Mystery disappearance of US road-tripper grips nation

Ms Gabrielle Petito speaking to police who responded to an altercation between her and her boyfriend on Aug 12, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP, NYTIMES) - The American authorities have launched a massive search for a 22-year-old woman who mysteriously vanished during a road trip with her boyfriend, now declared a "person of interest" in a case gripping the nation.

Ms Gabrielle "Gabby" Petito quit her job and packed her life into a camper van for the cross-country adventure with boyfriend Brian Laundrie, 23, documenting their journey in a stream of idyllic-seeming Instagram posts.

But, more two weeks ago, Mr Laundrie returned to his home in North Port, Florida alone in Ms Petito's van. Ten days later, her family filed a missing person report.

Mr Laundrie has declined to cooperate with police.

"We share the frustration with the world right now," North Port Police Chief Todd Garrison told reporters on Thursday (Sept 16).

"Two people went on a trip, one person returned and that person that returned isn't providing us any information."

On Friday evening, The parents of Mr Laundrie told police that they hadn't seen their son since Tuesday, a police spokesman said.

The police made the disclosure after detectives went to the home in North Port. His family had summoned police to the home, Josh Taylor, a spokesperson for North Port police, said on CNN.

"They are now claiming they have not seen their son since Tuesday," Taylor said. "It is another twist in the story, for sure."

The North Port police chief, Todd Garrison, told CNN that authorities did not know where Laundrie was. "He could be anywhere," he said.

Mr Laundrie and Ms Petito had embarked on their journey across the US in July, leaving from New York, and posting photos of magnificent views and themselves smiling happily next to their van.

However, in August police in Utah responded to a domestic violence report involving the young couple.

Police bodycam footage published by US media showed a distraught Ms Petito saying she had an altercation with Mr Laundrie.

Speaking to a police officer after their van was pulled over, Ms Petito was seen crying and saying she struggles with mental health problems.

Ms Petito said she slapped Mr Laundrie after an argument, but added that she meant no harm.

"We've just been fighting this morning, some personal issues," she said.

"He wouldn't let me in the car before... he told me I needed to calm down." Mr Laundrie told police that Ms Petito tried to get the van keys from him and he pushed her before she hit him with her phone.

The police officer decided no charges would be brought but ordered the couple to spend a night apart to calm down.

Mr Brian Laundrie speaking to police who responded to an altercation between him and Ms Gabrielle Petito on Aug 12, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Ms Petito last communicated with her parents late last month when the couple were in the area of the Grand Teton national park in Wyoming, the family said.

Her family said in a statement that they were "going through the worst moments of their lives".

"Their beautiful 22-year-old daughter is missing and the one person that can help find Gabby refuses to help," the statement said.

Ms Petito's mother and stepfather "implore Brian to come forward and at least tell us if we are looking in the right area".

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