Investigators say they believe they have found the body of Gabby Petito. Now they have to figure out how the 22-year-old died—which could be complicated by the amount of time that has gone by, experts say.
Human remains discovered in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming are “consistent with the description of” the van-life blogger, authorities announced Sunday. Although Petito’s parents have been notified, a full forensic examination of the body has not yet been completed, and the cause of death is still undetermined.
That will be the job of forensic scientists and a medical examiner to determine—but the task becomes more challenging the longer a body is left exposed to time and the elements.
Petito, who had been on a cross-country road trip with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, was last heard from in late August and was declared missing Sept. 11. Laundrie returned home to Florida alone in Petito’s van Sept. 1 and was not cooperative with investigators before disappearing last week.
“We don’t know when she died,” Lawrence Kobilinsky, a forensic scientist and professor emeritus of forensic science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told The Daily Beast. “But we do know that she’s in an environment that’s very hot. You can get decomposition in a matter of a week.”
“It leaves you wondering what the state of the body is,” he continued. “If it is Gabby, and if she’s been deceased since around Aug. 24, the body could be in really bad shape.”
Dr. Lindsey Thomas, a consulting forensic pathologist in Wisconsin, said that loss of skin tissue due to decomposition robs examiners of their ability to spot key bruisings, lacerations, and tears. Animal activity also causes significant damage to bones and organs. “It’s one thing if it’s a gunshot wound, and they find a bullet,” she said. “If it’s anything else, and they just have skeletal remains, then they may ultimately never know.”
Depending on the state of the body, there are a number of things that investigators could use to use to generate a positive ID during an autopsy: height, weight, eye color, and hair color. An examiner could potentially match any tattoos on the remains with the ones Petito was known to have, including one on her forearm that read, “let it be.”
But there are a couple of tried-and-true methods that investigators would likely turn to first, according to Dr. Mecki Prinz, an expert in forensic DNA analysis and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Dental records would be the fastest way to ID a body,” she said. “Without a doubt. DNA would be an option, too.”
Pinpointing a cause of death would be the responsibility of the coroner, who will make a call as to which of five categories the death corresponds to: homicide, accident, suicide, natural causes, or undetermined. “The likelihood is high that he’ll declare it a homicide,” Kobilinsky said. “This is a healthy 22-year-old that went missing under mysterious circumstances.”
Even if the remains are mostly skeletal, a coroner would look for an impression in the skull or the fracturing of the hyoid bone in the neck—signs that would point to blunt force trauma and manual strangulation, respectively.
But “this will be a team effort, no matter what,” said Thomas. While forensic pathologists like her are suited to look at soft tissue injuries, it’s likely that a host of other experts—forensic anthropologists, entomologists, and radiologists, for example—will be called in to aid in the postmortem process.
It’s also unknown what other evidence authorities have gathered—from the van, from the scene of death, from the couple’s devices—that could help investigators determine when and how Petito died.
Police have not been able to speak to Laundrie, whose parents claim he left their Florida home last week for a nature preserve where officers have searched for two days with no sightings of him.
If he were to surface Monday and say Petito’s death was an accident, that’s also something “the coroner will have to weigh,” according to Kobilinsky.
“We simply don’t have all the facts yet,” he added. “In fact, nobody has declared yet this is definitely Gabby—although, you know, I think people are thinking it’s 99.9 percent [her]. But you have to dot the I’s and cross the T’s. And the only way you can do that is with an absolute positive identification.”