Brian Entin is finally taking a day off.
After spending every waking moment of the past seven weeks on the road covering the Gabby Petito case, Mr Entin is back in Miami, reacquainting himself with his golden retriever Shelby. “I get really into these deep stories,” he tells The Independent.
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The NewsNation correspondent can recall the moment he first heard Ms Petito’s name. The date was 14 September, and he got a call from his station chief to say there was a missing person case that he should look into.
The Miami-based reporter and his cameraman packed their overnight bags and drove three hours from Miami to a small city in Sarasota County called North Port, where Petito once lived with her boyfriend Brian Laundrie and his family. They expected to stay for a couple of days.
For the next seven weeks, Mr Entin spent 16 hours a day obsessively focused on the Gabby Petito story, much of it camped on the lawn of a private home – the neighbour of Chris and Roberta Laundrie. “We had no idea we would end up staying there for so long,” he says.
Mr Entin says the grim yet familiar story of a young woman’s disappearance quickly turned into a major national story when the public learned Brian Laundrie’s parents were not talking to authorities: “I think that made it much more suspicious and it piqued our interest and the viewers’ interest. That made it look very strange.”
Using his journalistic nous and his ability to build trust with key contacts, he quickly became the key conduit between events on the ground in Florida and the public, gaining a legion of fans for up-to-the-second information which he readily shared on Twitter.
“There was such a hunger for information in real time it became a challenge,” he says, “because there wasn’t always confirmed information to give. I didn’t want to go down any of those rabbit holes where you tell people what you think is happening.
“My approach was the same as in other cases, just tweet out information as fast as possible, but make sure it was totally accurate. Stick to the facts.”
As attention in the case shifted from Long Island, where Ms Petito set off on her van-life tour on 2 July, to Utah where she was last seen alive, and Wyoming where her remains were located on 19 September, Mr Entin decided early on to remain outside the Laundrie home for as long as it took.
His coverage along with a succession of scoops from law enforcement and legal sources saw his social media following balloon from 30,000 followers to more than 250,000.
But it was a tough slog at times. He and his cameraman would arrive at the Laundrie home around 6am each morning and remain there until midnight before retiring to a nearby hotel for a few hours’ sleep. A freelance cameraman would monitor the scene when they weren’t there, and call Mr Entin immediately if anything of interest happened.
“I became obsessed with not missing anything,” he says. “Once I was invested in it, I thought, ‘I’m in this till the end.’ I wanted to make sure we didn’t miss any of the critical moments.”
Working out of a car for 16 hours a day in the sticky September heat was a challenge. There were loud and angry protesters who would shout from bullhorns at the house each day, and simple things like when to decide to leave for food or comfort breaks became agonising choices.
It wasn’t the heat or the bugs that became his primary obstacle: it was the lousy cell service. All three major providers had appalling coverage in the city of 70,000, and Mr Entin would often find his live Twitter broadcasts interrupted.
He got to know the city well, running for half an hour each morning to clear his mind. He’d make regular trips out to the Carlton Reserve, where Laundrie’s remains would eventually be found, whenever there was a hint of a news break there. And he was one of the first on the scene when law enforcement found him on 20 October.
The moment that changed everything
When police in the small Utah city of Moab released bodycam footage of a distraught Gabby Petito crying by the side of the road after a fight with Laundrie on 16 September, the veil of their Insta-perfect life was suddenly pulled away.
A 911 witness had seen Laundrie hitting and slapping Ms Petito, but when officers pulled their car over she took the blame for instigating the fight.
“All we had seen up until that point was the YouTube video and the Instagram posts,” Entin explains, “and all of these beautiful images of Gabby and Brian, and when that video came out it was like, ‘oh my gosh there’s another side that we didn’t really know about.’ That was the moment that we thought, ‘OK there’s another side to this.’ And I think people’s fascination with the case got even more intense.”
When the bodycam from a second officer was released a few weeks later, which showed Ms Petito holding her hands around her neck in an apparent simulation of being strangled, Mr Entin says he found it deeply distressing to watch: “That was one of the moments I got kind of emotional. I felt it was especially sad.”
As her family and law enforcement were out searching for Ms Petito in the Wyoming wilderness, Mr Entin would see Chris and Roberta each day, mowing the lawns, running errands, refusing to help.
“I would have to try to control my personal feelings; obviously I had sympathy for her family because they’re searching for their daughter and the Laundries are not saying a word. But I just tried to keep my cool.”
He established a fruitful relationship with their attorney Steven Bertolino, a brusque Long Islander who became the only way through the wall of silence built up around the family.
Mr Entin says the lawyer wasn’t shy about voicing his displeasure with media coverage, but would always respond via text, and often in surprisingly revealing ways.
“You never knew what you were going to get with Mr Bertolino, what mood he was going to be in or what he was going to say. You never really knew what twist and turn it was going to take.”
The rise of the online sleuth
Over the five weeks from the moment Ms Petito was declared missing until Laundrie’s remains were located in Myakkahatchee Park, hundreds of thousands of people began following every development on social media platforms such as Reddit and Twitter. The intense media spotlight coupled with people’s desire to help led to a breakthrough that Mr Entin believes was a key factor in locating Ms Petito’s remains.
