Gabby Petito’s 2012 white Ford Transit van could contain crucial evidence for obtaining a conviction in her slaying, which authorities ruled a homicide by strangulation Tuesday, according to a longtime investigator.
Pat Diaz, who spent more than two decades of his 35-year law enforcement career with the Miami-Dade homicide unit and helped on the “Cocaine Cowboys” case, said the vehicle and phone records contain a trove of information useful to investigators.
“That’s their evidence, that’s their key evidence there, the van,” he told Fox News. “Everything that they’re gonna be able to prove…it’s gonna come out of that truck.”
But if the van doesn’t have conclusive evidence linking Petito’s killer to the crime, Tuesday’s Teton County coroner news conference could present an uphill battle for prosecutors, he warned.
“The one thing you have in this whole case is the cause of death,” he said.
It would have been difficult to determine, due to the state of Petito’s remains after more than three weeks in the wilderness, and likely required an X-ray examination to be sure.
With that information out in the public, it could make even a confession difficult to use at trial unless it includes clear details that still remain unavailable. And for that reason, he said investigators probably didn’t want the cause to be released Tuesday, even though it had already been withheld from the public for weeks.
“I would have totally been against releasing the cause of death,” he said. “I would have said the body was a terrible state of condition, we’re still processing the body, and buy more time – then given the cause of death.”
Investigators have so far held off from publicly naming a suspect in the case. Brian Laundrie, Petito’s former fiancé, is a person of interest.
He’s also wanted on a federal warrant for alleged debit card fraud that took place after Petito’s death in late August.
Just two weeks before Petito’s last conversation with her mother and she was last seen in public, witnesses in Moab, Utah, called police to report a possible domestic incident in which Laundrie was allegedly slapping and hitting Petito in broad daylight.
However, Petito, Laundrie and one of the witnesses told responding officers that she initiated the altercation – and the officers declined to cite anyone or press charges.
Instead, they deemed it a “mental health break” and drove Laundrie to a motel, where they told him to spend the night. It’s unclear if he did.
Five days later, Laundrie flew back to Tampa from Salt Lake City. He spent six days in Florida and met Petito in Utah on Aug. 23.
They set off for Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming the next day – and she was last seen in public on Aug. 27. That evening, a travel blogging couple filmed her van at a campsite just inside Bridger-Teton National forest off Spread Creek Road north of Jackson.
The campsite is roughly where an FBI-led search team found Petito’s body on Sept. 19.
Now that manual strangulation has been established as a cause of death, some experts believe a first-degree murder charge is a possibility for whoever is eventually named a suspect.
“It almost always gets you first-degree murder because premeditation can be formed in an instant,” Mark Eiglarsh, a criminal defense attorney and former Miami-Dade County prosecutor, told Fox News on Tuesday. “You put your hands around the neck, that’s an unwanted touching, that’s simple battery or assault. Then you start to squeeze, your argument could be, ‘Well, I just wanted to scare them.’ But then you contuse to affix pressure… There’s a certain amount of minimal time that someone needs to do that before somebody is dead.”
Laundrie and the van are believed to have returned to his parents’ North Port, Florida, home on Sept. 1. The family said nothing about Petito’s disappearance – which her mother reported 10 days later to police in New York.
Through their attorney, Laundries’ parents claim they haven’t seen their son since Sept. 13. His whereabouts remained unknown as of Wednesday morning.
Fox News’ Paul Best contributed to this report.