In a time when pandemic restrictions and the continued turn of the globe already play a direct role in causing family members and friends to lose touch, many families are also struggling to remain in contact with some of their more vulnerable family members—folks who may suffer from a chronic illness, folks who have high-pressure jobs, or folks who suffer from substance abuse. In these difficult times, some families have been forced to file a missing person report when they could not get in touch with their loved ones. One such Indianapolis mother is continuing the search for her missing son, Jason Culliton, whom she has not seen in over a year.
April 6, 2020 was the last time Judy Culliton saw her son. It was a mild, cloudy day in Indiana—the day of his grandmother’s funeral. While the event was far from a happy occasion to reunite with relatives, Judy had no idea that it would be the last time she would speak to her son in person. Following the funeral of his grandmother, Jason continued to remain in contact with his mother via a sparse series of text messages in June 2020. Now more than a year later, his family has not heard a word from Jason.
Jason Culliton has struggled with substance abuse issues and transience in the past, but knowledge of his whereabouts was rather nebulous in the months before his disappearance. It was believed Jason had been living with a close friend on N Oxford Street in Indianapolis, Indiana before that friend lost his home. Now it is unknown if Jason is travelling, if he is alone, or how he is living day-to-day.
After 18 months without answers, Jason’s family has retained an independent missing person investigator to assist them in the search. Lauth Investigations International is a family-owned-and-operated private investigation firm located in Indianapolis, Indiana. Their CEO, Thomas Lauth, is one of the nation’s foremost missing person experts, specializing in critically missing children and adults. Indianapolis missing person cases are diverse in needs, but often do not get the attention they need from law enforcement. Having a private investigator on the case ensures that no stone is left unturned in the search for a missing person. In addition to their professional expertise, Lauth’s missing person investigations also have a multi-pronged approach in awareness campaigns for their cases to assure that missing persons like Jason still get the media exposure necessary to help solve the case. In an interview about the case, Thomas Lauth said, “The media is one of the greatest tools in a missing person investigation, because keeping the missing person’s face in the media is one of the best ways to garner fresh leads in a case. Cases like Jason’s receive a disparate amount of media exposure because he is not young or female. We’re here to make sure no one forgets about Jason and to help his family get the closure they desperately need in these trying times.”
Jason is 5’11” tall, weighs approximately 205lbs, has brown hair, and hazel eyes. Anyone with information on his whereabouts should call Lauth Investigations International at 317-951-1100.
After weeks of piecing together the last moments of the life of Gabby Petito, her family and her supporters finally have a crucial answer in her case. A Wyoming coroner disclosed on Tuesday that after examining Gabby’s remains—located on September 19 in the Bridger-Teton National Forest—that Gabby had died as a direct result of strangulation. The Teton County Coroner, Dr. Brent Blue, had previously ruled her death as a homicide with the manner of homicide undetermined. No further details have been released at this time. The Petito cause of death likely comes as little comfort to the country at large, which is currently in the grips of a wide-scale man-hunt for Gabby’s fiancé, Brian Laundrie, who has been named a person of interest in her murder.
The Petito cause of death is just one more piece in composing the 1000-piece puzzle of Gabby’s last days. Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie were on a cross-country trip in a repurposed Ford Transit van, documenting their travels and experiences through social media. Before Gabby fell completely out of contact with her family in late August, her family was unable to determine if the scant few text messages they received were even authored by Gabby. Even more disturbing, Brian Laundrie returned to his home in North Port, Florida alone on September 1, 2021. Gabby wasn’t reported missing until her family finally filed a missing person report on September 11, 2021. However, when authorities went to question Brian Laundrie on his knowledge of Gabby’s whereabouts, his parents shielded him from police. Not long after that, Brian Laundrie was nowhere to be found, leaving even more questions about what his exact role was in the Petito cause of death. He told his family on September 14 that he was going out for a hike and has not been seen since.
