The Death of Gabby Petito
Some ten months ago, the nation and some of the world, at least those on social media, were obsessed with the case of Gabrielle Petito, a young new Long Island woman and wannabe social influencer, who disappeared while on a trip with her fiancée, Brian Laundrie. Laundrie, Laundry; Petito, Potato – tennesseeflyboy (wordpress.com) Laundrie also disappeared – but was “seen” all over the country, particularly along the Appalachian Trail in the Smoky Mountains of Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Ms. Petito’s remains, or what was left of them, was found a couple of weeks after her parents reported her to New York law enforcement as missing and Laundrie’s remains were also found a few weeks later after flood waters subsided in the park near his home where he had gone hiking. Among his belongings was a notebook. FBI specialists were able to replicate the pages, or some of them, and the FBI, who has sole jurisdiction over the case since Ms. Petito died on Federal land, issued a cryptic statement that Laundrie “took responsibility” for her death. The young couple’s belongings were recently returned to the two affected families’ attorneys, including Laundrie’s notebook which the Laundrie family attorney released to the media, at least in part including the last pages in which he related generally what had happened. Her death is shocking to say the least.
At this point let me comment on my background – I grew up on a farm in rural West Tennessee and spent most of my time out of doors. Later in life I became a hiker, backpacker and caver in northeast Kentucky where I lived for a time. As an Air Force aircrewmember, I completed extensive survival training in the mountains of Washington State and Idaho and sea survival training off of Okinawa. I also had a neighbor die of exposure recently practically in my backyard. I’ve been in every state in the Union as well as several foreign countries and have hiked in the Rockies. I find Laundrie’s explanation perfectly plausible.
According to what Laundrie wrote in his last minutes before he put a pistol to his head and blew his brains out, he and Petito were exploring along Spread Creek in the Bridger-Teton National Forest south of Yellowstone National Park when she slipped and fell in the water and suffered injury to her forehead. Night fell quickly and temperatures dropped. She was in agony and after failing to carry her back to where their van was parked, he decided to put her out of her misery. Naturally, those who had already made their minds up that Laundrie was an abuser and had killed her in an act of domestic violence pooh-pooh his account. However, as an experienced outdoorsman, I see nothing wrong with it. Barring evidence to contradict it, I must accept his account at face value. The FBI seems to have.
Laundrie and Petito were camped on a spur of the main forest road leading into the Spread Creek dispersed camping area. The Forestry Service designates camp sites where people may camp for specified periods. Spread Creek drains from east to west into the Snake River about 3.5-4 miles from where Petito’s body was found. He doesn’t say whether they went exploring upstream or downstream from where their van was parked. He only says they were caught by darkness and were making their way toward their vehicle when he heard her cry out in pain. The creek bed is over 1,000 feet wide although the stream, which is divided into forks in places, is only a few feet wide except when it’s filled with water during wet weather. Darkness fell quickly. They were east of the Grand Tetons and thus in their shadow. Concerned about the sudden approach of darkness, they hurried toward their van. She fell in the water.
He didn’t see her fall but heard her cry out. It took him a while to find her in the darkening twilight. When he did, he picked her up and started carrying her toward their van. Her clothes were soaking wet and she was shivering. He carried her until he could carry her no further. He had apparently carried her to within 500-1,000 feet of their van. He put her down and built a fire. He doesn’t say how he built it but he was an experienced backpacker and probably had matches. Although the coroner didn’t say much when he announced his findings – Wyoming coroners are prohibited by law from revealing the results of an autopsy – he did acknowledge that Petito had “blunt force” trauma to her head along with evidence of strangulation. This is consistent with Laundrie’s description of a growing knot on her forehead.
Falling in a stream is not uncommon, especially since she was hurrying and in dwindling daylight. Laundrie says the bump was on her forehead, which may indicate she fell forward and hit a rock. Spread Creek is very rocky. He also says the bump was rapidly enlarging, an indication of bleeding under the skin. She was shaking and complained about her feet hurting. How Petito was dressed is unclear. Regardless, her clothes were soaking wet after her fall in the stream. He believed she was becoming hypothermic, which is very well possible. Hypothermia is a cooling of the body. An internal body temperature of 50 degrees F is fatal. One “expert” interviewed by FOX News claimed the temperature in Wyoming then was “only” in the high forties, which is definitely cold enough to cause hypothermia, especially if the person is wearing wet clothing. As an Air Force crewmember, I often flew over cold Arctic waters. I attended survival training and refresher training several times. We were taught that our survival time in such waters without an exposure suit, a rubber suit in which some water is allowed in to form a layer of insulation, is measured in minutes. A few years ago a neighbor died of hypothermia almost in my back yard. It was on New Year’s Eve. This is the Texas Gulf Coast and it wasn’t that cold that night, probably in the forties. He went to a New Year’s Eve party at another neighbor’s house. He was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. His wife left him and went home. The next morning someone saw him sitting with his back propped against a fence. Several people passed by before someone went over to check on him. He was dead. He died only a few hundred feet from his house.
