New York

A ‘Vanlife’ Couple Went on a Cross-Country Trip, but Only One Returned

A Florida man has been declared “a person of interest” in the disappearance of his fiancée, who left with him in July in a van outfitted for a cross-country adventure and was recently reported missing by her parents, the police said on Wednesday.

The couple, Gabrielle Petito, 22, and Brian Laundrie, 23, left New York on July 2 for what was supposed to be a four-month, cross-country trip visiting and camping in national parks, said Ms. Petito’s stepfather, Jim Schmidt.

Mr. Laundrie posted on Instagram that they were “downsizing our life into this itty bitty van.” Ms. Petito posted that converting a Ford Transit into a camper was “an adventure in itself.” The van was outfitted with a bed, tiny bookcases and a small wooden counter to prepare food, and decorated with plants, small pieces of art and photos.

But something apparently went wrong after their stop in Utah, her family says.

On Aug. 12, the police in Moab, Utah, responded to a report of a “domestic problem” after Mr. Laundrie had “some sort of argument” with Ms. Petito and told her to take a walk and calm down, according to a police report. She didn’t want to be separated from him and began slapping him, and he “grabbed her face and pushed her back as she pressed upon him and the van,” the report states.

He then tried to lock her out of the van, but she managed to get in the driver’s side door and climb over him before the van took off. Mr. Laundrie and Ms. Petito both told the police that they were in love and engaged to be married and “desperately didn’t wish to see anyone charged with a crime.”

Mr. Laundrie told one officer that “issues between the two had been building over the last few days,” causing them to argue more. During their most recent argument, he said, Ms. Petito had gone into a “manic state,” and was afraid that he was going to leave her in Moab without a ride, and went to slap him. As she went to swing, he pushed her away, according to the report.

Both told the police that the episode should be classified as a “mental/emotional health ‘break,’” rather than as a domestic assault. The police arranged for Mr. Laundrie to stay in a hotel that night and let Ms. Petito keep the van. No charges were filed, the report states.

Mr. Laundrie returned to his house in North Port, Fla., near Fort Myers, on Sept. 1, and Ms. Petito’s family reported her missing 10 days later, according to the North Port Police Department.

Since his return, Mr. Laundrie has declined to talk to the police or to cooperate with investigators, said Josh Taylor, a spokesman for the department, which is working with the F.B.I. to find Ms. Petito.

“We don’t know what Brian knows,” Mr. Taylor told reporters on Wednesday. “That’s the bottom line, and we’re hopeful to talk to him. He needs to talk to us.”

Mr. Laundrie returned in the white Ford van that the couple had used for the trip and that had been registered to Ms. Petito, Mr. Taylor said.

The van was seized by the police and has been processed for evidence, he said.

Mr. Taylor said the police wanted Mr. Laundrie to tell them when and where he last saw Ms. Petito. Mr. Laundrie has not been arrested or declared a suspect in the case. A person of interest is a vague term often used by law enforcement agencies to identify a person they believe may have been involved in a crime but who has not been arrested.

Mr. Laundrie was described as a person of interest because he was the last person known to have been with Ms. Petito before she went missing, Mr. Taylor said.

He said that on Saturday, investigators went to Mr. Laundrie’s home, where he lived with Ms. Petito and his parents. Mr. Laundrie’s family told the investigators to call their lawyer, Mr. Taylor said.

On Wednesday, Steven Bertolino, a lawyer for Mr. Laundrie in East Islip, N.Y., said in a statement that he had advised Mr. Laundrie not to speak with the authorities because, in his experience, intimate partners are often the first people law enforcement “focuses their attention on in cases like this.”

“The warning that ‘any statement made will be used against you’ is true, regardless of whether my client had anything to do with Ms. Petito’s disappearance,” Mr. Bertolino said. He described the designation of “person of interest” as a “formality” that would not change his advice to Mr. Laundrie to remain silent.

In an earlier statement, Mr. Bertolino said that Mr. Laundrie’s family hopes “the search for Miss Petito is successful and that Miss Petito is reunited with her family.”

“This is understandably an extremely difficult time for both the Petito family and the Laundrie family,” Mr. Bertolino said.

Ms. Petito’s family on Long Island had not heard from Mr. Laundrie since he returned, Mr. Schmidt said.

He said he and Ms. Petito’s mother, Nichole Schmidt, last saw the couple in July. The couple had stayed briefly with them on Long Island so they could attend the high school graduation of Ms. Petito’s brother.

Mr. Schmidt said the last time that he and Ms. Schmidt heard from Ms. Petito was around Aug. 23, when she said she and Mr. Laundrie were leaving Utah and driving to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. The last post on her Instagram account is dated two days later.

“From everything we saw in the photos and the videos and when we spoke to her, they were having the time of their lives,” said Mr. Schmidt, who went to Wyoming on Tuesday night to make contact with the authorities who were searching for Ms. Petito.

Her father, Joseph Petito, who had moved to Florida to be closer to his daughter, is staying in touch with the authorities there, Mr. Schmidt said.

“It’s a parent’s worst nightmare,” he said.

The couple documented the trip in photos on Instagram and in an eight-minute-long video that they posted on YouTube on Aug. 19. The video, titled “Van Life,” showed them kissing, scaling rocks and laughing over how the hot Utah sun had melted the chocolate in Mr. Laundrie’s granola.

“I love the van,” Ms. Petito said, beaming at Mr. Laundrie.

Ms. Petito, the oldest of six siblings, had been working as a pharmacy technician to save money for the trip. She met Mr. Laundrie at Bayport-Blue Point High School on Long Island, Mr. Schmidt said. They began dating after graduation and moved two years ago to Florida, he said.

In a statement, Todd Garrison, the North Port police chief, said the department was “pleading” with Mr. Laundrie and anyone else with information to help the police.

He added: “The answers will eventually come out.”

Michael Levenson contributed reporting.



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