The investigation of Gabby Petito’s murder in the US had become a circus before Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman turned up promising to find her missing fiancee. Brian Laundrie is a “person of interest” in the case, for which read “prime suspect”, has a warrant out for his arrest relating to fraudulent use of a debit card, and has been awol for several days now.
He is believed to be camping out somewhere in Florida’s alligator-infested wilderness, which has only added spice to the case. If, that is, he is still alive.
With the Dog’s arrival, the case is in danger of turning into a freak show, a horrible dystopian media nightmare, a real-life satire unfolding before our very eyes. Forget Squid Game, Netflix’s smash hit riff on the rat race, this is a real-life horror.
The helicopters are buzzing in the air, the coverage is wall to wall, we’ve even had fights between demonstrators, picketing the home of Laundrie’s parents, and their neighbours. The latter have unwittingly been caught up in the sound and fury. With an emphasis on the fury.
The media is mad for it all, which is why Dog, a low rent reality TV star, with multiple shows to his name, has turned up. Give me attention! It’s a marvellous way to get some of that. The story resembles the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in that there’s been a relative paucity of real developments to fuel the narrative, which has therefore relied upon speculation and background colour to keep the pot boiling. The Dog is part of that.
His cynicism in arriving on the scene is disgusting, though. A young woman has been murdered. And isn’t that getting lost?
One of the things the case has thrown up is a debate about “missing white woman” syndrome. Plenty of outlets covering the case have indulged in bouts of self-flagellation over that. I have sufficient self-awareness to understand that I’m part of it.
The talking point goes like this: Petito deserves justice but if she were black or brown, would the media even notice? Would the authorities pursue the case with such vigour? Would the Dog be in town?
The answer to all those questions is likely “no”.
It was particularly poignant that Petito’s remains were found in Wyoming, a state with a sizeable Native American population.
It was the setting for Wind River, the 2017 crime drama, which sought to draw attention to the lack of attention given to the disappearances of Native American women. A title card following the final scene notes that missing person statistics are kept for every demographic group in the US except that one.
It is a depressing fact that there is a victim hierarchy across the western world in which Petito, a young, blonde social media star, is at the top and they are at the bottom.
But being at the top is clearly of dubious benefit. Does the arrival of people like the Dog help or hinder the pursuit of the justice that all agree that Petito deserves, in the same way that all the victims of this sort of violence deserve justice.
The media circus certainly encourages the authorities to work at it, but it too may ultimately be a hindrance.
Whatever the final result, docs and dramas will follow, likely preventing Petito’s suffering family from ever getting closure. Their lives will be defined by this event forever after. It will haunt them publicly as well as privately, as the media’s appetite is fuelled by the public’s appetite. It is a circle, which has turned particularly vicious thanks to the influence of social media. Social media is proving once again that it can top any excess the traditional media is capable of.
The best, or rather the worst, example of that comes in the form of the groups that have emerged in support of Laundrie made up of the people, the incels, the abuse apologists the “men’s rights” activists, who populate the internet’s darkest corners.
There are serious issues arising from this case, some of which bear similarities to the Sarah Everard case in the UK. They include some of what I’ve touched upon; the problem of violence against women perpetrated by men, the behaviour of the police in relation to it, the issue of victim hierarchies and the way these cases can descend into freak shows when they blow up like this one.
If anything good can be said to come of this horrible affair it is maybe that they are getting discussed. But whether this discussion will lead to meaningful change is a harder question to answer. The grim truth of this drama is that however it ends, a version of it will be repeated. It might already be underway. It might very well go unnoticed.