The disappearance of van life traveler Gabby Petito during a cross-country road trip with her fiancé prompted a frenzied search for answers by authorities and Petito’s family, who first reported her missing on September 11th. Their efforts have been buoyed by widespread media coverage and public interest, including a big response from social media users, who helped the story go viral across several platforms like TikTok, where true crime users posted continuous updates on the case.
The flurry of interest has also renewed discussions of “missing white woman syndrome,” which describes mainstream media’s perceived fascination with white women who are missing or in danger, compared to their perceived disinterest in covering people of color in similar situations. “It goes without saying that no family should ever endure that type of pain,” MSNBC’s Joy Reid said, while talking about the phenomenon on her show. “And the Petito family certainly deserves answers and justice.” At the same time, more than 400 indigenous women have gone missing over the past decade in Wyoming, the state where authorities found the body believed to be Petito’s, and none has risen to the top of the public consciousness the way Petito has.
It is impossible to define with certainty exactly why Petito’s case caught fire. Hers was a bizarre and suspicious disappearance by someone with enough of a public presence on Instagram to give online sleuths material to dig through. She and her fiancé had announced their “van life” journey on YouTube, situating the disappearance within an alluring subculture. Still, her white blondness is unavoidable, and likely contributed to her success on social platforms, which reward whiteness. “When it comes to missing persons of color — men, women and children — our cases are not taken seriously,” Derrica Wilson of the Black and Missing Foundation told Reid. “No one is looking for us if we were to go missing.”
Since searchers in Wyoming announced the discovery on Sunday of human remains matching Petito’s description, many social media users are trying to harness the energy and eagerness for action that Petito’s disappearance generated to boost other missing persons cases, particularly those of BIPOC individuals, that have gotten far less media attention.
Jelani Day’s mother, Carmen Bolden Day, appeared on the streaming news network Newsy on Friday, expressing frustration over the media attention her son — missing from Bloomingston, Illinois, since August 24th — has received compared to Petito, who at the time had been reported missing less than a week earlier. “I do not understand why Jelani doesn’t get that same coverage,” she said, through tears. “Just like Gabby is important, I can sit in this seat and say I know what her mother’s feeling like, because she wants her child back. I want my child back, too, and I want them to look for my child like they’re looking for her. He is not a nobody; he is a somebody, and I want him to come back home….It makes me mad because this young white girl is getting that attention and my young black son is not.”
Day, 25, is a graduate student in speech-language pathology at Illinois State University. His family last heard from him on August 23rd. The following morning, security cameras captured him on campus in a button-down shirt and black pants around 7:20 am. His bank account showed he’d bought Starbucks coffee there, but he didn’t show up for a meeting with a faculty member and missed class after that. Instead, security cameras captured him just after 9 a.m. entering a nearby cannabis dispensary wearing shorts and a t-shirt. The faculty member he was supposed to meet with notified the police, because Day’s absence was uncharacteristic and he was not responding to calls or texts. His family filed a missing persons report after failing to reach him within a day; his mother has said he typically calls her several times a day. On August 26th, police found Day’s car abandoned in a wooded area of Peru, Illinois. Inside were the shorts and t-shirt he’d been wearing in the most recent security footage. His family has started a GoFundMe to raise money for their search.
Bloomington police released a statement on Monday announcing they are still “actively investigating” and “seeking leads” in the case. Officers are collecting and analyzing physical and digital evidence, finding and interviewing witnesses, and continuing to look for more information, the statement said.
In a post that got retweeted more than 30,000 times, a user wrote in part, “Let’s get the same energy going to help locate #LaurenCho as we did for #GabbyPetito.” Cho, who goes by El, vanished June 28th in Yucca Valley, California. She left on foot from the rental home where she was reportedly living after moving from New Jersey in December 2020, and didn’t come back. Police searched the property with a warrant and searched the surrounding area by plane, according to a July 31st statement. “Ongoing search efforts continue with future operations planned as further leads are developed in the investigation,” the statement said.
A Facebook group, Missing Person: Lauren “El” Cho, purports to provide updates from Cho’s family. The administrator posted a comment on the Petito case before the Denver FBI found the body. “We understand the frustration many of you have expressed about how and why certain cases receive national coverage,” the post said in part. “Ultimately, these two cases are NOT the same and the differences run deeper than what meets the public eye. We are wholly appreciative of the love that continues to be shown to El. We empathize deeply with Gabby’s family and hope that both our cases bring forth positive resolution. Somebody knows something. About El, about Gabby.”
“I’m shaking reading about the discovery of Gabby Petito’s body in Wyoming,” one Twitter user following the search posted. “While we’re watching this case unfold, please take 5 seconds to read about Daniel Robinson, a geologist who went missing in the desert outside Buckeye three months ago. His father is still looking for him.” The tweet was retweeted more than 55,000 times in a day.
Robinson, a 24-year-old geologist, was last seen driving deeper into the desert of Buckeye, Arizona the morning of June 23rd, leaving the site where he was working. He didn’t tell anyone where he was going, and he never came back. Family and friends told police Robinson had been acting strangely before his disappearance, like making sudden, unannounced trips, but that they did not think he wanted to leave the area or hurt himself.
Initial searches by the police, including from the air, didn’t find anything, but on July 19th, a rancher found Robinson’s blue Jeep Renegade crashed in a ravine about four miles from the site where Robinson was last seen nearly a month later. His phone, wallet, and keys were found at the scene, along with his clothes, including his boots and safety vest. The Buckeye Police have partnered with other agencies to search for Robinson across more than 70 square miles of land, according to a statement the department released September 16th. Robinson’s father has organized at least three searches in an effort to find his son, and invited volunteers to join him or to donate to a GoFundMe.