The story of Gabby Petito’s disappearance grabbed attention, headlines and dominated social media for weeks.
Tragically, the 22-year-old appears to have been murdered, her body found Sunday in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming. Police are searching for her boyfriend, who has disappeared, identified as a person of interest. The couple had left from Florida, taking a van to drive across the country, documenting their journey on Instagram. In August, Utah police stopped the couple in what appeared to be a domestic abuse situation but felt “insufficient evidence” existed to file criminal charges.
Her family reported her missing Sept. 11 after not being able to speak with her.
When Petito was reported missing, social media followers and cable TV viewers responded. Internet detectives worked to track the van — successfully — and helped investigators narrow the search for the missing woman. Now they are helping search for the missing boyfriend.
All of this combined to create the latest version of a condition well-known to aficionados of true crime tales — Missing White Woman Syndrome. It’s unfortunate, and not because Petito’s case doesn’t deserve attention. It’s that many others do, too.
Young, attractive white women are not the only people who go missing in the United States.
Pay heed to Molly Jong-Fast, writing at the Daily Beast: “Gabby Petito’s hashtag was searched 268 million times on TikTok.” Yet as she pointed out, in Wyoming, where Petito vanished, 710 Indigenous people — mostly girls — disappeared between 2011 and 2020. Still, she wrote, “their stories didn’t lead news cycles [and] internet sleuths didn’t clog Instagram and Twitter trying to solve the mystery of their disappearances.
“Personally, I find it more than a little infuriating that those 710 people didn’t get the same attention as this white, model-thin 22-year-old who’d been documenting her travels through Utah’s national parks in a white van with her boyfriend on Instagram.”
That’s sadly unsurprising. Little attention is paid when women of color vanish. One of the least-covered news stories in the United States has been the tale of missing or murdered Indigenous women. And it’s a big one. Some 5,700 American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls were reported missing as of 2016, according to the National Crime Information Center.
As advocate Lynnette Grey Bull told NPR in response to the Petito case: “It’s kind of heart-wrenching, when we look at a white woman who goes missing and is able to get so much immediate attention.”
Part of doing better is recognizing the issue, which it appears both federal and state officials are starting to do.
In 2019, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham established the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force Act through House Bill 278. The effort arose after a 2017 Urban Indian Health Institute Report showed New Mexico had the highest number of missing Indigenous women in the country — 78. The task force’s work focused on the years of 2014-19, finding a total of 954 unsolved missing persons cases over that period. Of them, 92 people — or 9.5 percent — were Native men and women. And that’s likely an undercount since in many cases the race of the missing person is listed as Hispanic or “other.”
By May of 2021, it was time for additional steps, which Lujan Grisham set forth in an executive order, calling for representatives from tribal nations, state government and community partners to look for ways to address the crisis.
One key issue throughout has been the lack of solid numbers for just who has gone missing. No single law enforcement agency maintains a database of the cases and jurisdiction problems across counties, state and tribal lines complicate investigations. So does a lack of resources; it’s hard to investigate when a county or tribe is short on police officers.
It’s essential to shine a light on these losses. The people gone missing and their families deserve no less.