Gabrielle Petito, the 22-year-old Blue Point native whose disappearance and death stunned Long Island and captivated the nation, was remembered Sunday in Holbrook as a kind-hearted young woman with a zest for life.
“I don’t want them to be sad,” said her father, Joseph Petito, during a funeral at the Moloney Holbrook funeral home. “Gabby didn’t live that way … people gravitated toward her. Her nature was always to smile.”
More than 1,000 people lined up to pay their respects to the young woman, whose image had been a familiar presence on the country’s radio waves as the search continued.
Her mother had reported her missing on September 11. But the search for Gabby Petito ended tragically, with the discovery of her body a week ago in a remote area of Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest.
On Tuesday, the FBI said his death had been ruled a homicide based on preliminary autopsy results. The fiancé she had been traveling with, Brian Laundrie, was named a “person of interest” in the case and is now being lost.
Petito’s remains are still in Wyoming as the investigation into his death continues, funeral home officials said.
Inside the funeral home, decorated with photographs, flowers, and angelic images of Petito surrounding a golden ceremonial urn, Joseph Petito recalled how his daughter loved outdoor activities and adventures like scuba diving and hiking.
Petito’s stepfather, Jim Schmidt, said his enthusiasm helped remind him that there is more to life than work.
“Gabby at age 22 helped teach me that you can always make money, but you can’t make up for lost time,” said Schmidt, a former Blue Point fire chief. “She is an example for all of us to live, to enjoy every moment of this beautiful world as she did, to love and give love to everyone as she did.”
Outside the funeral home there were memorials to the young woman. Two fire trucks were holding a banner with a heart. Teal ribbons and angel wings, and her image and the messages “She touched the world” and “Forever in our hearts” could be seen on the fence at nearby Seneca High School.
Petito had been on a cross-country trip with Laundrie when she disappeared. Petito’s family reported her missing about two weeks after she stopped communicating with them and Laundrie returned to her parents’ Florida home alone in her truck.
Laundrie is wanted on a federal warrant for alleged credit card fraud. He has not been charged in connection with his death.
In Florida, the FBI, North Port, Florida, police and other authorities spent the past week searching a huge nature preserve for Laundrie, after his parents said he had gone on a hike. North Port Police spokesman Josh Taylor said in an email Sunday afternoon: “The search continued on Sunday. Nothing has been found so far.”
Also on Sunday, the FBI broke into Laundrie’s family home and left with family items. When asked about the motive, the family’s attorney, Steve Bertolino, said in a text message: “The FBI requested some personal items from Brian Laundrie to help them with the DNA match and Brian’s parents provided the FBI with them. they could”.
Laundrie and Petito had documented their journey through social media with photos and videos showing a bubbly Petito narrating his travels. But there was also a growing tension between the two, as seen in police body camera footage of an Aug. 12 encounter with officers in Utah.
Police stopped their truck in response to a 911 call about a physical altercation between the two near Arches National Park. Police labeled Petito as the assailant despite an initial witness reporting that a man slapped a woman. No charges were filed and the two were told to spend the night apart.
Joseph Petito said that women and men should be inspired by the spirit of their daughter.
“If there’s a trip you want to take, take it now, take it now while you have time,” he said. “If there’s a relationship you’re in that might not be the best for you, leave it. Now. We get more emails from men and women who do that, first taking care of themselves.”
Inside the funeral home, the walls were lined with family photos and flowers from friends, relatives, and organizations like the Blue Point Fire Department.
Mourners stifled sobs as they walked through the procession as their family and friends sat in the middle of the hall, sometimes bending down to hug visitors.
Videos and posters featured montages of Gabby in family photos, through the years. One image showed her wearing a Blue Point Fire Department No. 2 firefighter’s helmet, while others captured a happy girl grimacing along with the now-famous photo of her standing in front of angel wings.
A poster with the photo read: “Your wings were ready, but our hearts were not.”
Visitors received prayer cards with a picture of Gabby painted by an Australian artist. On the reverse is a poem, “Let it Be”, written by Joseph Petito.
“Don’t cry for me because I’m free
I’m traveling a path that the lord has led me
Don’t be overwhelmed with times of pain
I wish you the sun of tomorrow
Maybe my time seemed too short
Don’t drag it out with undue pain
Lift up your hearts and share with me
The memories that will always be ”.
“It’s a tragedy. She was such a kind soul,” said Sonja Greves, 22, of Sayville, who said she went to high school with Petito and had lunch with her. “She had a kind and gentle heart and was a friend to everyone and a really wonderful person.”
He said that the monument, with its photos and memories, represented Petito’s spirit.
High school friend Melanie McGuire, 21, from Blue Point, was excited after walking through the monument.
“I’m heartbroken. There are no words,” McGuire said. “She was a beautiful soul and she doesn’t deserve this. The whole town is heartbroken, it’s so horrible.”
Brooke Helmsorig, 23, of Islip Terrace, did not know Gabby but followed her on Instagram and felt compelled to attend the funeral on Sunday.
“Something about his story touched me,” he said. “At first I didn’t believe it. I thought hopefully it was her and she was still there. I started crying when I got there today. She touched so many people. People want justice for her.”
Barry Bernstein, 70, of the Port Jefferson station, said he did not know the family, but walked through the monument and left flowers across the street.
“He just hit a nerve and wanted to be here,” Bernstein said. “It’s very disturbing and the reaction has been very surprising. Due to his age and circumstances, it was absolutely horrible and I felt compelled to be here.”
Raffaela Biganini, who described herself as Petito’s friend, broke down in tears as she left the funeral home.
“I remember when all this happened, I hoped Gabby would know that she will always be loved and never forgotten,” he said. “Because I will never forget a soul as beautiful as hers.”
With Darwin Yanes and Cecilia Dowd.