Gabby Petito, Brian Laundrie investigation: Top unanswered questions still remaining

Sarasota County

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SARASOTA COUNTY (WFLA) — As the public awaits the release of more information from the FBI on the deaths of Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie, the internet continues to swirl with a seemingly infinite amount of online threads, videos and channels dedicated to the endless amount of questions that remain unanswered.

On WFLA Now over the past eight weeks, the WFLA News Channel 8 team and I have fielded those questions from more than 90 million viewers who have been asking, or at the very least pondering, the same questions so many of us have.

The questions that focus on who’s who in the case, such as Laundrie’s parents, Chris and Roberta, and the family attorney, Steven Bertolino.

The questions that focus on the evidence, such as the notebook found near Laundrie’s remains and the Ford Mustang police say gave them a starting point for their search after it was found at the Carlton Reserve.

And the questions that focus on the deceased individuals themselves: Petito, who the Teton County coroner says died of manual strangulation, and Laundrie, whose cause of death is yet to be revealed as forensic experts continue their examination of his skeletal remains.

The overarching question to the ones below is, will we ever get answers? And if so, when?

On social media and on our WFLA Now streams over the last several weeks, I asked our viewers and readers for the questions they want answered more than any other.

10. What is Brian Laundrie’s cause of death?

In a release by the FBI on Oct. 21, federal officials announced the comparison of dental records confirmed that the human remains found at the Carlton Reserve were those of Brian Laundrie. The confirmation came a day after an FBI press conference in which officials announced they had discovered remains, a bag and a notebook at the reserve.

The remains found were skeletal, including a partial human skull, leading to dental records being the primary identification method for the remains. North Port police said on Oct. 26 that a DNA test on the remains is yet to be conducted.

Laundrie family attorney Steve Bertolino has stated the autopsy results came back “inconclusive.” The remains are now being examined by anthropologists, and experts say that process could take several weeks depending on the quality of evidence they have to work with.

The anthropology test results may or may not give forensic examiners enough information to definitively conclude a cause of death. It remains unclear whether the FBI would release that information, whether the Sarasota County medical examiner would announce it at a press conference or whether it will be made public first through Bertolino.

9. Will the FBI ever release its findings in the Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie investigation?

The FBI is known for releasing virtually no information during an ongoing federal investigation. This is exactly why details have been scarce in this case from the beginning.

However, as time goes on over years – or even decades, history tells us it’s more likely a trickle of information will eventually come to light through various means such as public information requests by reporters.

“I wonder what sort of evidence the FBI needs to gather to posthumously nudge Laundrie from person of interest to suspect,” said 8 On Your Side Senior Investigative Journalist Walt Buteau. “And does the agency have any obligation to spend its time and resources doing that. Laundrie is dead, not a threat to public safety. Is it worth it or even necessary to build a case that will never be tried?”

“Journalistically, we generally get access to evidence after it’s presented at a trial. That won’t happen here. I don’t think the FBI is obligated to release anything to the public, including that much-talked about notebook. But I also know the agency appreciates a good headline and understands how much the public wants to know more about what happened. Releasing at least some of the evidence along with an investigative narrative would showcase the FBI’s law enforcement chops.”

Walt Buteau, 8 On Your Side Senior Investigator

With past FBI-led criminal investigations, the most common information dump is during a court trial. That leads us to the next question.

8. Will any charges ever be filed in connection to Gabby Petito or Brian Laundrie’s deaths?

As of this report, no charges have been filed in the Gabby Petito homicide investigation.

The only charge in connection to the case is use of unauthorized access devices, a federal charge of debit card fraud filed against Brian Laundrie. Federal investigators allege Laundrie illegally used a Capital One debit card for obtaining “things of value” amounting to more than $1,000 from Aug. 30 to Sept. 1, the dates Laundrie is believed to have been driving home to Florida without Petito. Petito’s family later confirmed the card belonged to their daughter.

The “Justice for Gabby” cause, from demonstrations outside the Laundrie’s home in North Port to insatiable online forums, has primarily been centered on the calls for someone to be held accountable for Petito’s death. Laundrie has never been named a suspect by the FBI. Instead, he’s been the sole “person of interest” in an FBI-led criminal investigation.

If investigators determine Petito died at the hands of Laundrie, there’s a chance charges will never be filed in her death.

