TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Gabby Petito’s mother said she trusted Brian Laundrie to take care of her daughter when they set off on their trip out west. Petito’s family shed light on their relationship with Laundrie while sitting down for an interview with 60 Minutes Australia posted online Sunday.
“Every time he would come over, he was polite. He talked with our other children as well. They got to know him and they liked him,” recalled Jim Schmidt, Petito’s stepfather.
“He would draw them pictures and stuff. He would read books to my little one at night before bed,” add Nichole Schmidt, her mother.
The couple met at Bayport-Blue Point High School on Long Island when Petito was a sophomore and Brian was a junior. Last year, the family says Laundrie asked Petito to marry him. “He just seemed like a nice guy,” Petito’s mother told 60 Minutes.
In early July, Petito and Laundrie quit their jobs and set off on a trip across the U.S., documenting their travels online, posting happy social media photos and stories along the way. “I worried. I told her to be careful, be safe. To be aware of your surroundings. Don’t trust anybody,” Schmidt said. “But I felt safe because she was with Brian and I felt like she would be OK.”
Schmidt told 60 Minutes she was in touch with Gabby almost every day throughout the journey. “She would text. She would FaceTime, send me pictures of where they were going. I loved getting the updates. I was in awe of what she was doing,” Schmidt recalled. “It was just amazing.”
“Outside looking in, she did look happy,” said Joe Petito, Petito’s father. But videos of the couple speaking to police in Utah painted a less cheery picture. “As we look more and more into this, it might not have been as great as people online perceived,” Petito said.
Authorities pulled over the couple’s van after getting a 911 call from a witness who reported seeing a man hitting a woman. Both Petito and Laundrie admitted to arguing all morning. When asked if she was hit, Petito said: “I guess, but I hit him first.”
“Where did he hit you?” the officer asked. “Don’t worry, just be honest.”
“Well, he grabbed my face,” Petito said. Police separated the pair for the night, and no charges were filed.
Petito stayed in the van and Laundrie was taken to a hotel. “It was just hard to watch. I wanted to jump through the screen and rescue her,” Schmidt said. “I saw a young girl that needed someone to just hug her and keep her safe. I just felt so bad for her. I wish that she reached out to me.”
Police said Laundrie returned home to North Port without Petito on September 1, 10 days before her family reported her missing. “I was worried probably day four and five. I was texting her every day anyway, but I wasn’t getting responses,” said Schmidt. “By day six, seven, I was checking her social media, I didn’t see any activity. And I started calling her dad, and I was talking to Jim about it and said, ‘I think I’m worried.’ And everybody was like, ‘She’s fine, she’s fine. They’re out in the mountains. They have no signal,’ and I said, ‘No, it’s not like her.”
Schmidt said the day she reported Gabby missing, a detective told her that Laundrie was safe in Florida and had retained a lawyer. “I almost fell on the ground because I was like, ‘Where is Gabby?'” Schmidt said. “I just went into shock. I knew something was wrong.”
Petito’s remains were discovered on September 19 at a campground in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. The 22-year-old had been strangled to death, a coroner said last week. “I hope that she didn’t suffer and that she wasn’t in any pain,” said Schmidt through tears.
For over a month, Laundrie, a person of interest in the case, has remained at large. A warrant issued for his arrest does not explicitly link Laundrie to Petito’s death, but alleges that he committed debit card fraud between August 30 and September 1, around the time she was last seen alive.
Laundrie’s parents told police he went for a hike in the Carlton Reserve in Sarasota County on September 13 and never returned. In the weeks since, the search for Laundrie has been centered on the nearly 25,000-acre preserve. There was a large law enforcement presence there on Friday.
Officers were seen carrying large rifles into a wooded area about a mile from one of the entrances. A North Port police spokesman told NEWS10’s local affiliate that the group was there “training and searching.” Several crews, including a human remains detection K9 team from Pasco County, were at the reserve on Thursday, but did not return Friday.
Petito’s family has criticized the Laundrie family for their failure to fully cooperate with the case. “Silence speaks volumes,” Schmidt said of Laundrie’s family. “I believe they know probably—if not everything, they know most of the information. I would love to just face to face ask ‘Why are you doing this? Just tell me the truth.'”