More details emerge about Gabby Petito's last days as communities where she made her mark mourn

Originally Published: 23 SEP 21 03:24 ET
Updated: 23 SEP 21 08:36 ET

    (CNN) -- As authorities investigate Gabby Petito's death, a small crowd gathered Wednesday night in Salt Lake City to mourn the 22-year-old whose road trip with her fiancé ended in tragedy.

The couple had been visiting national parks in the West in their van, chronicling their travels on social media with the hashtag #VanLife, before Petito went missing. And though she never lived in Utah, Petito's love of nature and her time there -- including an encounter with Moab police that was captured on bodycam -- has connected her with the community.

"We won't forget about you. We won't let your light dim," vigil organizer Serena Chavez said before the group.

"We will remember other women or children who are missing," Chavez continued, raising a broader problem highlighted by Petito's disappearance. "Their families are devastated, and I can only imagine what Gabby's family is going through."

Petito's remains were found Sunday in an undeveloped camping area in Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming. She was reported missing by her family on September 11, after her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, returned home to Florida from the road trip without her on September 1.

Authorities have been searching a Florida nature preserve for Laundrie. And after her death was ruled a homicide Tuesday, the FBI turned to the public, asking for help finding him.

Before she moved to Florida, Petito had worked as a hostess at Smoke on the Water in Wilmington, North Carolina. Coworkers there say she made everyone feel loved, according to CNN affiliate WWAY. It was another community upon which the young woman made her mark.

"She's not just a name. She's not just a case. She was a person, and she was very special to a lot of people and many of us here," the restaurant's general manager, Lara Witschen, told WWAY. "She was a good soul, a good spirit, and touched so many lives. That's what we want her to be remembered for."

Witness says she saw a 'commotion' involving the couple

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 nearly 90,000 missing person cases active at the end of 2020, according to the National Crime Information Center.

It also has spurred people to come forward with accounts of Petito's last days.

Nina Angelo and her boyfriend, Matt England, saw a "commotion" last month as Petito and Laundrie were leaving The Merry Piglets Tex-Mex restaurant in Jackson, Wyoming, she told CNN Wednesday.

Petito was in tears and Laundrie was visibly angry, going into and out of the restaurant several times, showing anger toward the staff around the hostess stand, Angelo said. The couple's waitress was also visibly shaken by the incident, said Angelo, who told CNN she did not see any violence or physical altercation between Petito and Laundrie.

A manager at The Merry Piglets, who declined to give her name, did see "an incident" at the restaurant on August 27 and called the FBI on Wednesday, she told CNN. The manager declined to describe what happened and said the restaurant did not have surveillance video of the incident.

Separately, Jessica Schultz saw Laundrie parked in a white van on August 26 at Grand Teton National Park, and no one appeared to be with him, she told the San Francisco Chronicle.

And 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.

The search for Laundrie continues

Investigators meanwhile are focused on finding Laundrie, who arrived at his parents' home in North Port, Florida, three weeks ago and has not spoken to police about the case.

His family told police he left home with his backpack on September 14 and told them he was going to the nearby Carlton Reserve.

Authorities have combed the reserve over the past few days, and the search will resume on Thursday, said North Port Police Department spokesperson Josh Taylor.

A team of about 10 divers from the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office is taking part in the search, said sheriff's office spokesperson Kaitlyn Perez. The Sheriff's Underwater Recovery Force team is highly specialized, she said.

"In the state of Florida, we have really unique bodies of water from marshes to beaches to lakes and kind of everything in between," Perez said.

"These divers are specifically trained and very talented in low visibility bodies of water. They dive down where you and I can't see anything at all. They utilize technology and other special equipment to help them get down deep, into really deep bodies of water."

The North Port Police Department has "deployed numerous resources, and we are trying to cover every acre in this preserve," Commander Joe Fussell said.

911 call of a domestic dispute

Petito's mother received an odd text on August 27 that became the last communication from her, police in Florida said in a recent search warrant affidavit. Petito also stopped posting to social media at that time.

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.

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 said it appeared 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's first name is Chris and last name was redacted in the document provided by Moab City Police to CNN.

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.

Police later stopped the couple, and previously released police documents and body-camera video reveal what followed that day. Moab city officials are investigating the Moab City Police Department's handling of a possible domestic dispute, a statement from the city said.

Although the Petito and Laundrie are described in a police report as getting into a physical fight following an argument, "both the male and female reported they are in love and engaged to be married and desperately didn't wish to see anyone charged with a crime," Officer Eric Pratt wrote in the report.

At the suggestion of police, the couple separated for the night, the report said, which described Petito as "confused and emotional."

A National Park Service ranger who also responded to the call spent about 90 minutes with Petito and warned her that her relationship with Laundrie had markings of a "toxic" one, the ranger told the Deseret News of Utah.

"I was imploring with her to reevaluate the relationship, asking her if she was happy in the relationship with him, and basically saying this was an opportunity for her to find another path, to make a change in her life," ranger Melissa Hulls told the Deseret News.

CNN has sought comment from Hulls.

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