Most of the focus has shifted to whoever may have had information on Petito’s death.

7. Why do the Laundries continue to remain silent? And will they ever speak?

Brian Laundrie’s parents, Chris and Roberta, have remained virtually silent throughout this process, except for their communication with law enforcement. They have been represented legally and in the public view by their longtime attorney, Steven Bertolino of East Islip, New York.

Bertolino has repeatedly stated he has advised his clients to remain silent to any and all parties, including the Petito and Schmidt families, as well as news outlets. Before Laundrie was confirmed missing, Bertolino addressed his clients’ option to remain silent in a statement:

“Many people are wondering why Mr. Laundrie would not make a statement or speak with law enforcement in the face of Ms. Petito’s absence. 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 will be used against you” is true, regardless of whether my client had anything to do with Ms. Petito’s disappearance. As such, on the advice of counsel Mr. Laundrie is not speaking on this matter.”

Attorney Steven Bertolino on Sept. 15

The public’s response to Chris and Roberta Laundrie’s silence has been largely unsympathetic. In text messages to reporters, Bertolino has remained non-committal to his clients speaking soon, or ever, as they continue to grieve their son’s death.

6. How did search teams miss Brian Laundrie’s skeletal remains and belongings at the Carlton Reserve?

Many online commenters have asked how countless members of law enforcement at the federal, state and local levels did not see Brian Laundrie’s bag or his remains at the Carlton Reserve during the intense search efforts there in September. They also bring up how Chris Laundrie showed up on Oct. 20 and found his son’s bag.

The answer we have to this question is multi-faceted, but rooted in reality. First and foremost, police have stated they welcomed the help of Chris Laundrie to track down his son because he had the best understanding of where Brian Laundrie liked to hike in the vast, rural wilderness of Sarasota County. Simply put, Chris Laundrie knew the areas where his son liked to go.

During the discovery of Brian Laundrie’s belongings, and the remains soon after, Chris and Roberta Laundrie were accompanied by a police escort. Steve Bertolino later told 8 On Your Side that the parents “walked down the path that had been searched and looked many times before.” At some point while the parents were there, Bertolino said Chris Laundrie found a dry bag in the woods that he brought over to Roberta Laundrie, who had remained on the trail.

“He confirmed with Roberta that was Brian’s belongings and momentarily after that, the law enforcement officer came out of the woods and showed Chris and Roberta a picture of a backpack,” Bertolino said. “Law enforcement said the backpack was found near some remains.”

After the parents confirmed the backpack belonged to their son, Bertolino said law enforcement indicated it would be best for them to leave.

Beyond that, it can’t be understated how much Mother Nature played a key role in the discovery of Brian Laundrie’s remains. Water levels were at a wildly inconvenient level for the federal search efforts, in some areas close to chest-deep, due to frequent rainfall in the month of September. A dry spell in October allowed the water to recede significantly and reveal what was underneath. It’s entirely possible search teams were over or near the remains and the belongings in September but had no idea due to the water levels.

5. What’s in Brian Laundrie’s notebook found at the Carlton Reserve? Will we ever know?

In the FBI’s Oct. 20 news conference after the remains were found, Special Agent in Charge Michael McPherson stated that a backpack and a notebook were found in the same area. The mention of the notebook is noteworthy, not only because of the information it potentially holds but also because the FBI was in no way required to reveal any specifics on the items that had been discovered.

The notebook immediately became a focal point of rampant speculation, theorizing and, of all things, hope that it may contain answers on the deaths of Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie.

The initial worry was that the notebook wouldn’t be intact due to the reserve being flooded through September. However, those fears were put to rest when North Port police told WFLA’s Allyson Henning that the notebook is “possibly salvageable.”

If the contents of the notebook are legible, the next question is whether they’d ever be publicly released.

“Unless there is a civil or criminal proceeding in this case, it’s quite possible we will never know the contents of the notebook,” 8 On Your Side Investigative Journalist and former New York City prosecutor Mahsa Saeidi said.

4. Why did the Laundrie family go camping at Fort DeSoto six days after Brian Laundrie returned from the cross-country trip alone?

When our viewers and readers respond to the Brian Laundrie timeline, some of the most frequently-asked questions are about the Fort DeSoto camping trip on Sept. 6 and 7.

