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Gabby Petito and the search for perfect justice

Mark Legg is a staff writer for Denison Forum. He graduated from Dallas Baptist University with a degree in philosophy and biblical studies. He eventually wants to pursue his PhD and become a professor in philosophy.

Gabby Petito and the search for perfect justice
This police camera video provided by The Moab Police Department shows Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito talking to a police officer after police pulled over the van she was traveling in with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, near the entrance to Arches National Park on Aug. 12, 2021. (The Moab Police Department via AP)

NOTE: Thank you to Denison Forum staff writer Mark Legg for writing today’s Daily Article. Mark has written twenty articles for Denison Forum and has provided research for many others.

True crime shows seem to have an undeniable draw. Netflix’s show Tiger King was watched by 64 million households over the first month of its release, and Tiger King 2 was just announced. True crime podcasts often land in the top twenty in ratings. Sometimes, the public will become caught up in a high-profile case as it plays out, perhaps most infamously in the O. J. Simpson trial.

The disappearance and death of twenty-two-year-old Gabby Petito has similarly captured the nation’s attention. The story was swept up by social media and national news sites alike, fueled primarily by TikTok.

Petito and her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, gathered a social media following with their minimalist van life and adventures across the country. But their purportedly pristine life covered up increasing tension between the couple, reports of Laundrie’s temper flaring, and Petito’s eventual disappearance.

The investigation is ongoing, but what do we know for sure?

A timeline for the disappearance of Gabby Petito

Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie set out on a several-month-long cross-country trip in their van at the beginning of July. Petito documented the “van life” with her fiancé on social media, appearing to experience beatific bliss camping together. In August, they uploaded their first YouTube video to document the trip. Nothing seemed amiss.

In late August, the couple traveled to Grand Teton National Park. Suddenly, Petito stopped posting to social media, and her parents were unable to reach her. They received one last suspicious text from her phone on August 30 which read “No service in Yosemite.”

On September 1, Brian Laundrie returned to his house in Florida in their van without Petito. Laundrie refused to give Peitito’s whereabouts or even talk about what happened.

On September 11, Petito’s family reported her as missing. Laundrie’s lawyer told police that he advised Laundrie not to speak with authorities, and Laundrie “plead the Fifth.”

On September 15, the police described Laundrie as a person of interest.

On September 17, Laundrie’s parents told police they had not seen him since September 14, when he supposedly went hiking.

The FBI found Petito’s body on September 19.

On September 22, they publicly ruled her death a homicide.

As of this writing, the police haven’t found Laundrie. As of Thursday evening, the FBI placed a warrant out for his arrest because he used Petito’s debit card, though they are still investigating his involvement in her homicide. Laundrie’s large head start makes the manhunt incredibly difficult. Though they are searching in the swamps of a Florida national park, many suspect that this is a false lead.

The good and bad of social media and “web sleuthing”

Underneath the facts lurks the involvement of social media, both apparently for ill and as a tool for good.

Gabby Petito and her fiancé’s lives were public, but social media hid their domestic disputes that arose in the days leading to her death. The police released bodycam footage of when they stopped the couple on August 12 because of a 911 call that reported Laundrie hitting Petito. They stayed in separate places for the night, per the recommendation of the officers, but the next day the couple reunited and continued their road trip. This presents a tragic reminder showing how social media can whitewash people’s broken lives.

The difference between previous crimes that garnered nationwide attention is that, with TikTok, this case unfolded in almost real time to millions of people and allowed them to “investigate” themselves. The involvement of interested but ordinary people trying to uncover crimes is called “web sleuthing.” With so much attention, video clips and eyewitness testimonies were discovered that aided the investigation, narrowing their search for Petito. These testimonies may become critical evidence in an upcoming trial.

Due to the Laundrie family’s perceived reluctance to cooperate with the police, a protest gathered outside their house on September 17, demanding that he and the family speak up. At that point, unbeknownst to the crowd, Laundrie had already gone on the run.

As of September 22, #GabbyPetito received more than 794 million views on TikTok. The family used the platform to garner support and raise awareness of her case, but many are criticizing the sensationalizing effect of TikTok.

So, while amateur investigators on social media and the public’s attention did aid the investigation, it also led to confusion and, in the opinion of some, it made a tragedy into a public spectacle. Countless theories cropped up in the days where Gabby was still missing. Some were conspiratorial, some were reasonable, but everyone seemed to have an opinion.

Now the Petito family seeks justice and mourns the loss of the young woman. Undoubtedly, the court case will draw similar national attention when it comes to trial.

Imperfect justice and “missing white woman syndrome”

Some are using this case to bring another issue of justice and human imperfection into focus. On most news sites covering the Petito case, they are drawing attention to a trend in public attention called “missing white woman syndrome.”

This observation claims that missing persons cases usually gain nationwide attention only if the subject is a woman and white. One study at least tentatively supports this conclusion, and anecdotal evidence seems to confirm this correlation. (For more, read what the Bible says about racism and look through the resources we’ve compiled on the subject.)

I have two simple observations: most news sites reported on the “missing white woman syndrome,” and most of those same news sites extensively reported on the Gabby Petito case anyway.

Gabby Petito’s bright life was cut short through homicide. Turning her death into a political point seems inconsiderate at best. How do we honor her family while still redressing the racialized tendency of the public eye?

It all becomes a tangled mess. I certainly have no answers, but thankfully someone does.

Perfect justice for Gabby Petito

Governments must carry out justice. That is part of their purpose according to Scripture (1 Peter 2:13–14). However, human institutions will always fail to mete out perfect justice. The power and knowledge of human institutions will remain limited, yet they are not in the case of God.

May God reveal tainted hearts and eyes to us; only he alone knows true justice untainted by prejudice.

Convicting each of us, Christ teaches that anger itself reveals a heart of murder. Sin, though varying in its severity, is common to all people. Christ both deals out justice and, praise God, forgives us our own sins and our own anger, which infects our hearts and which Christ says is akin to murder (Matthew 5:21–23). In our own relationships, we should pray for healing from malice and “not let the sun go down on our anger” (Ephesians 4:26).

Though officials will likely find Laundrie—and hopefully justice will prevail—ultimate justice will be dealt from God’s perfect throne of judgment.

Pray for the Petito family and that they will find justice and peace. Empathize and mourn with them. Join me in praying that they will be blessed and comforted (Matthew 5:4).

Then, consider others in your lives who are mourning and mourn alongside them. Though we cannot directly show love to the Petito family, tragedy will strike at friends and family close to us.

When it does, let us draw near to them with compassion.