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Gabby Petito's loved ones gathered in New York for a memorial as the search for her fiancé continues

Gabby Petito's loved ones gathered in New York for a memorial as the search for her fiancé continues

Posted: Sep 26, 2021 8:41 PM
Updated: Sep 26, 2021 8:41 PM

Gabby Petito was remembered as a kind, loving and adventurous young woman on Sunday, when her family, friends and complete strangers gathered in Holbrook, New York, on Long Island to pay their respects.

One week after his daughter's remains were found in a national forest in Wyoming, Joseph Petito described his daughter in a eulogy as a "happy girl," who people would gravitate toward. She made others feel welcome, he said, and she loved being outdoors, scuba diving, hiking the Appalachian Trail or snowboarding down sand dunes in Colorado.

"I want you to be inspired by Gabby, that's what we're looking for," Joseph Petito said. "If there's a trip that you guys want to take, take it now. Do it now while you've got the time.

"If there's a relationship that you're in that might not be the best thing for you, leave it now," he said, an apparent reference to his daughter's relationship with her fiancé Brian Laundrie, who returned home to Florida from a cross-country road trip without Petito on September 1. His whereabouts remain unknown as authorities continue their search -- now over a week old -- for the 23-year-old.

Petito's stepfather, Jim Schmidt, also gave a eulogy, telling those gathered, "Parents aren't supposed to bury their children. That's not how this is supposed to work."

Petito provides "an example for all of us to live by," Schmidt said, "to enjoy every moment in this beautiful world, as she did -- to love and give love to all like she did."

Footage from a livestream of the event Sunday provided by the funeral home showed an altar surrounded by pictures of Petito. Attendees walked by, eyeing the photos and a collage of photographs showing her through the years, while others gathered together, hugging and talking.

Outside, members of the public waited at least an hour to get inside and pay their respects, at one point standing in a line that wrapped itself around the building. Signs posted across the street bore Petito's name and read, "Forever in our hearts."

Attendee Angelina Amendola said she didn't know Petito personally. But they came from the same hometown, Blue Point, and she wanted to support Petito's family.

"I'm a mother -- I could never imagine something like that happening to my boys," Amendola told CNN.

"It's going to be a lot," she said of the memorial. "But I want to show the Petito and Schmidt family lots of love and let them know that they're surrounded by people who love them and care for Gabby."

For days now, Petito has been honored in communities across the country as her story gripped the nation's attention: A vigil was held in Salt Lake City last Wednesday, and a small table of remembrance has been set up at a Wilmington, North Carolina, restaurant where she used to work, according to CNN affiliate WWAY.

The latest memorial was Saturday night, when community members in North Port, Florida -- where Petito lived with Laundrie and his parents -- gathered at city hall to hold a candlelight vigil and release butterflies in her honor and voice support for her family. Most didn't know Petito, CNN affiliate WFTS reported, but they still felt a connection to her.

"I have daughters myself, as well as granddaughters," Lisa Correll, who organized the memorial, told WFTS of hearing Petito's story. "So it was very emotional to begin with."

"At least she is home with her family and they get to have their closure and peace," Correll said.

On Sunday, Schmidt expressed gratitude for the love and support Petito's family has felt from people around the country and the world, a sentiment echoed by Joseph Petito, who said, "The entire planet knows this woman's name now."

Richard Stafford, an attorney for the Petito family, told CNN in a statement Friday the family is asking for donations to a future Gabby Petito foundation in lieu of flowers.

$30,000 in rewards available for tips leading to Laundrie's arrest

Petito and Laundrie embarked on a cross-country trip in June and were visiting national parks prior to her disappearance, posting regularly online about their travels with the hashtag #VanLife.

But those posts abruptly stopped in late August.

Petito was reported missing September 11 -- 10 days after Laundrie returned home with their van -- after her family had not been able to get in touch with her. She was found dead eight days later near a campground in Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest. Today, the spot is marked by another memorial by Schmidt, who visited the area and left sunflowers, Stafford told CNN, "his daughter's favorite flower."

Meantime, authorities have been searching for Laundrie, who faces a federal warrant for his arrest for the "use of unauthorized devices" stemming from his actions following Petito's death. Laundrie allegedly used a debit card and PIN number for accounts that did not belong to him for charges exceeding $1,000 between the dates of August 30 and September 1, according to a federal indictment.

Laundrie's parents told authorities on September 17 that the 23-year-old left their home days earlier with his backpack and said he was headed to the reserve, which has since been the focus of an extensive search by local and federal officers. A source close to the family told CNN's Chris Cuomo Laundrie left his parents' home without his cell phone and wallet.

Two separate rewards totaling $30,000 have been offered to anyone who provides law enforcement officials with Laundrie's whereabouts.

Boohoff Law, a personal injury law firm, said in a release on its website it is offering a $20,000 reward to be "paid once the investigating law enforcement agency supplies" the firm with "written verification that a tip helped lead to locating" Laundrie.

The law firm, which has multiple offices across Florida, including North Port, said its reward "will remain open for two months starting from the receipt of the tip" by law enforcement.

Meanwhile, a second reward has been offered by Jerry Torres, who said in a tweet Wednesday he was a neighbor of Petito's family.

Torres wrote that he and his daughter "offer our deepest condolences to the family of Gabby Petito," adding, "We are offering a reward of $5,000 for tips leading to an arrest."

Torres said Friday the reward he's offering had been raised to $10,000, thanks in part to help from people like Steve Moyer, the former deputy chief of police for Sarasota, Florida.

"Money gets people to talk," Moyer told CNN affiliate WZVN Friday.

An attorney for Laundrie's family emphasized in a statement that the warrant was not for Petito's death but related to activities that allegedly took place afterward.

"It is my understanding that the arrest warrant for Brian Laundrie is related to activities occurring after the death of Gabby Petito and not related to her actual demise," Steve Bertolino said. "The FBI is focusing on locating Brian and when that occurs the specifics of the charges covered under the indictment will be addressed in the proper forum."

Swampy wilderness remains focus of search

The search for Laundrie has focused on the Carlton Reserve, 25,000 inhospitable acres of swampland, alligators and snakes in Sarasota County, Florida, not far from the home Laundrie and Petito shared with his parents.

Authorities have repeatedly underscored the difficulty of searching the area, with North Port Police saying in an update last week that the nature reserve was "vast and unforgiving," with many areas that had been flooded or where the water was waist deep.

Federal and local officials from multiple agencies have combed the reserve for signs of Laundrie, using drones and bloodhounds as part of the search, North Port Police Department spokesperson Josh Taylor previously said.

An underwater dive team from the Sarasota Sheriff's Office who are "called upon to search for evidence of crimes and victims of drowning, water accidents and foul play" was also brought in midweek, according to the sheriff's office.

"We're looking through wooded areas, we're looking through bodies of water, we're looking through swampy areas," North Port Police Commander Joe Fussell said in a video shared online Friday. "And we're deploying the resources to be able to do that. We have air units, we have drones, we have the swamp buggies, air boats, multiple law enforcement agencies, we have ATVs, we have UTVs and we have officers on foot as well."

Law enforcement expected to be back out in the reserve searching throughout the weekend, with a focus on "areas of more likelihood," according to a statement from Taylor, the North Port Police spokesperson, Friday.

Unless "something of note" was found, Taylor said North Port Police would not be providing regular updates over the weekend.

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