Brian Laundrie and his parents were joined for the Pinellas County camping trip by his sister Cassie Laundrie and her family. They stayed at the waterfront campsite #001, as confirmed by witnesses and photographs Cassie Laundrie released for an interview with Good Morning America.

Internet users want to know what was talked about on that camping trip, given that Brian Laundrie had just returned home alone without his fiancée Gabby Petito.

3. What did Brian Laundrie tell his parents when he returned home without Gabby Petito?

Brian Laundrie returned home from the cross-country trip without his fiancé on Sept. 1. When he returned to North Port, police said he was in the same white Ford van the couple had traveled in together, a vehicle that was in Gabby Petito’s name.

It was the second time in a two-week period that he had gone home by himself. Bertolino confirmed Laundrie flew back to Florida from Salt Lake City, Utah, on Aug. 17 for a period of six days and spent time going through a storage unit he and Petito had shared. According to Bertolino, Laundrie returned back to Utah to reunite with Petito on Aug. 23, four days before she was last seen.

Laundrie and Petito had lived with his parents at their North Port home for more than a year. After Petito was reported missing, her family begged the Laundries to come forward with any information they had.

“Gabby lived with you for over a year. She’s going to be your daughter-in-law. How can you keep her location hidden?” the family said in a letter read by their attorney on Sept. 16.

As of right now, we still don’t know what Brian Laundrie told his parents, and whether or not it was truthful.

2. Why didn’t the Laundries return phone calls or text messages from Gabby Petito’s family while she was missing?

Attorney Steven Bertolino was asked this question point-blank in a NewsNation interview in October, and interestingly, he chose not to answer.

“Unfortunately [NewsNation’s Marni Hughes], I can’t have that conversation with you at this time,” he said.

“It’s not the appropriate time to have that conversation,” Bertolino added, after being pressed by Hughes.

Rewinding to the first week of September, before this story was on the radar of national news outlets, Gabby Petito’s mother Nichole Schmidt and father Joe Petito said they were repeatedly reaching out to their future son-in-law, Brian Laundrie, and his parents, Chris and Roberta Laundrie, desperately seeking information on their daughter’s whereabouts.

Those calls and text messages, according to Petito’s family, went unanswered.

The Laundries were advised to remain silent by their longtime lawyer, Bertolino, who himself has remained silent on why there wasn’t a conversation between the families.

The question posed endlessly by loyal followers of the case is: why didn’t the Laundries respond to the calls and texts from Petito’s family?

Shortly after Petito was reported missing, on Sept. 14, the Laundrie family released a statement through Bertolino saying the family was “remaining in the background at this juncture and will have no further comment.” Petito’s family released a response statement slamming the Laundries for refusing to help.

Several days later, Petito’s family addressed the Laundries again in a letter read by a family attorney.

“We understand that you are going through a difficult time and your instinct is strong to protect your son,” the letter said. “We ask you to put yourselves in our shoes. We haven’t been able to sleep or eat and our lives are falling apart.”

1. Why are Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie dead?

Brian Laundrie, 23, and Gabby Petito, 22, were engaged and ready to spend the rest of their lives with one another. They appeared happy, adventurous and full of life as they posted to all their social media accounts during their cross-country, two-month road trip from Long Island across the continental United States.

Until something terrible changed everything.

In September, it was revealed that the couple’s seemingly happy-go-lucky social media presence didn’t tell the whole story.

Information on a domestic dispute response by police in Moab, Utah, was released in September. Police responded to a witness report of an argument and physical altercation involving the couple but decided the fight didn’t rise to the level of “domestic assault.” Additional body camera video was released later that showed Petito talking to police.

“Did you get hit in the face? Kind of looks like someone hit you in the face,” an officer could be heard saying.

“I guess yeah, but I hit him first,” Petito replied.

For many, the Moab incident helps the public gain a better understanding of what Gabby and Brian’s relationship might have been like in the days before Petito’s death when the cameras weren’t rolling. However, as frequent as domestic disputes are, few end with both parties dead weeks later.

The exact circumstances of Gabby Petito’s death remain a mystery. While the Teton County coroner confirmed she died of manual strangulation, the reason for her murder – as well as the identity of the person responsible – remains unconfirmed by authorities. This continues to fuel a persistent following of the case including by some who refuse to rest until the truth is known to all.

And when the public demands answers, there’s one question that comes up more than any other.

Why?

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