In addition to determining cause of death, Blue was also able to determine that Gabby’s remains had been in the wilderness for approximately 3-4 weeks before she was found by authorities, placing her time of death in mid to late August. While Laundrie has only been named a ‘person of interest’ by law enforcement, there is still a warrant out for his arrest after authorities determined Laundrie used Gabby’s debit card without her permission. While the internet has speculated highly about the relationship dynamic between Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie, one of the only hard pieces of evidence available to the public is a police body-cam video that captured the aftermath of an argument between them following a report to 911 that a man in Utah had witnessed Laundrie slap Gabby. When the responding officer pulled the Ford Transit over with Gabby in the passenger seat, the couple was separated for the evening to avoid domestic violence charges.
While the search for Brian Laundrie continues throughout the United States—even with the help of Dog the Bounty Hunter—missing person experts like Thomas Lauth suspect that Brian had evaded police through a combination of survival knowledge and help from third parties, “I have never thought he would stay in Florida very long,” Lauth said. “I believe he had some outside resources available to him early on, but those outside resources have likely cut him off because he’s a fugitive…He’s been a savvy traveler for many years. When I say ‘savvy,’ he’s able to live off the land and he knows how to travel alone and lightly.”
It’s the kind of story you see in movies—a young woman discovers that the circumstances of her past may not be what she originally thought. An adoption, a missing person case, possible DNA evidence; these are all plot points in a crime film. However, for Kaylynn Stevenson, the truth could be stranger than fiction now that she has her suspicions that she may actually be Brittany Williams, who disappeared from Richmond, VA when she was only 7 years old.
Kaylynn Stevenson has been sharing her story on social media, claiming she has proof that she is actually a missing seven year-old girl who disappeared from Virginia more than 20 years ago, “Who are you? I am Brittany Renee Williams. Are you sure? Yes, I am. Why are you sure. I’m sure because I have a DNA test to prove it.”
Stevenson was raised by adoptive parents in Columbus, Ohio, and only moved to Fort Wayne within the last year. While researching her biological family, Stevenson claimed to have flashbacks to childhood. After searching her surname ‘Williams,’ Stevenson was shocked to see results for a little girl on a missing person poster. She claims she recognized the little girl as herself.
Brittany Williams was only seven years old when she vanished from her foster home in Richmond, Virginia back in 2000. Brittany was suddenly absent from class and stopped appearing at court hearings with her foster mother, Kim Parker. Parker was so uncooperative with authorities that they deemed it wise to conduct a search of her yard in search of the missing girl’s remains. The missing girl’s case had many exacerbating factors that increased the urgency for answers—for example, Brittany Williams was born with AIDS, and required medication as a result. After some time with no answers in the investigation, authorities believed the little girl to be dead without access to her medication. Allegedly, Parker attempted to give Brittany to her sister out of an inability to care for her. Her sister refused, and Parker told authorities that Parker had paid two women in California to take Brittany. Both women deny ever having custody of Brittany and do not know her whereabouts.
In addition to sharing a surname with Brittany, Stevenson also claims to have had flashes of life in Parker’s foster home called “Rainbow Kids.” Stevenson also has scars on her body from a catheter and eating tube. Catheter scars were one of the distinguishing characteristics listed on Brittany William’s missing person poster. However, a crucial thing Stevenson and Brittany do not share is a diagnosis of AIDS. Despite this crucial inconsistency, WWBT has reported that the FBI and Henrico Police are looking into Stevenson’s claim by comparing her DNA sample to that of Brittany Williams’ half-sister.
If you’ve been following the fervent coverage of the missing person case of Gabby Petito, you’ll undoubtedly have heard about the disparity that occurs in missing person coverage in the media known as Missing White Woman Syndrome. Missing White Woman Syndrome is the cultural phenomenon in which stories about young white women receive the bulk of media coverage when it comes to missing persons. Other names associated with Missing White Woman Syndrome are Mollie Tibbets, Natalee Holloway, and Lauren Spierer—all young, beautiful white women who went missing under perilous circumstances. The high drama of their cases practically eclipses coverage of nonwhite missing persons, especially missing women of color. Petito’s case has reignited the national conversation around Missing White Women Syndrome, and prompted true crime fans to familiarize themselves with stories of missing women of color who have received a fraction of the media attention as Petito.
