TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Gabby Petito’s mother said she trusted Brian Laundrie to take care of her daughter when they set off on their trip out west.
Petito’s family shed light on their relationship with Laundrie while sitting down for an interview with 60 Minutes Australia, which was posted online Sunday.
“Every time he would come over, he was polite. He talked to with our other children as well. They got to know him and they liked him,” Petito’s stepfather Jim Schmidt recalled.
“He would draw them pictures and stuff. He would read books to my little one at night before bed,” her mother, Nichole Schmidt added.
The couple met at Bayport-Blue Point High School in Long Island, New York when Gabby was a sophomore and Brian was a junior. Last year, the family says Brian asked Gabby to marry him.
“He just seemed like a nice guy,” Petito’s mother told 60 Minutes.
In early July, Gabby and Brian quit their jobs and set off on a trip across the United States, documenting their travels online, posting happy social media photos and stories along the way.
“I worried. I told her to be careful, be safe. To be aware of your surroundings. Don’t trust anybody,” Schmidt said. “But I felt safe because she was with Brian and I felt like she would be okay.”
Schmidt told 60 Minutes she was in touch with Gabby almost every day throughout the journey.
“She would text. She would FaceTime, send me pictures of where they were going. I loved getting the updates. I was in awe of what she was doing, it was just amazing,” Schmidt recalled.
“Outside looking in, she did look happy,” Gabby’s father, Joe Petito, said. “But as we look more and more into this, it might not have been as great as people online perceived.”
Videos of the couple speaking to police in Utah painted a less than cheery picture.
Authorities pulled over the couple’s van after getting a 911 call from a witness who reported seeing a man hitting a woman. Both Gabby and Laundrie admitted to arguing all morning. When asked if she was hit, Gabby said: “I guess, but I hit him first.”
“Where did he hit you? Don’t worry. Just be honest,” the officer asks.
“Well, he grabbed my face,” Petito says.
Police separated the pair for the night and no charges were filed. Petito stayed in the van and Laundrie was taken to a hotel.
“It was just hard to watch. I wanted to jump through the screen and rescue her,” Schmidt said. “I saw a young girl that needed someone to just hug her and keep her safe. I just felt so bad for her. I wish that she reached out to me.”
Police said Laundrie returned home to North Port without Petito on Sept. 1, ten days before her family reported her missing.
“I was worried probably day four and five. I was texting her everyday anyway, but I wasn’t getting responses,” Schmidt said. “By day six, seven, I was checking her social media, I didn’t see any activity. And I started calling her dad, and I was talking to Jim about it, and said I think I’m worried. And everybody was like ‘She’s fine, she’s fine, they’re out in the mountains, they have no signal,’ and I said ‘No, it’s not like her.”
Schmidt said the day she reported Gabby missing, a detective told her that Laundrie was safe in Florida and had retained a lawyer.
“I almost fell on the ground because I was like ‘Where is Gabby?'” Schmidt said. “I just went into shock. I knew something was wrong.”
“I just, I hope that she didn’t suffer and that she wasn’t in any pain,” Schmidt told 60 Minutes, holding back tears.
For over a month, Laundrie, a person of interest in the case, has remained at large. A warrant issued for his arrest does not explicitly link Laundrie to Petito’s death, but alleges he committed debit card fraud between Aug. 30 and Sept. 1, around the time she was last seen alive.
Laundrie’s parents told police he went for a hike in the Carlton Reserve in Sarasota County on Sept. 13 and never returned. In the weeks since, the search for Laundrie has been centered on the nearly 25,000-acre preserve. There was a large law enforcement presence there on Friday. Officers were seen carrying large rifles into a wooded area about a mile from one of the entrances. A North Port police spokesman told WFLA’s Allyson Henning the group was there “training and searching.” Several crews, including a human remains detection K9 team from Pasco County, were at the reserve Thursday. They did not return the next day.
Petito’s family has criticized the Laundrie family for their failure to fully cooperate with the case.
“I think silence speaks volumes,” Schmidt said of Laundrie’s family. “I believe they know probably, if not everything, they know most of the information. I would love to just face-to-face ask ‘Why are you doing this? Just tell me the truth.'”