Home Web internet A road trip, a missing fiancée and the online detective who helped find a body

A road trip, a missing fiancée and the online detective who helped find a body

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Hundreds of thousands of people go missing in the United States every year. But it’s rare for a single case to grab public attention – and inspire individuals to act – as the disappearance of Gabrielle Petito did.

In July, the 22-year-old left New York for a trip across the country with her fiance, Brian Laundrie, who is 23. As they headed west in a white Ford pickup truck, the couple posted photos and videos of their journeys to Instagram and YouTube. Then, on September 1, Laundrie returned from the trip alone. Ten days later, Petito’s family reported his disappearance.

The case has become a sensation in the United States, in large part because of the awareness generated by people watching it unfold on social media. Each new development was followed by a flurry of explainer posts and videos from potential sleuths on TikTok, Instagram and Twitter, who saw their follower numbers skyrocket. The theories have been debated and debunked. And a couple of influencers may have helped locate the leftovers that fit Petito’s description.

The couple recalled seeing a white van and combed through their footage to see if it appeared

Paris Campbell, comedian and writer, took to the case on social media early last week, as interest in the case was growing. She first read Petito in the Daily Mail on September 13, but hadn’t seen much of the story on social media.

As a new mother, Campbell, who is 28, was forced to use her platform (around 150,000 subscribers on TikTok at the time) to try to reunite Petito’s parents with their daughter.

Her first TikTok on Petito featured a “Missing” poster that she had seen in an article about the young woman’s disappearance. “Capture it, share it,” Campbell says in the video. “This girl is actively missing.”

In the days that followed, Campbell posted around 40 videos, including updates and analysis of Petito and Laundrie’s Instagram feeds. One commentator, who identified himself as Petito’s cousin, wrote that the Petito family appreciated the attention they had given to the case and hoped it would continue.

“Oh man, his family saw that,” Campbell recalls. “I want to make sure I’m providing accurate information and being respectful. “

Kyle and Jenn Bethune, who have lived on a bus with their three children and four dogs for two years, travel the United States and make videos for YouTube and Instagram, have also paid attention to the story of Petito and his disappearance.

Just before midnight on Saturday, a friend reached out to Jenn Bethune with information that Petito and Laundrie may have been in Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming, along with the Bethune family.

Jenn Bethune “jumped out of bed,” Kyle Bethune says, and began to rewatch the video she had taken while in Wyoming.

The 2012 Ford Transit minivan for couple adventure across the country. Photograph: Handout / North Port Police Department / AFP via Getty

The couple recalled seeing a white van and combed through their footage to see if it appeared. “There you go, we saw it, clear as day,” says Kyle Bethune.

Jenn Bethune called the FBI to alert them to their discovery. The person she spoke to directed her to a website to share Petito tips. They uploaded the video there and also added it to the start of a video they had planned to release that morning.

“We know the power of social media,” says Kyle Bethune.

The video went viral, and Jenn Bethune received a request to speak on the phone with Petito’s mother, Nichole Schmidt. The two women have been linked in a shared loss: The day the couple discovered the video footage showing the van allegedly marked the 17th birthday of Ethan Roeder, son of Jenn Bethune and stepson of Kyle Bethune, who died in a car accident while on a family trip.

“They had a huge heart-to-heart and mom-to-mom conversation,” says Kyle Bethune, “and a good shout.”

She was drawn to Petito because of their similarities – young women, active on social media, engaged couples – and began posting about her case on TikTok.

On Sunday, after a search involving investigators from the US National Park Service, local authorities and the FBI, human remains matching Petito’s profile were found near the location of the van in the video.

Mark Lewis, writer and director of the Netflix documentary series Don’t F ** k With Cats, which portrays two amateur sleuths who used Facebook and other sites in the 2010s in an attempt to solve a mystery, says that “this idea of ​​Internet detective and vigilantism on the Internet “is not new. “From the security of your living room, you can do amazing things in terms of detection,” he says. “And a lot, a lot of people are.”

Haley Toumaian, a 24-year-old data analyst who lives outside of Los Angeles, is one of them. During the pandemic, she started recording a real crime podcast called Inhuman with one of her friends.

She was drawn to Petito because of their similarities – young women, active on social media, engaged couples – and began posting about her case on TikTok.

With virtually every new development, she has updated her subscribers. While in a car on her way to a friend’s wedding last weekend, Florida Police posted a tweet containing information debunking a rumor she mentioned in a TikTok she posted. Earlier in the day.

Brian Laundrie speaks with police as she responds to an altercation between Laundrie and his girlfriend.  Photograph: Handout / Moab City Police Department / AFP via Getty

Brian Laundrie speaks with police as she responds to an altercation between Laundrie and his girlfriend. Photograph: Handout / Moab City Police Department / AFP via Getty

Toumaian felt she needed to correct the case by immediately posting a new video. “It doesn’t look good,” she says of the car video, “but I wanted to stream it before the wedding because I wasn’t going to be on the phone during the ceremony.”

In addition to social media posts, the case was eagerly covered by many US national media outlets. Petito’s name was mentioned dozens of times on CNN on Sunday, the day the human remains have been discovered in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The New York Times ran a news article and a live briefing. Fox News has issued several news alerts in recent days.

Martin G Reynolds, executive director of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, said he was struck by the disproportionate media attention to missing white women, a concern he said is compounded by competitive coverage. (At a journalism conference in 2004, PBS presenter Gwen Ifill described this phenomenon as “missing white woman syndrome.”)

The demographics of the industry are a big factor, says Reynolds. “Our newsrooms don’t reflect the diversity of the country, and the people in editing positions are even less diverse,” says Reynolds, whose organization works with journalists of color. “Until journalism corrects this, we will continue to be less and less relevant to audiences that reflect the future.”

We can play the game of ‘Oh that’s because she was a vlogger’ and all that stuff, but we can also see that she’s a Gen Z, blonde, little girl, and that’s what gets clicks

Online interest in Petito’s case has also prompted editors to follow his story closely. “Journalism in general tends to be reactionary, and if we see something explode on any of these platforms, we’re going to jump over it,” Reynolds says.

Alvin Williams, host of Affirmative Murder, a podcast that focuses on real crimes with black and brunette victims, echoed Reynolds’ analysis.

“I’m incredibly happy that she gets the resources to help her find her,” said Williams, 29, speaking on Sunday, before law enforcement announced they had recovered a body likely to be Petito’s, “but there is an obvious disproportionate attention to her story,” he says. “We can play the game of” Oh, that’s because she was a vlogger. ” and all that stuff, but we can also see that she’s a Gen Z, blonde, little girl, and that’s what clicks. “

He notes that in Wyoming, the same state where Petito was found, 710 indigenous people went missing between 2011 and 2020, according to a report by the University of Wyoming. “People are selective with the humanity they see in others,” Williams says.

Although she agrees that the storytelling of real crimes has largely focused on white women, Toumaian sees something different in Petito’s case. “I think people are so interested because it’s happening in real time and because you can follow a lot of clues yourself that Gabby and Brian have left on social media,” she says.

A real crime podcast, Crime Junkie, rushed to publish a special Sunday episode on the Petito case. “This is not a regular episode,” host Ashley Flowers told listeners, explaining that the show was “for the very first time” centered on “a breaking story.”

“In almost four years of doing this show, I’ve never, I mean never, seen guys frenzy like you are now,” she said. “Our emails are inundated. Our DMs are inundated.

On Monday, the episode was the fifth most popular on Spotify’s podcast charts and No. 1 on Apple podcasts. – This article originally appeared in the New York Times


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