Gabby Petito: Here's why the first 72 hours are critical in finding missing girl
Florida authorities are desperately looking for Long Island resident Gabby Petito as they try to convince her boyfriend Brian Laundrie to cooperate with their efforts. The 22-year-old was reported missing by her mother Nicole Schmidt on Saturday, September 11, and well wishers are praying for her safety and well being, but criminology experts say the first 72 hours are the most critical in a missing persons investigation.
Petito's last known location was in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park in late August, when she was with Laundrie, her boyfriend of two and half years. Multiple reports have stated that Laundrie, who abruptly returned to Florida by himself, has hired a lawyer and is refusing to cooperate with the police. Authorities are now bracing themselves for odds that something “sinister” might have happened to Petito, who was on a cross-country road trip in a converted van with her lover.
Criminology experts interviewed by ABC News explained that investigators are essentially working against the clock, and with each passing hour the likelihood that the subject will be found also decreases. Dr Michelle Jeanis, criminology professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, told the outlet in 2018 that one of law enforcement's first steps in a missing person case was to try to prevent the loss of evidence at all costs.
Dr Bryanna Fox, former FBI agent and criminology professor at the University of South Florida, told ABC News that the first two days are the most crucial because that's when investigators have the best chance of following up on leads, considering people's nonconsious memories start to fade quickly. "The information that law enforcement gets tends to be a little more accurate, and they are able to act on the information and hopefully get that person who is missing quicker," Fox said, adding that there are fewer "bread crumbs" to follow as time passes.
Meanwhile, former FBI special agent in charge Steve Gomez explained that law enforcement are not just seeking information from the person's family, but also the public, including people who may have noticed a crucial moment in the subject's disappearance while going on with their daily lives. "People usually see something, so that period of time is absolutely vital in order to find the person right away," he said.
Furthermore, Gomez highlighted the importance of generating as much awareness and as many leads as possible because they tend to slow down after the 72-hour mark. "That's why it's just so important to try and move the investigation along and to get the public's help," he added.
Jeanis noted that the first few days are especially critical if the individual is being transported or is in imminent danger. She said that investigations on missing persons who authorities believe may be vulnerable, especially children and those with mental illness, are further expedited because time is of the essence to get the word out to the public to look for the subject.
Jeanis said stranger abductions were "very very rare," but noted that children are usually murdered quickly, "sometimes within the first three hours but usually within the first two days."
Meanwhile, for others who go missing, there's usually a slated time in the probe with the objective switches from attempting to find someone alive to trying to locate a body.
According to Gomez, "There's a certain point after about a week or two where you have to think, the potential that the missing person is dead and now it's a matter of trying to find their body and bring closure to the family and to determine if you now have a homicide investigation, or suicide, or some kind of accidental death."