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Underwater dive team arrives to scene of search for Gabby Petito’s fiancé Brian Laundrie

Sep 22, 2021, 11:59 AM
petito and laundrie reward...
Pictures of Gabby Petito and her boyfriend/fiance before her disappearance

    (CNN) — An underwater dive team arrived at a nature reserve in Florida on Wednesday as part of the search for Brian Laundrie, Gabby Petito’s fiancé who has not been seen since last week.

In video shot by CNN, a large van and boat arrived at the Carlton Reserve, a swampy 25,000-acre reserve in Venice, Florida, where Laundrie told his parents he was headed last week.

The dive team is from the Sarasota Sheriff’s Department and is called the Sheriff’s Underwater Recovery Force (SURF). SURF is a team of “highly trained underwater specialists,” who are “called upon to search for evidence of crimes and victims of drowning, water accidents and foul play,” the sheriff’s department website says.

It’s not clear why the underwater dive team was called in.

The ongoing search comes as investigators try to piece together what happened to Petito, 22, and Laundrie, 23, on their road trip in a white Ford Transit van through the American West this summer.

Petito’s remains were recovered in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest on Sunday, and a coroner made an initial determination on Tuesday that she died by homicide.

Throughout the trip, the couple had posted online regularly about their travels with the hashtag #VanLife, but those posts abruptly stopped in late August. Laundrie and the van — but not Petito — returned to his parents’ home in North Port, Florida, on September 1. Her family, unable to get in touch with her, reported her missing 10 days later.

Laundrie, believed to be the last person to see Petito alive, declined to speak with authorities looking into her disappearance. His parents then reported him missing on September 17, saying he had left home three days earlier and hadn’t returned.

The FBI said the agency would like information from anyone who may have had contact with Petito or Laundrie, anyone who visited the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area in the Bridger-Teton National Forest between August 27-30 or anyone who may have seen their vehicle.

In the days since she was reported missing, Petito’s story has become a national obsession for many, spurring digital detectives to comb through the couple’s online trail to try to solve the case. The story has also further highlighted the tens of thousands of missing persons stories that do not garner such intense interest among the public.

Given the national attention on the case, several people have come forward to say they interacted with the couple in late August. And evidence from a 911 call about a “domestic dispute” involving Petito and Laundrie shows the couple’s volatile relationship was not as aspirational as their sun-drenched lives on Instagram and YouTube suggested.

Search for Laundrie focused on nature reserve

Investigators have used ATVs, dogs, drones and more as part of their ongoing search for Laundrie at the Florida nature reserve where his parents reportedly said he indicated he was going last week.

Laundrie’s parents told investigators he left their home in North Port with a backpack September 14 to go to the T. Mabry Carlton Jr. Memorial Reserve near Venice.

“A weekend ground search and aerial search Monday of the 25-thousand-acre preserve has yet to yield any answers, but we must press on,” North Port Police said on Facebook. Police indicated the search picked up Tuesday in a different part of the reserve.

The swampy, wild landscape of the Carlton Reserve has made the search particularly difficult.

“Please be aware, the Carlton Reserve is a vast and unforgiving location at times. It is currently (waist) deep in water in many areas,” police said. “This is dangerous work for the search crews as they are wading through gator and snake infested swamps and flooded hiking and biking trails.”

Authorities also searched the family home on Monday after getting a search warrant for the property. FBI agents removed a number of items from the home and towed away a Ford Mustang convertible.

In addition, Laundrie’s parents, Christopher and Roberta Laundrie, were questioned at their home by the FBI.

Witnesses tell police about their interactions with the couple

In a series of videos on TikTok, Miranda Baker said she and her boyfriend gave Laundrie a ride on August 29 in Wyoming — and that he claimed he was camping by himself for multiple days while Petito was back at their van working on social media posts.

Baker said they picked up Laundrie while he was hitchhiking in Colter Bay, Wyoming, which is not far from where Petito’s remains were found. He offered to pay $200 for the ride before he even got in the car, she said.

In her TikTok videos, Baker said that when Laundrie found out she and her boyfriend were going to Jackson Hole instead of Jackson, he got agitated, asked that the vehicle stop, and got out near the Jackson Dam. She said they dropped him off less than 30 minutes after picking him up.

Baker said she has spoken to law enforcement about the interaction with Laundrie. North Port Police confirmed to CNN that Baker spoke with the department before posting the videos on TikTok.

“Her account is plausible, it appears,” North Port police spokesperson Josh Taylor said.

CNN has not been able to independently verify Baker’s claims. The FBI has not returned CNN requests for comment.

Further, evidence has also emerged suggesting tension was building between the couple.

A man who saw the domestic dispute between Petito and Laundrie in Utah last month said, “They were talking aggressively at each other, and something seemed off.”

In a handwritten sworn statement, the witness named Chris — whose last name was redacted in the document provided by Moab City Police to CNN — said it appeared that the two were arguing over control of Petito’s phone. “At one point she was punching him in the arm and/or face and trying to get into the van.”

The witness said he heard Petito say, “Why do you have to be so mean?” although Chris added that he couldn’t be sure if the comment was meant to be taken seriously. Moab City Police responded to the incident, and the couple agreed to spend the night apart.

There is also a 911 recording of the incident in Moab on August 12 when police confronted the pair. In the recording from the Grand County Sheriff’s Office, a caller reported what he called a “domestic dispute” between a couple.

“We drove by and the gentleman was slapping the girl,” the caller says. “Then we stopped. They ran up and down the sidewalk. He proceeded to hit her, hopped in the car, and they drove off.”

Finally, her conversations with her mother appeared to reveal she had “more and more tension” with Laundrie, according to a police affidavit for a search warrant of an external hard drive found in the couple’s van.

Petito sent multiple text messages and had many talks with her mother during her trip, Florida police wrote in an application filed last week. On August 27, Petito’s mother received one last communication from her daughter, which she called an “odd text,” the affidavit says.

The message read: “Can you help Stan, I just keep getting his voicemails and missed calls.” Because the text message referred to Petito’s grandfather as Stan, her mother was concerned that something was wrong, the warrant states.

Following that text message, Petito’s phone was no longer operational, and she stopped posting anything on social media about their trip, the warrant says.

One more text came on August 30 that read, “No service in Yosemite.” Her family doubts she wrote it.

The-CNN-Wire
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Underwater dive team arrives to scene of search for Gabby Petito’s fiancé Brian Laundrie