The Brian Laundrie-Gabby Petito case, now front and center on the world stage, is a prime example of how police have come to be viewed and treated in the United States, especially since the George Floyd riots of 2020.
By now, most people know the particulars of these two ill-fated lovers who embarked on a 4-month cross country road trip. Stories of their toxic relationship have been leaked to the press, as well as their encounter with police in Moab, Utah when tourists witnessed Laundrie slap and hit Petito. When police came on the scene to investigate, records show that they were exceedingly above board and polite, first getting Petito’s story, then switching to Laundrie to get his side of things. Police behavior in this case was textbook pure. “Pure” in the sense that their behavior went against the leftist stereotype stating that police are thugs and dangerous and therefore police departments everywhere should be defunded.
Instead, records show two amazingly polite officers—they could have been well-mannered LDS missionaries with notepads—who broke another stereotype when they did not automatically assume that it’s the man who is always the abuser in male-female relationships. After quietly questioning both parties, the officers decided that Petito was the instigator and Laundrie the victim. As a result, Laundrie was put up in a hotel while Petito was told to spend the night in the van.
John Walsh, former host of America’s Most Wanted, said after watching the police cam footage of the Moab incident, “This is classic domestic abuse. He terrorized her not to tell the cops. He was the aggressor and slapper and puncher.”
Perhaps the officers misread the situation but there was no way they could have known that Laundrie was hiding a secret or that he had threatened Petito to lie to them to protect himself. Police officers are not psychic psychoanalysts. The officers’ reasonable, almost too-careful behavior in this case is clearly the result of the hatred and paranoia leveled against police departments everywhere as a result of the George Floyd riots.
While I have never visited the Sarasota Police Department, several years ago I did visit North Port, Florida, the hometown of Christopher and Roberta Laundrie and their two children, Cassandra and Brian Laundrie. To get to North Port from Philadelphia I flew into Tampa then took a shuttle, a distance of about 84 miles. My driver was a talkative Florida native who delighted in telling tales about growing up in the area where the rite of passage for many boys was learning to wrestle alligators.
North Port is a flat, nondescript place, a kind of moonscape Nowhereville where the palm trees, which normally enhance tropical environs, give the place an even more isolated feel. Incorporated in 1959, the city occupies 103 miles of southeast Sarasota County on Florida’s Gulf Coast. North Port is home to Ponce de Leon’s legendary Fountain of Youth, a health spa called Warm Mineral Springs which attracts mostly first-generation Ukrainians (about 10 percent of North Port’s population is Ukrainian). Spa patrons doggie paddle in a 2-million-year-old algae strewn pond, the site of an ancient sinkhole, while holding hands or rubbing their faces with algae. Users describe the healing waters there as being dense with a syrupy feel.
Most people in North Port are native Floridians but there’s also a sizeable influx of New Yorkers and Long Islanders. The term “Cracker Joe” (a name that has nothing to do with race) is used by northern transplants to describe hard core natives, many of whom own a truck, wear baseball hats and hunt.
Brian Laundrie’s family runs Juicer Services, Inc., an organic Mom and Pop health food enterprise that might be more fitting in a place like leftist Vermont, the blue state capitol of Birkenstock shoes. The family moved to North Port from Venice, Florida barely a year ago after Gabby Petito’s remains were found near Grand Teton National Park on September 19. Cassandra, 32, Brian Laundrie’s older sister, offered no predictions or insights regarding her brother’s disappearance after the death of Petito had been established. “I wish I could talk to him,” she said. “I’ve cooperated every way that I can. I wish I had information or I would give more.” Meanwhile, Brian Laundrie’s parents shut down all communication when they refused to say anything to the police or the media. The family did the bare minimum when they issued an generic statement in which they stated that the death of Petito was “heartbreaking.”
The Laundries kept the police at bay in a way that suggests that they mistrusted and perhaps even hated them. Their actions sent out a clear-cut anti-police message.