I had my own experience with hypothermia one January night. I flew a load of automotive parts, Holly carburetors, from the factory in West Tennessee to Detroit. The Piper Navajo I was flying had a Janitrol gasoline heater. The heater worked part of the way up but didn’t come on at all on my return trip. I spent over 2 ½ hours in the cockpit in temperatures below zero. I have no idea what the temperature was in the airplane but it was COLD. I was dressed warmly, or so I thought. I had on flannel pajama bottoms under corduroy slacks with a flannel shirt under a sweater. To top it, I wore my L.L. Bean Stadium Coat, a long pile-lined coat with a hood. I also had on a stocking cap, gloves and insulated hunting boots. Still, I got cold, really cold. I was shivering. Every minute seemed like hours until my home airport finally came in sight. After I landed and parked the airplane, I went outside and started my car then went back inside the office, a large room with a gas heater, to do my paperwork. I continued shivering. I shivered all the way home even though I had the heater on full blast. I didn’t stop shivering until I got in a warm bath my wife drew for me. Gabby Petito was shivering while Brian Laundrie “spooned” against her in front of a fire he had built.
Petito was in agony. Her head was hurting and she was fading out of consciousness. Fearing she had a concussion, Laundrie kept waking her up. She berated him for bringing her back to the agony she was enduring. He wanted to leave her by the fire and go try to find their car and get help, although just where he would have found it is uncertain. They were next to a creek bank in a National Forest in Wyoming, some thirty miles from Jackson, the nearest town. He doesn’t mention trying to call on a cell phone. Chances are, there was no service since it was a remote area. Gabby wouldn’t let him leave her. She was afraid the fire would go out. She was unable to move and wouldn’t be able to put wood on it. Laundrie feared the same thing, that the fire would go out and she’d die of hypothermia. He didn’t know what to do.
Laundrie was in the worst kind of predicament. He was thirty miles from the nearest civilization in a national forest with no facilities. His partner, his fiancé, was seriously injured and in agony. He had no way to relieve her pain and felt unable to leave her side. He had no idea of the extent of her injuries other than the knot on her head, which was growing larger, and that she was in excruciating pain. He does not state that she asked him to kill her but the implication is certainly there. He doesn’t say how he did it – he merely says, “I ended her life.”
Immediately after he did it, he felt he’d made a terrible mistake. It occurred to him that he should have built a fire as soon as he found her rather than trying to carry her to the car. How far away they were from the car when she fell is unknown. Her remains were found several weeks later on the side of Spread Creek less than 1,000 feet from where their van showed up in a passerby’s video. He does not say what he did immediately after her death other than to say that he “panicked”, although he doesn’t state if it was before or after he killed her. He apparently decided right then to kill himself but he wanted to go back home and see his parents and other family first. Just when he killed Petito is unknown nor is it known when he left for Florida. All that’s known is that he returned to his parent’s home on September 1; a traffic camera captured the van coming off the interstate at 10:30 AM.
Just what Laundrie told his parents when he returned home without Petito is unknown. Either he or they contacted an attorney they knew in New York and he told them not to talk to anyone, including Petito’s family. The situation has been complicated because her parents and stepfather have filed a wrongful death suit against the Laundries, although how they can expect to win such a suit is unclear since they had nothing to do with her death. They hired an attorney soon after they reported her missing and set up a foundation and started collecting money from the public immediately after her remains were found. They are linking her death to domestic violence even though Brian’s suicide note states that she was injured in a fall and he killed her to end her misery. The suit is ongoing and the attorneys are restricted as to what they may make public.
The FBI put out a statement that Brian “took responsibility” for her death in a suicide note several months ago. Both the Laundries and the Petito/Schmidt families were advised of the contents. Schmidt’s attorney alleges that there is another document “on an electronic device” that is different. The Laundrie’s attorney has acknowledged that there is something else. The contents of that document have yet to be revealed. Unless there is something dramatically different about it, I see no reason to doubt Laundrie’s account. He was the only one who knew what happened.