Ghoulish online True Crime communities, online sleuthing & the case of Gabby Petito

There’s nothing new about human interest in crime but as we watched the revelations around the murder of Gabby Petito play out on social media, a ghoulish and repugnant entertainment factor crept in. 

On Tuesday the Teton County, Wyoming, Coroner, Dr. Brent Blue confirmed that Gabby Petito died by strangulation, the latest in a story that has gripped the online “True Crime” community. Podcasts, TikToks and blogs as well as a hashtag #FindGabby have all served to bring the case to the attention of online ghouls who positively relish each new development.

Gabby isn’t a cool online mystery – she was a real person

Many of the online conversations around her disappearance and, finally, the tragic circumstances of her subsequent discovery were unseemly at best and grotesque at worst, with people ignoring that Gabby wasn’t just a cool online mystery, but a real human with a life she had lost. Not just a life ripe for investigation – especially via her online persona and postings – but a life that had been so cruelly taken. The internet was convinced of the culprit – indeed the evidence does seem overwhelming – but trial by internet sleuth doesn’t always go so well.

No lessons learnt by Reddit’s hunt for Boston Bomber

Sunil Tripathi was one of these horror stories. Three days after the Boston bombing on April 15, 2013 – where two bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon – images were released by police of two suspects. Reddit quickly set to working out who these grainy photos might have been. Users of the social media site, emboldened by the success of their “intelligence” used in informing the investigation into the 2012 Colorado cinema shooting, one user uploaded a side by side comparison photo. One side was a person of interest for the police. The other was Sunil. His photograph had been found on a Facebook page his family had set up to help locate him as he had been a missing person for a couple of months by then. From there, the interest in tracking down those responsible for the bombings snowballed. Only Sunil couldn’t have been responsible for any such terrorist act. He was already dead. 

Buzzfeed and Twitter only amplified things when it emerged that the family had taken down their Facebook page once nasty comments had spread onto the page, accusing Sunil of terrorism. His family, devastated, decided they could no longer take it. The family received threats and Islamophobic hatred (even though they are not Muslim). Reddit did apologise to the family, suggesting that the case should make users more sensitive in the future. But lessons have not been learned. 

Suspicion and allegation – a timeline

Though the case of Gabby Petito, Brian Laundrie and what has happened so far seems very clear cut and obvious in terms of suspects, it’s important for the legal integrity of the case that due process is followed. So what’s happened so far?

For anyone who has lived under an internet rock recently, here is a brief timeline of what has happened so far. This case was ripe for attention given that Gabby Petito is a pretty, white, middle class woman who already had a following on social media. Much has already been said about the fact that Petito’s story has garnered so much attention, in contrast with the disappearance of hundreds of indigenous women who haven’t had the same treatment and attention. Parallels have also been drawn with Madeline McCann when it comes to media attention and pretty white girls. 

In June, Gabby Petito and her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, embarked on a trip across the West Coast of the USA. They were travelling in Petito’s white van and Gabby was updating her social media regularly as well as keeping in touch with her family and friends.

Things changed in August, in Utah. On 12 August, Utah police were called to what they called “an altercation” between the couple. Body cam footage from the interaction with Laundrie and Petito and the Utah cops has been pored over by thousands, who have condemned the police response and made assertions about the way Gabby and Laundrie acted and felt at the time, putting their own spin on what occurred and suggesting that the police should have done more, based on how Petito appeared. It’s so easy, in hindsight, to believe you can “see” what lay ahead when it comes to allegations about Laundrie’s actions. The truth is always much more complicated that that. One of the police officers wrote “both the male and female reported they are in love and engaged to be married and desperately didn’t wish to see anyone charged with a crime”, described Petito as “confused and emotional” and concluded “after evaluating the totality of the circumstances, I do not believe the situation escalated to the level of a domestic assault as much as that of a mental health crisis”.

On September 1st, Laundrie returned to his home, without Gabby. He was driving her van. 

However it wasn’t until September 11th that her family finally reported Gabby missing because they couldn’t get hold of her. They had not been aware that Brian had been back at his home with his parents since the first of September and that they had also been on a camping trip on the 6th and 7th of September. Laundrie never said a thing to Petito’s family once he returned about Gabby’s whereabouts and when the police arrived to question Brian, they were rebuked and told to liaise with the family’s legal counsel.

On September 17, the Laundrie family say they haven’t seen Brian for three days. He has been missing ever since. Police continue the search for him.

On September 19th, Gabby Petito was found dead at Bridget-Teton National Forest in Teton County. The search for her was narrowed down considerably when video footage emerged from a couple undertaking an annual road trip in memory of their child. It showed Gabby’s van in a particular location near to where she was eventually uncovered.

Gabby’s manner of death was determined as strangulation on October 12.

Let me tell you a tale of murder most horrid…

True Crime will always be a subject of fascination for us as human beings. Most of us, to some extent, will have consumed media with murder as a key story point. Especially when it comes to morbid curiosity about the crimes of some of our most prolific serial killers. I am certainly guilty of indulging that interest, having a particular fascination for crime fiction and documentaries about some of the most heinous crimes our world has ever been. However, what I am not comfortable about is the salacious way that real, live, true crime is dealt with in some online communities as cases unfold. It is one thing to pore over details some time after these things have occurred but to seek to influence a case and “gamify” a case for one’s own amusement, that much I draw the line at. Speculation can, at worst, negatively affect court proceedings and imperil justice being done. The effect on the family, whose lives are being treated like a soap opera, cannot be truly appreciated. Whether it was online sleuthing and gamification while Gabby was missing or poring over Laundrie and Petite’s blog for clues once she had been found, this ghoulish behaviour only serves to denigrate the grief that the family must feel. The fact that there are memes dedicated to the case just adds to the sense that this is one big game for consumption.

Ramp up the rhetoric; hype up the hysteria

The engagement these bloggers and vloggers receive only serves to embolden them, they ramp up the rhetoric and hysteria to ride on the wave of the interest in the story. The case going viral expands the audience and increases the amount of leads – which is seen as positive until you realise that a significant proportion of the leads are likely to be useless – perhaps even false – as those who wish to involve themselves in a real crime do it, so they can talk about it “on the socials”. What’s worse is these communities often decline into hot beds of misinformation and conspiracy theories, which become even more invasive for the families and friends of the victims, devolving into speculation over treacherous intrigue and the internal machinations of some kind of organisation. These communities turn into macabre, morbid cesspits, hungry for yet more obscene and lurid details that they feel entitled to.

Whatever happens with this case, whether Laundrie is guilty or not, I will not forget seeing how easily people can ignore the humanity of victims and their loved ones, desperate for just another development in a real live case, with real life grief involved, desperate for views and clicks. That, to me, is different to consuming documentaries, books and podcasts on older crimes, where justice has been done. Gabby Petito is not just another episode of CSI, or Silent Witness. Her death is not yours to investigate and it is not a source of entertainment. She’s not a character in a game. Respect for a grieving family must come first and to treat each new development as the next instalment to assuage your morbid curiosity is a sad indictment of some of the worst aspects of today’s obsession with social media engagement and content for “likes”. Gabby deserves better than that.

Further recommended reading:

TikTok’s Obsession With The Gabby Petito Case Is Sparking A Debate Over How Much True Crime Fans Are Really Helping

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