October 21, 2021

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Gabby Petito case: What one witness saw near the Tetons may help FBI unravel mystery – San Francisco Chronicle

6 min read

When Jessica Schultz first spotted the white van near Grand Teton National Park one evening in late August, her first reaction was irritation.

The van’s driver seemed to have no idea where he was going, and was moving too slowly down a narrow, one-car-width road near a dispersed camping area called Spread Creek in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming.

Schultz, a graphic designer who has lived out of an Airstream for more than four years, was trapped behind the slow-moving vehicle until the driver at last halfway pulled over — with only the van’s nose off the road in an area that wasn’t a designated pull-out. This forced Schultz to drive off the road a bit to get around — and as she passed, she looked over and saw that the van’s driver was alone — a “generic” young white guy.

It was this brief sighting, along with a series of other strange actions from the van’s driver, that made Schultz recall the incident so vividly when she later heard about the missing person’s case of Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito. After learning that the 22-year-old travel blogger was last believed to be headed to Wyoming’s Teton area while on a cross-country trip with her fiance, 23-year-old Brian Laundrie, Schultz decided to contact the FBI. (Disclosure: Schultz is a friend of the reporter.)

What Schultz witnessed may help authorities unravel the mystery behind the disappearance of a young woman whose case has made national headlines since she was reported missing on Sept. 11 by her family on Long Island. Petito and Laundrie were nearly two months into their planned four-month adventure — which they detailed in social media posts — when he inexplicably returned to his Florida home with the van on Sept. 1, refusing to say anything about Petito’s whereabouts. Now, he’s missing.

Police looking for Laundrie searched a 24,000-acre Florida nature preserve over the weekend without success. Investigators had focused on the area after Laundrie’s parents told police he may have gone there.

Schultz said she and another camper friend contacted the FBI on Thursday and spoke to someone about what they saw. She said the FBI called her back on Sunday morning, the day a body — believed to be Petito’s — was found in the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area, a remote swath of alpine land where Schultz told the FBI she saw the van. Schultz and a group of other campers arrived at the camp area in late August for several nights and noticed a van that seemed like it didn’t belong. Schultz said she saw the van on Aug. 26 along with the young man — and saw the van again on the 27th and possibly the 28th without the man or anyone else around it.

“He was just acting weird,” Schultz, 38, said in a FaceTime call Monday morning with The Chronicle, speaking about the man she is now certain was Laundrie. “You know, when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, your hackles go up when you see something that’s out of the ordinary.”

FBI officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Petito’s case gained heightened urgency last week after police in Utah released body camera footage showing a visibly upset Petito crying after the couple had a fight.

It was that footage that convinced Schultz that what she saw might be relevant. The so-called “van life” community — a movement of nomadic adventurers who live out of their vehicles — is brimming with vans that look like the one that housed Petito and Laundrie. But the body cam footage depicted something that Schultz recalled in the van she spotted — a distinct straw hat visible from the windshield.

“My friend texted me a picture of the hat on the dashboard and I just lost my s—,” Schultz said. “And that’s when I called the FBI (on Thursday) and said, ‘Guys, look at Spread Creek.’”

Schultz said she saw the van on Aug. 26, when she and her Blue Heeler, Rosie, were headed to a dispersed campsite to meet with Schultz’s friends. As Schultz pulled around the van, she decided to check out who was inside to see if they were people who would want to chat or join their group.

Once seeing the man was much younger than her crowd, Schultz decided to pass on the invite and kept moving.

“I’m pretty sure he got out of the van to like look around or something,” Schultz recalled seeing as she drove by. “There’s definitely nobody in that passenger seat; like he definitely doesn’t have a girl in there.”

Schultz saw the same van again the following day as she was riding in the passenger seat of her friend’s truck. The van was in almost the exact same area — though it appeared to have pulled over to the right before backing up into a spot across the road.

“I was like, ‘Oh, that guy stayed the night,” Schultz recalled telling her friend, noting that it wasn’t a parking spot.

Schultz said that what was unusual about the van during the second sighting was that there were no indications that anyone was camping there — and it was not in a designated parking spot. Normally, parked campers will do things like put out a hammock or table, or open a window, Schultz said.

Schultz said she thinks she and her friends saw the van in the same spot for a third day, on Aug. 28, and were surprised it hadn’t been booted by then — because it was not in a designated parking spot. She doesn’t recall seeing it on Aug. 29.

When Schultz and her friend first tipped off the FBI on Thursday, the two gave the agents coordinates of where they believed they last saw the van. She also chronicled her sightings on TikTok, where her posts about Petito have drawn more than 1 million views by Monday evening.

Lupe Alvarez, one of Schultz’s friends who camped in the Spread Creek area last week, said he and his partner first saw searchers arrive on Friday evening. The following morning, as the two were about to go on a hike, a forest ranger approached them and said to make sure they didn’t destroy any evidence on roads and trails.

“She told us, ‘You’ve probably heard about the missing girl and the van,’” Alvarez said.

Schultz’s resolve that her sighting was correct hardened on Sunday morning when she saw a video that a family posted online that showed a van identical to Petito’s parked in the same spot Schultz saw it on Aug. 27. The family told reporters that they uploaded their footage to the FBI’s online tip platform after calling the agency around 1 a.m. Sunday morning.

In a separate tip, a woman said she and her boyfriend gave Laundrie a ride at Grand Teton National Park on Aug. 29, and let him out near Jackson Dam, where he continued to try and hitchhike. The area is about 10 miles northwest from Spread Creek Road.

Schultz said someone with the FBI called her and her friends back for an interview just before 10 a.m. Sunday, after the family’s video was posted but before the announcement that remains had been found Sunday afternoon.

The FBI agent said, “‘I’ve talked to hundreds of people, but you guys are the ones that really tipped us off to the right place, so thank you,’” Schultz recalled.

“We’re triumphant — we were right and we led them in the right direction,” said Schultz, who spoke to The Chronicle from Crested Butte, Colo. “But then, of course, it’s not something you like to be right about. It’s been emotionally exhausting for sure.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Megan Cassidy is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: megan.cassidy@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @meganrcassidy

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