As DailyMail.com reported, “North Port Police spokesman Josh Taylor said the police were frustrated. Brian had driven the van back [from Wyoming] without Gabby, but neither he nor his parents were talking to police, even though Gabby had lived with them.”
It was only when their son disappeared that the Laundrie family began to cooperate with the police investigation. Well, that’s self-interest for you. Involve one of our own, and we’re in (suggesting, of course, that Gabby was not one of their own.)
Laundrie had been hiding out in his parents’ North Port home until September 14, when he set off on a hike at the alligator infested Carlton Reserve. The family finally reported him missing three days later on September 17.
Laundrie’s parents have also done everything possible to avoid the media. When they are captured on film, as they were in one iconic photograph taken at their home, father Christopher glares emotionless at the camera, his hostile eyes as dense as marble implants, as mother Roberta is caught beating a quick retreat in her juicer jeans, a baseball cap over her oddly-arranged, bobbed hair. The photo is vaguely reminiscent of the work of Diane Arbus and could be labeled, The North Port Florida Creep Show.
The Laundries’ behavior suggests they are hiding something, as does the behavior of their run-and-hide son who has managed to elude search teams for weeks. Theories as to Brian Laundrie’s whereabouts cover the waterfront although the most popular theory has Laundrie hiding in the wilderness. A former “co-worker” of Laundrie’s has even come forward and stated that Laundrie is capable of surviving for a long time in the wilderness, and that he once lived there for 6 weeks eating only crackers. Appetite control like this is more like willpower gone berserk (aka real psycho behavior) than an attempt to emulate 19th century American frontiersmen.
Living with Laundrie’s parents no doubt kept the lid on the couples’ toxic relationship. After they embarked on their planned 4-month road trip in July, nobody was keeping an eye on them. The idea of a road trip might have seemed the perfect solution to eliminating feelings of “suffocation” that often come with living with Mom and Dad. Ironically, Laundrie and Petito were laying the foundations for even greater feelings of suffocation: months on the road without even a pet dog to break up the monotony of just having each other’s company.
The day Petito was reported missing, Brian Laundrie’s parents left their North Port home in their truck and camper. The date was September 11. Brian, who returned home alone from his odyssey with Petito, joined his parents for the new camping frolic. By this time, of course, he was already lawyered up. Who knows what tales the spoiled 23-year-old psychopath—his dark hair and thin build evocative of actor Tony Perkins in Hitchhock’s Psycho-– told Mom and Dad about his missing fiancé. Gabby ran off with another man to join a religious cult in Jackson Hole; Gabby said she was quitting the road trip and flying home later. On Sept. 17, Brian himself disappeared and the search has been on ever since.
Now the whole world is talking. The Internet is filled with multiple reports about Laundrie sightings—on airlines, in cities like Toronto, in obscure deer park woodlands. The New York Post has taken to posting daily articles on any Laundrie lead that comes their way. Psychics and tarot card readers have been having a field day laying out cards and offering what they see happening: Laundrie is not in the wilderness, he is in a city holed up in a hotel room, and friends or family are helping him out. These powerful friends also want to him escape to Alaska or Australia and are in the process of arranging a small plane transport. Many speak of suicide attempts and some see him eventually doing that while others see him getting caught and then keeping mum throughout the trial, not talking to police and refusing to answer questions. Brian Laundrie and his parents have a lot in common: an attitude that broadcasts an almost maniacal distrust of police and an unwillingness to cooperate with them.
The Laundrie-Petito news story even had some woke news commentators lambasting the coverage of Petito’s death as indicative of The Missing White Woman Syndrome and stating that the coverage would be much less had Petito been a person of color. We all saw this coming, of course, so stay tuned for the Oprah comment.
In the end, the Laundrie-Petito story is not only about the tragic death of a young woman, it’s also about how the changes in society since the 2020 George Floyd riots have caused police departments in the United States to be viewed with suspicion and hatred. The bad press directed against police departments, as well as calls for their disbandment, is bound to have consequences. The Laundrie case is Exhibit A.
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He is the author of fifteen books, including Literary Philadelphia and From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.