing to it and the words, “We found Gabby Petito's van.” They said that was what led investigators to the area where the body was found.
The FBI has not specified what led to the discovery or said whether other tips from internet sleuths have helped.