A video captured by YouTube bloggers Jenn and Kyle Bethune at around 6pm on 27 August in Grand Teton National Park’s Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area showed Ms Petito’s Ford Transit van parked on the side of a remote road.
The footage was shared on social media two weeks later when the Behunes realised its significance, and it gave searchers a precise location to search for Ms Petito, and she was found buried in a shallow grave a few hundred yards away on 19 September.
“If it wasn’t for that family of bloggers,” Entin says, “they may not have found Gabby. I think some of the sleuths were super, super important.”
Alongside those crucial discoveries came an explosion of crackpot theories from so-called digital detectives who often looked for clues in Laundrie’s macabre social media posts. Then came the Duane Chapman sideshow, as “Dog the Bounty Hunter” briefly launched a private search for Laundrie that appears to have been more about relaunching his reality TV career.
Media coverage of the case often blurred with those online conversations being had by true crime enthusiasts.
“There were a ton of conspiracy theories that also came out of this, and I don’t think all of that stuff is helpful,” Mr Entin says. “But I guess that’s how it goes with the internet these days.”
All the while Mr Entin continued to work his sources, monitor the Laundrie home, and report out verified facts: “I think people appreciated it because there were so many bloggers and podcasts and just people spreading false information and I think people appreciated they had a place they could go to find just the confirmed information.”
Where does the investigation go from here?
Mr Entin remains hopeful that answers will come to a lot of the lingering questions surrounding the case.
Brian Laundrie’s remains are being examined by a forensic anthropologist in Sarasota County to try to determine his cause of death. There is also his personal notebook, retrieved from a dry bag near his body, that may yield some answers. Then there are all of his digital communications: was he impersonating Ms Petito when texting her family, trying to confuse them and the police? What were his final movements, and messages to friends and family?
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“I think the FBI knows a lot of those questions and they will be resolved,” Mr Entin says. “If they close the case those documents will be available through public record searches.”
Mr Entin sees two possibilities from here. The FBI could quietly wrap up their investigation and never say anything again on the case. The other more likely scenario is that they lay out the information they have to connect Laundrie to Ms Petito’s death, either via the release of a memo or by holding a press conference.
“If they don’t do that, there’s technically a chance that there’s still a murderer out there,” he says. “I think that would calm the public down and give the Petito’s some kind of closure.”
Gabby Petito’s legacy
Gabby Petito’s murder by manual strangulation has started a national conversation about domestic violence, and Mr Entin says it is already having a “profound impact”.
He spoke to a number of women who turned up at the Laundrie home wanting to share their own stories of domestic abuse. These were often women who had decided to finally leave a dangerous relationship they were in after seeing the bodycam footage, Mr Entin says.
Experts have identified the Moab moment as an “intervention point” that could have saved Ms Petito’s life, and say better training is needed for law enforcement to avert more intimate partner homicide.
The Gabby Petito Foundation, established by her father and stepmother Joe and Tara Petito, and mother and stepfather, has been inundated with messages from women seeking help. The foundation is helping to guide these at-risk women to places where they can receive aid, such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
The case has also shone a spotlight on the thousands of people who go missing in America each year, a subject Mr Entin feels deeply passionate about: “That’s become a conversation that wasn’t really happening before. It’s brought to life that there are these missing people that weren’t really getting the coverage before this.”
Last week, Mr Entin retraced the final leg of Ms Petito’s ‘van-life’ tour through Utah and Wyoming, speaking to witnesses and law enforcement, and he travelled to the spot where Ms Petito’s remains were found: “It was sad to go to the spot, but also oddly peaceful because it’s such a beautiful area. It was even more beautiful than I had envisioned.”
He met the families of other missing persons who are still out there searching for any trace of their loved ones. “These people are actively missing and their families are desperate for information. How could you not be interested?”
NewsNation is now running two stories a week as part of an ongoing series Missing in America.
‘Just the facts’
Mr Entin says he had an intense curiosity about the world ever since he was a child growing up in Fort Lauderdale. He graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a degree in English language and literature, and got his start anchoring and reporting at KTVO, in Kirksville, in 2007.
From there he worked his way up through regional TV stations in Savannah, Georgia and Palm Beach in Florida to become an investigative reporter at WSVN-TV 7News in Miami by 2016. His role took him all over Latin America, and saw him win Emmy Awards for his work on the aftermath of the 2018 Fuego Volcano eruption in Guatemala and his coverage of the death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in 2016.
After starting at NewsNation, Mr Entin covered the 2020 presidential election, the 6 January Capitol riot, and spent time in Mexico reporting on the immigration crisis. Still, he was taken aback by the intensity of the Petito case, and the attention that was suddenly placed on him.
He says he’s been contacted by documentary makers looking to use his expertise on the case, but that he’s been too busy to think about future projects. The Petito case was different from previous stories he’s worked on, he says, as there was no attempt to politicise the issues: “At the heart of it I think people were on both sides, captivated by the story, worried about Gabby, upset about what happened to her.”
He says he heard a lot of the comments that essentially said: “We didn’t trust the media but we trust you.”
“I knew there was this distrust of the media”, he says, “but to hear so many people talk about it and then I was trying to figure out, why are they trusting me now? I think they were just so appreciative that I was only going to tell them what we have confirmed, just the facts.”