The couple was visiting national parks in the West in their van before Petito went missing — and though she never lived in Utah, her love of nature and her time spent there connects her with the community, vigil organizer Serena Chavez said.
“We won’t forget about you. We won’t let your light dim,” Chavez said in front of the group. “We will remember other women or children who are missing. Their families are devastated, and I can only imagine what Gabby’s family is going through.”
Petito’s remains were found Sunday in an undeveloped camping area in Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming. She was first reported missing by her family on September 11, after her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, returned home to Florida from the road trip without her on September 1.
Authorities have been searching a Florida nature preserve for Laundrie. And after her death was ruled a homicide Tuesday, the FBI turned to the public, asking for help finding him.
Before she moved to Florida, Petito worked as a hostess at Smoke on the Water in Wilmington, North Carolina, where coworkers say she made everyone feel loved, according to CNN affiliate WWAY.
“She’s not just a name. She’s not just a case. She was a person, and she was very special to a lot of people and many of us here,” General Manager Lara Witschen told WWAY. “She was a good soul, a good spirit, and touched so many lives. That’s what we want her to be remembered for.”
Witness says she saw a ‘commotion’ involving the couple
Petito’s story has become a national obsession for many, spurring digital detectives to comb through the couple’s online trail to try to solve the case. The story has also further highlighted the tens of thousands of missing persons’ stories that do not garner such intense interest; there were nearly 90,000 active missing person cases as of the end of 2020, according to the National Crime Information Center.
And it has led to members of the public coming forward with accounts of Petito’s last days.
On Wednesday, Nina Angelo told CNN that she and her boyfriend, Matt England, saw a “commotion” as the couple was leaving The Merry Piglets Tex-Mex restaurant in Jackson, Wyoming.
Angelo said Petito was in tears and Laundrie was visibly angry, going into and out of the restaurant several times, showing anger toward the staff around the hostess stand. The couple’s waitress was also visibly shaken by the incident, according to Angelo, who told CNN she did not see any violence or physical altercation between Petito and Laundrie.
A manager at The Merry Piglets, who declined to give her name, told CNN that she did see “an incident” at the restaurant on August 27 and called the FBI on Wednesday. The manager declined to describe what happened and said the restaurant did not have surveillance video of the incident.
Separately, Jessica Schultz told the San Francisco Chronicle that she saw Laundrie parked in a white van on August 26 at Grand Teton National Park, and no one appeared to be with him.
And in a series of videos on TikTok, Miranda Baker said she and her boyfriend gave Laundrie a ride on August 29 in Wyoming — and that he claimed he was camping by himself for multiple days while Petito was back at their van working on social media posts.
Baker said they picked up Laundrie while he was hitchhiking in Colter Bay, Wyoming, which is not far from where Petito’s remains were found. He offered to pay $200 for the ride before he even got in the car, she said.
The search continues for Laundrie.
Investigators are meanwhile focused on finding Laundrie, who arrived at his parents’ home in North Port, Florida, three weeks ago, and has not spoken to police about the case.
His family told police he left home with his backpack on Tuesday and told them he was going to the nearby Carlton Reserve.
Authorities have combed the reserve over the past few days, and the search will resume on Thursday, according to Josh Taylor, Communications Manager for the North Port Police Department.
A team of about 10 divers from the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office are taking part in the search, according to Kaitlyn Perez, Sarasota County sheriff’s office spokesperson.
The Sheriff’s Underwater Recovery Force (SURF) team is highly specialized, Perez said.
“In the state of Florida we have really unique bodies of water from marshes to beaches to lakes and kind of everything in between.”
“These divers are specifically trained and very talented in low visibility bodies of water,” she said. “They dive down where you and I can’t see anything at all. They utilize technology and other special equipment to help them get down deep, into really deep bodies of water.”
Commander Joe Fussell of the North Port Police Department said they have “deployed numerous resources, and we are trying to cover every acre in this preserve.”
911 call of a domestic dispute
Police in Florida said in a recent search warrant affidavit that Petito’s mother received an odd text on August 27 and that it was the last communication from her.
Petito, who was chronicling the couple’s trip through national parks, also stopped posting to social media at that time.
Throughout the trip, the couple had posted online regularly about their travels with the hashtag #VanLife, but those posts abruptly stopped in late August.
Evidence from a 911 call about a “domestic dispute” involving Petito and Laundrie shows the couple’s volatile relationship was not as aspirational as their sun-drenched lives on Instagram and YouTube suggested.
A man who saw the domestic dispute between Petito and Laundrie in Utah last month said, “They were talking aggressively at each other, and something seemed off.”
In a handwritten sworn statement, the witness named Chris — whose last name was redacted in the document provided by Moab City Police to CNN — said it appeared that the two were arguing over control of Petito’s phone. “At one point she was punching him in the arm and/or face and trying to get into the van.”
The witness said he heard Petito say, “Why do you have to be so mean?” although Chris added that he couldn’t be sure if the comment was meant to be taken seriously. Moab City Police responded to the incident, and the couple agreed to spend the night apart.
The City of Moab, Utah, is investigating the Moab City Police Department’s handling of a possible domestic dispute, a statement from the city said.
CNN’s Randi Kaye and Kari Pricher, Leyla Santiago and Rebekah Riess, Amanda Watts and Joe Sutton contributed to this report.