Modesto, California is incredibly familiar with high-profile missing person cases because it was the location of the Laci Peterson disappearance back in 2002. However, coverage of Susana Torres’ disappearance more than 3 months ago has not garnered national attention despite the harrowing circumstances of her disappearance. Susana remains missing after she disappeared from a grocery store parking lot in Stanislaus County, California back in April, 2021. Susana was kidnapped at gunpoint by her ex-husband, Javier Chavez, 41, who forced her into the car and drove off with their two young children in the back seat. Chavez reportedly dropped the children off at his mother’s house, then drove off with Susana in the car. She has not been seen since. Chavez is believed to have fled to Mexico, and investigators are currently working with the Mexican authorities to find him.
Few things exacerbate the urgency of a missing person search like the missing person carrying a child. Akia Eggleston was last seen on May 3, 2017 in the Inner Harbor area of Baltimore Maryland. At the time of her disappearance, she was eight months pregnant. She was reported missing on May 7, 20217, just a week before Mother’s Day, when she did not show up to her own baby shower. Despite the advanced stage of her pregnancy, and the circumstances of her disappearance, her case and all subsequent addendums to it have received little to no media coverage.
Nine-year-old Asha Degree disappeared more than 20 years ago in North Carolina. Her case shares details with Elizabeth Smart, but did not recieve the same level of coverage. Like Smart, Asha disappeared from her bedromo in the middle of the night between 2:30AM when her mother went to check on her, and 6:30AM when she went to wake her children for school. There were two eyewitness accounts from persons who claimed to have seen a young girl walking away from Asha’s home around 4:00 AM. Asha has not been seen since. The case remains an open investigation.
Lauren was a 30-year-old New Jersey teacher when she was last seen on Jun 28, 2021. She was last seen leaving a residence on foot in Yucca Valley, California. Lauren’s case shares many of the same details with Gabby Petito’s story—such as the fact that she had recently returned from a cross-country trip with her ex-boyfriend in a tour bus. She had been staying with the ex after they returned from the trip. Lauren’s case is just one of many that has gained new life since coverage of the Petito case escalated.
Missing child cases do get comparable media coverage to that of young white women, but this coverage very rarely includes children of color, like Sofia Juarez, who vanished in Kennewick, Washington in 2003. The circumstances of her case could have been clickbait fodder for nervous Facebook parents who share viral stories of attempted abductions by sex traffickers in the present day—but back in 2003 before the ubiquity of social media, it still did not receive ample media coverage at the time. Investigators have recently reported a credible witness account from a woman who claims she saw a toddler who matched little Sofia’s description being abducted by a young adolescent boy—a common tactic of sex traffickers. Investigators are continuing to follow all incoming leads.
Dulce Maria Alvez was also from New Jersey. She was just five years old when she disappeared from Bridgeton City Park while visiting with her mother after a trip for ice cream. Her disappearance was noticed when her younger brother informed their mother that he could not find Dulce. Investigators reported that Dulce may have been abducted by an unknown man who lured her into a red van. He was described as light-skinned, between 5’6” – 5’8”, with a thin build, no facial hair, and acne. Police said he was wearing orange sneakers, red pants, and a black shirt. Despite Dulce being placed on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list of missing children, her case remains largely unknown.
The heart-wrenching story of Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito’s disappearance and demise has captivated not only America, but the world. As billions around the globe have followed the unfolding story of the 22-year-old missing Long Island native, parents, siblings, and young adults have imagined facing such a devastating loss of their own daughter, sister, or friend. Gabby Petito and her fiance, Brian Laundrie have become the objects of fascination in the American media, leading to new conversations surrounding Missing White Woman Syndrome.
