Doomed “van-lifer” Gabby Petito died by strangulation, Teton County, Wyoming, Coroner Brent Blue announced Tuesday.
“By Wyoming state statute, only the cause and manner of death are released,” said Blue, who last month ruled Petito’s death a homicide. “The autopsy findings and photographs and that sort of material [will not be] released.”
Law enforcement collected DNA samples from Petito’s remains, according to Blue, who declined to provide details but said her “body was outside for three to four weeks.” That means Petito was killed some time in mid to late August. She was not pregnant at the time of her death, said Blue.
The 22-year-old Petito’s disappearance and death captured the nation’s imagination—a case made only more mysterious by the subsequent disappearance of her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, who vanished two days after being named a person of interest. Laundrie, 23, has not been charged with Petito’s death, but the missing man was indicted by federal prosecutors in September for illegally using a debit card in Wyoming shortly after Petito was last seen alive.
The coroner acknowledged the outsized amount of press the Petito case has received compared to other, similar deaths.
“Unfortunately, this is only one of many deaths around the country, of people who are involved in domestic violence,” Blue said. “And it’s unfortunate that these other deaths do not get as much coverage as this one. I’m assuming that because the deceased was a blogger that this received more coverage than others, but there are a lot of both men and women who have lost their lives that aren’t covered with this kind of media attention.”
Petito’s father, Joe, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday morning that his family didn’t want to comment on the coroner’s findings just yet. He added they’ve been “leaning on each other when we need to. And we’ve got a lot to do.”
Following Blue’s announcement, Laundrie family lawyer Steven Bertolino issued a statement, saying, “Gabby Petito’s death at such a young age is a tragedy. While Brian Laundrie is currently charged with the unauthorized use of a debit card belonging to Gabby, Brian is only considered a person of interest in relation to Gabby Petito’s demise. At this time Brian is still missing and when he is located we will address the pending fraud charge against him.”
Laundrie returned on Sept. 1 to the North Port, Florida, home he and Petito shared with Laundrie’s parents. But Petito, inexplicably, was nowhere to be found. She was reported missing 10 days later by her parents, who said they received an “odd” text message from Petito prior to her death. Petito's body was discovered on Sept. 19 in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. She and Laundrie had been visiting U.S. national parks across the country on a months-long road trip. The two appeared to be living an idyllic existence out of Petito’s 2012 Ford Transit Connect van, posting footage online of themselves traveling happily together.
However, the strain of traveling in such close quarters for months on end had elevated tensions between the two, according to a police report The Daily Beast obtained in September. The couple got into a physical altercation on Aug. 12, while in Moab, Utah, the document revealed. A witness called 911 to report the two were fighting on a public sidewalk, and that he had seen Laundrie “slapping” Petito.
Later, cops apparently changed their minds about the incident and decided that Petito had been the aggressor. Another witness told police that Laundrie locked Gabby out of the van, to which she responded by hitting him in the arm and trying to climb into the vehicle through the window. Laundrie “tried to create distance” by telling Petito to take a walk and calm down, the police report stated. But Petito “didn’t want to be separated” from Laundrie, who grabbed Petito’s face and “pushed her back as she pressed upon him and the van,” it continued. The argument began over a phone, the police report stated.
The two told police that “they are in love and engaged to be married and desperately didn’t wish to see anyone charged with a crime,” the police report said, adding that Laundrie “did not exhibit any indicators that he may be a victim of ‘battered boyfriend syndrome,’” and that he was “assessed to be at low risk of danger or harm as a result of his proximity” to Petito.
In bodycam video of the encounter later released by authorities, Petito tells an officer that the two had been arguing over “personal issues.”
“I have really bad OCD, and I was just cleaning and straightening up the van before and apologizing to him and saying, ‘I’m sorry that I’m so mean,’ because sometimes I have OCD and sometimes I just get really frustrated,” Petito tells the cop. “I guess my vibe is like, I’ve really been in a bad mood.”
Both said they suffered from severe anxiety, and cops ultimately decided the event was a “mental/emotional health ‘break’” and not an assault. In the bodycam video, one of the cops can be seen on video telling Petito that he has “decided not to cite you for domestic violence battery.”
“I am separating you tonight,” he says to her. “I want you guys both to be tonight, away from each other, relax, breathe… I understand that this can feel like it’s a nightmare, but you’re coming out as the golden flower on top of it all.”
The cops released Petito’s van back to her, gave her the name of a facility where they said she could shower for “four or five bucks,” and got Laundrie a motel room for the night.
In the bodycam video, an officer driving Laundrie to the motel tells him, “I told her to go take a shower… cause she seems a lot like my wife. And things that really work for my wife is when she gets stressed out, to take a long hot shower.”
Before Laundrie went missing, he had refused to speak with investigators about what happened to Petito. His lawyer told The Daily Beast in a statement at the time that he advised Laundrie to continue keeping his lips sealed.
“In my experience, intimate partners are often the first person law enforcement focuses their attention on in cases like this and the warning that ‘any statement made will be used against you’ is true, regardless of whether my client had anything to do with Ms. Petito’s disappearance,” Bertolino said in an email.
The search for Laundrie has so far been focused on the Carlton Reserve, a 25,000-acre wilderness area in Florida’s Sarasota County. Laundrie’s parents told investigators on Sept. 17 that their son headed to the reserve on Sept. 14 but then revised their story to say he had in fact gone there on Sept. 13.
Authorities have combed the area for any sign of Laundrie over the past weeks, using drones, divers, and dogs to look for clues. Laundrie’s parents, who have reportedly received death threats, will not take a polygraph test, according to Bertolino.