Gabby Petito: The van-lifer who ‘touched the world’ remembered as a fearless adventurer at memorial service

·5 min read
Gabby Petito’s fearless spirit was fondly recalled at a memorial service on Sunday (Facebook/Petito Family)
Gabby Petito’s fearless spirit was fondly recalled at a memorial service on Sunday (Facebook/Petito Family)

Gabby Petito’s father told mourners at her memorial service that the “entire planet” now knows his daughter’s name, and asked that they take inspiration from her fearless pursuit of adventure.

“I want you to be inspired by Gabby, that's what we're looking for,” Joseph Petito said during a heartfelt eulogy on Sunday at Moloney’s Holbrook Funeral Home in Holbrook, New York.

“That's what I want to see. If there's a trip that you guys want to take, take it now. Do it now, while you've got the time.”

Mr Petito spoke admiringly of his daughter’s wanderlust and passion for new experiences, from surfing sand dunes to hiking the Appalachian Trail to scuba diving.

Ms Petito had been on a #vanlife trip across the United States wither her boyfriend Brian Laundrie when she suddenly stopped communicating with her parents in late August.

Her remains were found a week ago near a remote campsite in Wyoming, and her death has been ruled a homicide. Authorities are continuing to try to determine her cause of death, and have not yet returned her remains to her family.

Hundreds of family, friends and Long Island community members began gathering at the funeral home more than two hours before the service began at midday. Many wore teal ribbons pinned to their suits, others had on T-shirts bearing photos of Ms Petito.

During the hour-long service which was streamed online, Mr Petito said that his daughter’s death should serve as a warning for women in abusive relationships to not be afraid to leave.

“If there's a relationship that you're in that might not be the best thing for you, leave it now,” he said.

It was a sentiment echoed by many of the young women who visited the memorial service and had themselves survived violent partners.

“This hit close to home for me because I recently survived a very abusive relationship, very similar to what she experienced and I know in my heart that she did nothing wrong,” Alexandra Kaluta, a neighbour of the Schmidt family in Long Island who came to pay her respects, told The Independent.

“I feel like it could have been me.”

Mr Laundrie, who has himself been missing for more than a week, has been charged with bank fraud for allegedly using a debit card that wasn’t his in the days after Ms Petito’s disappearance. He has not been accused of any crimes related to Ms Petito’s death or disappearance, and authorities had previously labelled him a “person of interest” in the young woman’s death.

Camila Almeida said although she didn’t know Ms Petito she felt connected to her from her own experiences of van-life traveling, and drove two and a half hours from Brooklyn to attend the memorial.

“She was just following her dream. She didn’t deserve that,” Ms Almeida told The Independent.

“I was in a similar situation, I know exactly what she was going through.

“It’s a good warning for girls. Don’t get quiet and don’t accept those situations because this happens a lot.”

Ms Petito’s stepfather Jim Schmidt, who travelled to Wyoming to assist in the search for her, is the former chief at the Blue Point Fire Department, and firefighters in dress uniform lined the block to pay their respects before the service.

“Parents aren't supposed to bury their children,” Mr Schmidt told those gathered at the memorial.

“This is not how life is supposed to work. But it is an unfortunate reality,” he said.

“Gabby loved life and lived her life every single day. She is an example for all of us to live by and to enjoy every moment in this beautiful world like she did. Love and give love to all like she did.”

A sign hangs outside the memorial service for Gabby Petito. (Bevan Hurley/The Independent)
A sign hangs outside the memorial service for Gabby Petito. (Bevan Hurley/The Independent)

Mourners continued to arrive late into the afternoon to pay their respects before a wall of photos of Ms Petito, with a queue snaking around the carpark of the funeral home.

Above the entranceway to the funeral home, a large flag was hoisted by a ladders from two Blue Point Fire Department fire trucks with the words Blue Point above a giant red heart.

Across the road signs were placed saying “Gabby, forever in our hearts”, and dozens of teal ribbons had been tied to the fence in remembrance of the 22-year-old.

.A sign across from the memorial for Gabby Petito (Bevan Hurley/The Independent)
.A sign across from the memorial for Gabby Petito (Bevan Hurley/The Independent)

That global fascination with the tragic case was evidenced by the large media contingent that showed up in the small hamlet of Holbrook, Suffolk County, to cover the service.

A German TV crew broadcast from outside the funeral home, on the day of a general election in that country, along with dozens of local and national reporters, crews from cable news TV stations and current affairs shows.

But this event was all about the local community, and the many people who Ms Petito had impacted directly.

Dominic Castiglione, a school friend of Gabby’s, told The Independent he and Ms Petito had become close friends in 8th grade after she transferred to his school district in 2014.

“At the end of that school year I asked her to the school dance and we ended up going together,” he said.

“She was a really nice girl. Really pretty, obviously, and I had a huge crush on her.”

Asked what he wanted to see happen to Ms Petito’s boyfriend Mr Laundrie, Mr Castiglione said he hoped for justice.

Ms Petito’s great aunt, who gave her name as Liz, said she was a “beautiful beautiful person” after coming out from the service.

“I almost don’t even have words. It’s just so heartbreaking what happened to her and we love her and we know she’s at peace.”

Ted Malkiewicz, the sister of Gabby Petito’s adopted grandmother Noreen Gibbons, said Ms Petito and Mr Laundrie had visited his house in Portland, Oregon, on 5 August, a few weeks before she was killed.

“I hope to hell they find him, I really do,” he said of Mr Laundrie, who remains missing.

“He’s got some explaining to do.”

“The pictures you see of her smiling, that was her. A gorgeous, gorgeous girl.”

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