While the compassion evoked by the vast media coverage of the case has certainly created a powerful momentum and an outpouring of sympathy, for many families who are also missing loved ones, a raw sadness hangs in the air. Increasingly, an array of advocates are pointing out that—while, of course, a case such as Petito’s should be elevated, covered, and supported—countless missing persons of color disappear each year with little more than a murmur emerging from the media or the public at large.
The striking disparity is known as “missing white woman syndrome,” and while the response to Gabby Petito’s story may stand in the annals of time as a textbook example of the phenomena, conversation around the case has conversely provided space for examination of the complexities of race and equality issues within the media and society as a whole.
As Thomas Lauth—founder of Indianapolis-based and internationally operational Lauth Missing Persons—traces the pattern of missing white woman syndrome, while monitoring the evolution of the Petito case on the ground, we examine the many factors that propelled Petito’s case into the spotlight. Demand is growing for all missing persons to finally be given a voice in equal measure—with the hope that all of those left behind might experience a level playing field in terms of opportunity to seek the answers they long for.
Gabby Petito: A Singular Missing Persons Case
Gabby Petito was described in a Washington Post article as a “blue-eyed, blonde adventure-seeker”; a description that drew criticism from political science expert Hakeem Jefferson of Stanford University for its “unnecessary racializing.”
Having garnered a sizable social media following as she shared her adventures across several platforms, eyes were already turned towards the Gabby Petito when news of her disappearance emerged in the press and online. The young woman was on the road with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, 23, in a white Ford Transit Connect Van, making a cross-country trip. A “van life” blogger, Petito was documenting their journey when circumstances took a turn towards tragedy.
Speaking to USA Today, Lauth highlighted how the combination of factors in Petito’s case had made for headlines. Material entering the public sphere such as the couple’s own Instagram images and Youtube video footage, police body camera footage of a distressed Petito captured during a road-side stop in Utah on August 12th, and several witness sightings documented on TikTok that described Laundrie’s behavior as aggressive collectively created an intimate picture of a case that was ripe for public scrutiny.
On September 1st, Laundrie returned to the home he shared with Petito and his parents in North Port, Florida, without his fiancée. Growing increasingly concerned about their daughter and having received odd text messages from her phone, Petito’s own parents reported her missing on September 11th. On September 14th, the day before he would be named a person of interest in the case, Laundrie reportedly told his family he was going hiking in Carlton Reserve. He was not seen again, and his family maintain that they know nothing of his whereabouts.
On September 19th, Fox News described Petito as “America’s daughter,” transforming the tragic story of a missing woman into a symbol within the collective consciousness of countless Americans. On the same day, the FBI announced the discovery of a body in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, matching Petito’s description. Two days later, it was confirmed that Petito had been found, and that her case was now a homicide investigation. Meanwhile, police continued their search for Laundrie, who at time of writing remains at large.
The Darker Side of a Social Media Frenzy
Speaking to Indianapolis and Central Indiana news outlet WTHR, Lauth shared that in his decades of work, he can think of several cases of missing white women that have received exceptional national media attention—so-called missing white woman syndrome cases—alongside unusually substantial resource mobilization in the name of finding them. “Natalie Holloway, Elizabeth Smart, Lauren Spierer and now Gabby Petito,” said Lauth.
In the case of Gabby Petito, alongside around-the-clock media coverage, another type of phenomena was taking hold. A vast number of members of the public had put on their detective’s hats and taken to social media in order to form their own investigations, and share their own conclusions. TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram users scoured every capture they could find looking for clues, while use of the TikTok hashtag #gabbypetito crept towards and then exceeded 1 billion views. Experts speculated that the swell of amateur sleuthing may coincide with the rise of true crime podcasts and documentaries in recent years.
Speaking to the New York Times, criminal justice and media researcher Danielle Slakoff of California State University expressed a worrying concern that this kind of coverage threatens to turn active cases into “entertainment.” Insensitive or monetized posts can lead to the spread of misinformation, or worse yet, derail police investigations as those responsible for finding authentic clues are left scrambling as they try to sift through such swathes of information. Adding further to the sense of hysteria, television personality Duane Chapman, known as “Dog the Bounty Hunter” announced that he was joining the search for Brian Laundrie, although police have so far dismissed his tips.
