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by Philip Martin | October 24, 2021 at 1:57 a.m.

"Bug bites are better than being brainwashed by the media."

-- a quote from Brian Laundrie's Instagram profile

I don't pay attention to television news, so only heard about the Gabby Petito case via complaints about the disproportionate media attention it seemed to be receiving. Some people were annoyed because other women who don't have blonde hair and Instagram accounts go missing all the time without attracting the notice of Anderson Cooper.

That's true; we select our tragic darlings based on a multitude of factors, and tend to privilege the stories of the young, attractive, white and well-off while discounting the sorrows of older, duller, darker and poorer victims.

In Wyoming, where Petito's body was found Sept. 19, at least 710 American Indians were reported missing between 2011 and late 2020. Nearly 100,000 Black women went missing in 2020. About 200 people went missing in Arkansas in 2020. They don't all rate chyron crawls.

It's not personal. Broadcast news does this for the sake of the show, because it's identified what its prized demographics care most about. It does what draws eyeballs, so it can turn around and tell advertisers it has delivered x-number of impressions to a susceptible audience. Conflict and drama moves the needle, and it helps if there's a lot of video that can be repurposed to the narrative.

None of that has anything to do with the sad realities of the case, which is the particular American Horror Story we've fixed on for now. The details and circumstances of the Petito murder made it easy to digest and follow, easy to report and exploit. You could watch an online video and pretend to know her.

In case you are as clueless as I was, here are the facts: In June, 22-year-old Petito and her 23-year-old boyfriend Brian Laundrie left North Port, Fla., where they were living with Laundrie's parents, on a trip across the U.S. in a 2012 Ford Econoline van that had been converted into a camper. They planned to spend four months on the road, visiting state and national parks. Both Petito and Laundrie lavishly documented their #vanlife trip on her social media accounts.

On Aug. 12, they were pulled over by a traffic cop near Moab, Utah. Body camera footage caught a weeping Petito, the couple having had "some kind of altercation."

But "both the male and female reported they are in love and engaged to be married and desperately didn't wish to see anyone charged with a crime," the report from the officers read. So no one was charged with a crime, but the couple was separated for the night.

It was more an emotional/mental health incident than a domestic violence incident, the officers on the scene decided. The couple had been traveling together for weeks, living in close quarters; of course there was tension.

Petito stayed in the van, Laundrie checked into a hotel.

On Aug. 19, Petito and Laundrie posted an eight-minute video to YouTube ( It showed them laughing and kissing, doing cartwheels on the beach in California, riding the Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier.

On Aug. 24, the couple were reportedly spotted in Salt Lake City. The next day, Petito made her last post on her Instagram account. She regularly texted her parents in New York, but on Aug. 27 they received one which refers to her grandfather by his first name, something her mother says was out of character. They didn't believe the last text from her phone, received on Aug. 30, was sent by her. It simply reads: "No service in Yosemite."

On Aug. 29, two different women said they picked up a hitchhiking Laundrie in Wyoming. He told them he had been camping by himself at a site outside Grand Teton National Park, near the Snake River, while Petito was working on their travel blog back at the van in the park.

On Sept. 1, Laundrie, driving the van, returned to his parents' house. Petito was not with him.

Ten days later, Petito's parents reported her missing. Laundrie refused to cooperate with police investigating her disappearance and went missing himself a few days later. His parents said he'd taken a backpack and had probably gone camping in the Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park, a large nature preserve near their home.

On Sept. 19, Petito's body was found in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. The coroner said she had apparently been strangled to death; probably by another human being. Laundrie was immediately named a person of interest in the case, and an arrest warrant was issued for him for the alleged fraudulent use of a Capitol One Bank card. (The indictment didn't say whose card it was or the nature of the charges, but everyone presumed it was Petito's debit card.)

Last week, Laundrie's backpack and notebook were found near some partial human remains in Myakkahatchee Creek. As I'm writing this, Laundrie's lawyer has said the "probability is high" they are what's left of his client.

The simplest explanation is probably the closest to the truth: Laundrie murdered Petito and then took his own life. We can construct a story around those suppositions. We know men are dangerous to women; they will kill them out of shame or because they make them feel powerless, for reminding them of what they are, for making them aware of their limitations, their incompetence, their barely disguised cowardice.

We don't know and will probably never know what happened to Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie. But that won't stop us from rewriting the story over and over until it becomes another archetypal American myth. No doubt there will be a movie, there will be books. People will always be fascinated by evil that presents as wholesome, all-American, outdoorsy.

We say the bad actors are exceptions, that we're not all monsters. Yet we live in a society where misogyny is normalized; boys will forever be boys and men will be offended whenever anyone suggests they possess the capacity for darkness.

The truth is there is nothing so special about the crime, or its denouement. Men kill women and pity themselves; it's an old routine. It's so ordinary that I wonder how they bear us, what courage it must take to get in a car, or a van, with a creature so rude and rough and quick to pique. So self-regarding and so violent.

I don't know how they do it.

Print Headline: Man slaughter


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