Now that authorities have concluded the manhunt for Brian Laundrie, the fiance of murder victim Gabby Petito who was missing for a month, questions remain about what happened to both of them – and what comes next.
Human remains found in the Florida park where search crews had been looking for Laundrie were identified as his, the FBI announced Thursday. Petito’s body was found Sept. 19 near a campground in Wyoming.
The case drew nationwide attention and a flurry of social media users invested in each step of the investigation. Many of them are wondering whether we will ever get answers to exactly what happened to the couple.
What’s next in the murder investigation?
Laundrie was the only person of interest identified in Petito’s murder, but he was never charged in connection with her death. He was charged with unauthorized use of debit card and accounts after her disappearance.
The two had been traveling around the country in a white van together, and suspicion emerged after Laundrie returned to their home in North Port, Florida, in the van without her. She was reported missing by her parents in New York days later, and Laundrie would not cooperate with law enforcement. Laundrie soon vanished as well, telling his family he was going hiking in a vast reserve near the home.
There has also been wide speculation about the issue of potential intimate partner violence in the relationship, stemming from police body camera footage from when officers in Moab, Utah, pulled the couple over Aug. 12 after a 911 call reporting that “the gentleman was slapping the girl.”
Petito’s death was ruled a homicide by strangulation. The coroner on the case said her body had been there for weeks before it was found.
Some experts have said Petito’s murder could end up a cold case, with the only person to have been with her before the murder now dead.
“The investigation could go on indefinitely,” Steven Capriati, a former Hillsborough County prosecutor, told local station WFLA. “If they go and decide Brian was responsible and there’s no one else they can blame, then that’s the end and the family will have to live with it and it’s a tragic incident.”
Jill Hengel, Petito’s great aunt, said finding Laundrie dead means answers for Petito’s murder will harder to get.
“I don’t consider that being justice, because the parents would never know what happened. And they want to know,” Hengel told local CBS affiliate WTSP.
What is Laundrie’s cause of death?
The FBI said that Laundrie’s remains were identified using dental records, because only skeletal remains were found. That will make it more difficult to determine the cause of his death.
The remains were found in an area that had previously been submerged under water. Officials said Laundrie’s father first spotted a bag that belonged to Laundrie, and law enforcement officials then discovered the remains and other belongings, including a notebook, nearby — after five weeks of searching by law enforcement.
Officials have not said whether an autopsy can determine cause of death, given the state of the remains.
“There might not be a way to determine how he died,” Jim Clemente, a former FBI profiler, told CNN. “If he drowned, for example, there wouldn’t be any evidence of that on his skeleton.”
Dr. Cyril Wecht, who has been involved in high-profile death investigations, said a key part of the investigation will be to determine how long the body had been there.
“If he shot himself, that will still be evident,” Wecht said. “If he stabbed himself, that could be obliterated or markedly obscured by virtue of the post-mortem period and submersion in water.”
Also a point of interest will be what the contents of the notebook found are and whether it is in-tact enough to read. The contents could offer clues as to what happened to Petito or whether Laundrie intended to harm himself.
Suicide was “always a concern” given his state of mind when he left for the hike, Laundrie family attorney Steven Bertolino told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
The FBI said investigators will continue searching through the area where Laundrie’s remains and belongings were found, likely for days.
Will the attention die down?
The Laundrie and Petito case has fueled nationwide attention, and sparked a barrage of speculation by so-called “social media sleuths.” They have been following every step of the investigation, and sometimes sent conspiracy theories spiraling out of control.
Even after the identification of Laundrie’s remains by law enforcement, the conspiracy theories have continued.
Some social media users have questioned whether Laundrie faked his own death to escape prosecution for Petito’s murder, or whether someone else altogether killed both Petito and Laundrie. Both theories have no basis in the evidence.
Internet sleuths have also questioned the Laundrie family’s involvement in his disappearance. The Laundries initially did not speak with police, directing them to their attorney after Petito was reported missing, fueling suspicion about whether they knew anything about Petito’s death. Many have accused Chris and Roberta Laundrie of covering up for their son. Their lawyer has firmly shot this down.
Multiple times during the search for Laundrie, false sightings went viral on social media sites like Twitter, prompting police to put out statements disputing that Laundrie had been apprehended.
But the added attention was credited in helping find the bodies of other missing people. Petito’s body was also discovered thanks to travel bloggers who filmed the couple’s van nearby and reported the location.