The Roots of Missing White Woman Syndrome
In his conversation with WTHR, Lauth shared a sad observation: “The general public and the media have really been attracted to what’s called, “The Missing White Woman Syndrome,” better known as “Damsel in Distress Syndrome.”
Lauth describes the phenomena first coined by late American news anchor Gwen Ifill at a journalism conference in 2004. Since adopted by social scientists, the term “missing white woman syndrome” refers to a tendency towards heightened media coverage of young, attractive, white, upper-middle-class women who are missing when compared to women of color, women of lower social class, older women, men, boys, and LGBTQ missing persons.
On the phenomena, Ifill said, “If there’s a missing white woman, we are going to cover that, every day.” When asked if the response would have been the same had Petito been a woman of color, speaking once again to WTHR, Lauth said, “We wouldn’t be having this interview.”
Another aspect of missing white woman syndrome recently placed under the spotlight is the way in which missing person cases are framed. Research indicates that coverage of missing white women tends to emphasize their roles as mothers or daughters—and fundamentally as innocents—while coverage of missing women of color tends to place focus on the victim’s problems, implying a level of complicity in their disappearance.
Lauth laments the role that harmful stereotypes play in the profiling of victims of color. “They’re missing because they’re doing drugs somewhere or they’re missing because they’re in prostitution,” he said, giving examples of the bias seen within missing persons narratives. “Instead, a lot of these cases are people of color who are endangered.”
Pushing Back Against a Broken Pattern
To give context to the disproportion seen in the Petito case, we can turn to the statistics shared by nonprofit organization the Black and Missing Foundation. In 2020 alone, 543,018 people were reported missing in the United States. Of those, nearly 40% were people of color. Meanwhile, a report issued by the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center revealed that at least 710 Indigenous people vanished from the state of Wyoming—where Petito’s body was found—between 2011 and 2020, most of whom were women and girls.
Writing for USA Today, Suzette Hackney posed a powerful thought on behalf of those who are under-represented: “They aren’t all pretty and blonde. They don’t have a social media following. But their families deserve America’s sympathy and news coverage; their stories are no less important.”
Earlier this year, the FBI compiled a list of active missing persons cases of people under the age of 21, each in need of fresh leads. Scrolling through the many faces of those whose families still wait in hope of answers, the aware will likely find themselves reminded of the 2016 study that revealed missing persons of color to be “significantly underrepresented” in local and national news reporting when set against their tally among the FBI’s open missing persons case list.
Offering a silver lining to the dark cloud of tragedy that has fallen over the Petito case, a jump in awareness of such disparities is beginning to spread through the public sphere. While missing white woman syndrome may lead those motivated by profit to leverage its effect in the name of engagement and revenue, a push-back has emerged on social media. A number of TikTok users are using their platforms to increase awareness of minority missing persons cases that had previously remained largely unseen.
Lauth is poignantly aware that wealth and class can further compound the difference in resources that are mobilized between the spectra of missing persons cases. With this in mind, he encourages clients and followers alike of the Lauth Missing Persons’ investigative team to create GoFundMe pages, hold vigils, contact the media, and be available for interviews in order to drive awareness and interest in their loved ones’ cases.
Speaking on Tuesday 29th September at their first press conference since the discovery of Gabby Petito’s body, the Petito family stressed that while they are grateful for all of the attention that has fallen on Gabby’s case, they want every other family to get the same treatment. Having announced the founding of the Gabby Petito Foundation, the family outlined their desire to provide resources and guidance to others who were searching for a family member. “We’re hoping that through our tragedy, in the future, some good can come out of it,” Gabby’s father Joe explained.
The Petito Case Continues as Awareness Grows for the Previously Unseen
Authorities hope that Petito’s fiancé will soon come forwards and shed light on the events that led to Gabby Petito’s death. While considered a person of interest, Brian Laundrie has not been named as a suspect by the FBI. A warrant has, however, been issued for his arrest in relation to the “use of unauthorized devices.”
