Candlelight embellished the sunset at Sugar House Park on Wednesday evening as dozens of Utahns gathered to honor a woman whom many had never met.
The vigil was planned as a celebration of life for Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old woman who was reported missing Sept. 11 and found dead Sunday near Grand Teton National Park. Petito had been traveling through Utah with her fiance, Brain Laundrie, before she disappeared. Her final Instagram post featured a photo of her in front of an Ogden mural.
“I think it’s safe to say the reason that we’re all here is because we all know a Gabby, or we’ve all been a Gabby,” said Melissa Jenson, who attended the vigil and suspected Petito’s death was a result of domestic violence. “One in four women, one in nine men, will be the victims of domestic violence in their lives. And that includes mental and emotional, psychological abuse.”
Laundrie, who is missing, is considered a person of interest in Petito’s disappearance. He returned alone on Sept. 1 to Florida — where he and Petito had lived before embarking on their trip — and was driving the same camper van that he and Petito had been traveling in. He refused to speak with investigators and left home Sept. 14, headed for a nature reserve in Sarasota County, Florida, his parents told police.
Authorities continue to search for him. Federal officials this week issued a warrant for his arrest after he was indicted on one count of unauthorized use of a debit card. It’s unclear who the card belonged to, but Laundrie is accused of using it from Aug. 30 to Sept. 1, around the time that Petito disappeared.
“Gabby is your sister,” Jenson continued at the vigil. “Gabby is your coworker. Gabby could be your child. Gabby is your friend. Gabby could be your parent.”
For one attendee, suspicions about Petito’s killing hit particularly close to home. Scott Goudie came to the vigil to support Petito’s family, as Goudie’s sister was slain in 2008. Her husband in 2011 was convicted of hiring three men to kill her in California during a bitter divorce, the LA Times reported.
“It also was a very high profile case,” Goudie said. “And we feel so bad for them. There is no rest for them; there is nowhere to turn. Gabby’s family has the support of the entire nation, but the fact is, her family will be living this moment for the rest of their lives. There won’t be a day that they don’t think about it.”
Before Petito disappeared and was later found dead, a witness in Moab on Aug. 12 reported a suspected “domestic problem” between Petito and Laundrie to police. Law enforcement later stopped the couple in their van near Arches National Park. Recently released body camera footage documented the interaction, during which police in a report later noted Petito was “crying uncontrollably.”
Officers did not arrest Petito or Laundrie but opted to separate them for the night, driving Laundrie to a hotel and leaving Petito with the camper van so they could “relax their emotions,” records state. An officer in a report later noted that he did not believe the situation “escalated to the level of a domestic assault as much as that of a mental health crisis.”
Members from Bikers Against Domestic Violence also attended the Sugar House vigil, echoing concerns others had about suspicions of domestic violence surrounding Petito’s death. Many attendees called for more education about the signs of domestic violence and emotional abuse, along with increased training for law enforcement officers on recognizing such signs.
“I’d never heard of Gabby before the news,” Goudie said. “But as I said, I live this every day.”
The vigil was organized by Sugar House resident Serena Chavez. When she heard that the body found in Wyoming last weekend matched Petito’s description, she cried, then decided she needed to do something to honor her.
“That’s the second I got to my computer, and I said ‘Let’s do something big. Let’s do a vigil,’” Chavez said. “I am so happy that people came and supported Gabby and gave their personal stories to us. It really meant a lot for people to come up there on the microphone and just say, like, ‘I’ve been through this,’ or ‘My sister has been through this,’ and, ‘If you see something, say something.’”
After an open mic period and a prayer, the candles were spent and the crowd began dissipating. But Chavez and many others, including Goudie, agreed that they would not forget Petito.
“You could tell that she was a special human being in everything that you saw of her, when you see some of her posts and things like that,” Goudie said. “What a bright light to be snuffed out in such a horrible fashion. "