Opinion: The nation’s fixation on the search for Gabby

There are hundreds of thousands of people reported missing in the United States each year. Last year there were more than 540,000 reports filed with police. Sounds like a lot, but probably due to our COVID-19 isolation that was a record low number.

Some of the missing were kidnapped; others were quickly found or voluntarily returned home; and there were those who simply wanted to disappear. Almost half of the missing are minorities, and most are under the age of 21. So, what is it about the missing-person case of Gabby Petito, a white 22-year-old New Yorker who moved to Florida, that has so captured the nation’s attention?

May I be blunt? We became fascinated because, as the old saying among crusty reporters goes, “The news is what we say it is.” And the media saturated the airwaves, internet and television with the story because Gabby was young, beautiful and white, a combination that often ensures a great future ahead. Frankly, stories of lost possibilities, coupled with a mysteriously silent and then missing boyfriend and his uncooperative family, sell papers and make TV ratings jump.

The Petito case, as sad as it is, was also an attractive alternative to the media’s current force-fed diet of COVID-19 mutants, spending bills, Afghanistan and the dire migrant situation at our southern border.

We now know Gabby’s fate. She isn’t missing anymore; she is dead. Her body was found in a national forest in Wyoming during a monthslong trip across America she had been taking with her fiance, Brian Laundrie. They seemed so carefree and happy in videos and photos they’d posted online documenting their travels. But the medical examiner concluded the method of her death was homicide. As we’ve come to learn from various eyewitnesses, the relationship was not so rosy.

The media cannot possibly report on every missing-person case. Yet Gabby’s story shows how vital such coverage can be. It not only informs the public about who and what to be on the lookout for, but it can also result in important clues for law enforcement.

It was, after all, a video captured by Jenn and Kyle Bethune during their travels near Grand Teton National Forest that helped authorities pinpoint Gabby’s last known whereabouts.

Detectives knew that Brian and Gabby had checked out of a hotel in Salt Lake City on Aug. 24. Gabby last spoke with her family either that day or on the 25th and she mentioned they were headed to Wyoming. But that is a big, remote state. Where to look for Gabby?

On Aug. 27, the Bethunes, popular travel bloggers, had their dashcam rolling as they passed what looked exactly like Gabby’s distinctive white camper van. It was seemingly abandoned on a rural road near Grand Teton National Park. They gave the video to authorities and Gabby’s body was ultimately found nearby where they saw the van.

After the Bethunes’ video was posted on YouTube, another interested citizen, Brent Shavnore, a Marine Corps veteran turned videographer, enhanced the footage. What he found was chilling.

“You can clearly see the back door of their van abruptly close,” Shavnore posted on Twitter. And sure enough, still frames of the enhanced images show the rear panel door of Gabby’s van slightly open, and a split second later it is closed. It clearly looks like someone inside quickly shut the door as the Bethunes’ vehicle approached. Was that Gabby trying to escape? Was it Brian trying to hide something in the van?

Another observant person phoned police to say he had seen the young couple involved in a “domestic dispute” on a street in Moab, Utah, in mid-August. The tipster reported Brian was “slapping the girl” before they drove away. Police were dispatched and an officer’s body camera recorded a visibly upset Gabby explaining the fight. Acting every bit like a domestic violence victim, she blamed her own “anxiety” for the altercation. Brian nervously tells police, “She really gets worked up sometimes and I try to distance myself from it.”

At this writing there is still much we don’t know about this case, and Brian Laundrie is innocent until proven guilty. The sad fact is, we may never learn the full story about what happened to Gabby out there in the Wyoming wilderness because the truth died with her.

— Diane Dimond is a columnist with Creators Syndicate.

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