According to a federal indictment, Laundrie is alleged to have used a debit card and PIN number for charges exceeding $1,000 from an account that is not his own following Petito’s death, between the dates of August 30th and September 1st. Two separate rewards totaling $30,000 have been offered to anyone who provides a lead that reveals Laundrie’s whereabouts to law enforcement officials. Meanwhile, public discourse around the phenomena of missing white woman syndrome continues to surge, giving hope that a shift in the way missing persons cases are reported and received may be on the horizon. For the many who are still holding on to hope following the disappearance of a loved one or family member, private investigations firm Lauth Missing Persons provide an array of free resources to help forge vital search momentum, as well as expert advice drawing on their decades of experience investigating missing persons cases in the field. While the bias of missing white woman syndrome may still remain prevalent, the self-driven nature of today’s information sharing means that the scales can tip just as quickly as an idea might spread. Lets hope that a tipping point has been reached, and this is only the beginning.
Most parents have their children’s’ best interests at heart, but when tempers flare or tense domestic disputes arise, a parent or guardian may act impulsively without thinking about the consequences. Custodial kidnapping—otherwise known as parental kidnapping—describes when one parent takes their child without the consent of the other. How complex the situation that follows becomes will depend on whether or not a custody order has been violated, and how challenging the abducting parent is to find. Regardless of the circumstances, it’s imperative to know how to proceed in the case of a custodial kidnapping.
Violation of a Court-Ordered Custody Agreement
In the case of divorced or separated parents—or indeed any other circumstance where a custody order may already be in place—a clear violation can allow you to act. Taking a child will certainly prevent “parenting time”, custodial, or visitation rights from being met. In a case such as this, you can file a motion for contempt of court, and reach out to your child custody office for enforcement support. If you have reason to believe your child is in danger, you can also contact local authorities in the event of a custodial kidnapping.
When There is No Custody Order In Place
When custodial kidnapping or parental kidnapping occurs that is not in breach of a custody agreement, the parent left behind can find themselves left in a much more complex situation. Your goal should be to seek an emergency custody order from the courts, however presenting a body of evidence to support that order will be vital. A parent leaving their home state with a child does not necessarily equate to breaking the law. Your filing will have to demonstrate that the kidnapping parent or guardian is actively evading the jurisdiction of the courts, doesn’t have the wellbeing of the child in mind, or is putting the child at direct risk.
When to Call In a Private Investigator
Any parent whose child has disappeared is bound to feel that time is of the essence. A licensed private investigator will be perfectly poised to jump directly on the trail of your child before it goes cold. They will also be able to assist with compiling an airtight case that will stand up to the scrutiny of a judge. Because of the deeply emotional nature of custodial kidnappings, a private investigator can prove indispensable—providing all-important impartiality as a documented body of evidence is built that will support your cause in court.
At times, parental kidnappings can distressingly unfold into a hide and seek scenario. Causing great heartache to the parent or guardian left behind, tracking and tracing the child in question can become the absolute number one priority. For moments such as these, our team of missing person investigators here at Lauth Missing Persons bring 30 years of dedicated experience to the table—having located not only missing adults and children in the US, but also those missing overseas. Should you discover that your child may have been taken abroad, we are equipped to step up the search to an international scale without missing a beat.
Turning to Trusted Missing Person Specialists in a Moment of Crisis
Here at Lauth, missing person investigators offer a bounty of experience in helping parents to navigate child custody cases and quickly locating children who have been kidnapped by a guardian. Drawing on a depth of legal and jurisdictional understanding, we can help you assess the current crisis; advise on your options; liaise with your lawyer, authorities, and applicable NGOs; and act with urgency to keep your child safe. If you are in the midst of a custodial kidnapping and want help in building a case or urgently locating your child, we are on hand to help. Learn more about our process, or contact our team today to learn more.