As authorities double down on search efforts Tuesday for the fiancé of 22-year-old YouTuber Gabby Petito, new details have emerged about what led the FBI to the body believed to be hers outside Grand Teton National Park.
A graphic designer who was at the Bridger-Teton National Forest in late August may have been the key to authorities finding the body over the weekend. The grim discovery turned a high-profile missing-person’s case into a potential murder mystery, with a nomadic “van-life” couple at the center.
Jessica Schultz says she alerted the FBI about a strange man she says she had encountered driving a van in the area and “acting weird” days after Petito was last seen alive.
The man, who Schultz described as “generic” looking in comments to The San Francisco Chronicle, was driving a white van very slowly down a narrow road in a camping area of the forest on Aug. 26.
“He was just acting weird,” Schultz told the Chronicle of the encounter. “You know, when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, your hackles go up when you see something that’s out of the ordinary.”
“He was very awkward and confused and it was just him, there was no Gabby,” Schultz said of the sighting on TikTok.
Schultz, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, told the Chronicle she saw the van parked in the same area the next day, on Aug. 27—when she found it odd that the vehicle was there but not in a designated parking spot, and with no indications of anyone camping.
The van was there for “several days and nights,” she said, but there were no “signs of actual life.”
The vehicle was still sitting there on Aug. 28, she said, but was gone by Aug. 29.
Schultz felt compelled to go to authorities, she said, after seeing footage that led her to the mind-blowing revelation that the “weird” guy she’d seen was Brian Laundrie, the man declared a “person of interest” in Petito’s disappearance. Bodycam footage of a domestic incident investigated by police in Moab, Utah, in early August, and released last week showed Petito crying in the couple’s van—and a familiar straw hat sitting on the dashboard, Schultz said.
“My friend texted me a picture of the hat on the dashboard and I just lost my s—,” Schultz told The Chronicle. “And that’s when I called the FBI (on Thursday) and said, ‘Guys, look at Spread Creek.’”
A body said to match the physical description of Petito was found in the Spread Creek camping area on Sunday.
The potential sighting of Laundrie in the camping area would have occurred just a few days before he returned to his home in Florida in Petito’s van, offering no explanation as to why she was not with him.
After reportedly refusing to cooperate with police when Petito’s family reported her missing on Sept. 11, Laundrie threw another wrench into the investigation when he himself vanished just before the discovery of a body.
Police in North Port, Florida, have been scouring an alligator-infested nature area where Laundrie’s parents say he told them he was going hiking last Tuesday, only to never return.
“Tuesday, we will once again continue our search efforts in the Carlton Reserve, where Brian reportedly visited a week ago today to go hiking,” the North Port Police Department said in a statement.
The statement also emphasized that federal investigators are now leading the probe: “This is an FBI led criminal investigation and North Port Police are assisting our federal partner in any way we can to bring this investigation to a close.”
Police are also hoping to find digital evidence that could provide clues about Petito’s death after seizing an external hard drive from Laundrie’s home on Friday.
A search warrant signed on Sept. 15 says police are also going through emails, text messages, internet browsing history, and other computer files.
The warrant also reveals the “odd” final text message sent from Petito’s phone: a bizarre plea to “help Stan,” her grandfather, that seemed so uncharacteristic and random that it left Petito’s mother “concerned that something was wrong with her daughter.”
Petito’s mother has said she last spoke to her daughter on Aug. 25, and while she received a couple of text messages before all communication “abruptly stopped,” she cannot be sure the subsequent messages came from Gabby.