Gabby Petito’s Dad Disliked ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’ Term. Now He’s Helping Families of Color Find Loved Ones (Exclusive)

Gabby Petito, 22, disappeared on a cross-country journey with her fiancé Brian Laundrie, 23, in the summer of 2021.

<p>The Petito & Schmidt Families</p> Gabby Petito

The Petito & Schmidt Families

Gabby Petito

Gabby Petito’s name first appeared in headlines across the nation and around the globe when the budding YouTube blogger disappeared on a cross-country journey with her fiancé Brian Laundrie, 23, in the summer of 2021.

The desperate search for Gabby, 22, started after her worried parents filed a missing persons report on Sept. 11 after more than a week of failed attempts to contact her, and ended eight days later when her body was discovered near a campground in Wyoming. Her death was ruled a homicide by a coroner, who determined that she had died of “manual strangulation” at least three weeks earlier.

Laundrie, who died by suicide, was found in a nature preserve near his family’s home in North Port, Fla., on Oct. 20, along with a backpack containing what the FBI described as a notebook “claiming responsibility” for Gabby’s death.

Some activists and news reporters responded to the attention that Petito’s case received with outcry that it represented “Missing White Woman Syndrome” — where White crime victims get more public attention than non-White ones.

<p>Chris Porter/The sun</p>

Chris Porter/The sun

The phrase initially upset Joe Petito, who quickly realized that it touched upon a sad truth. “There’s a hierarchy when it comes to missing person fliers being shared,” he tells PEOPLE. “Kids go first, then White women and then women of color.”

In an effort to change that, the Gabby Petito Foundation has championed the work of the Black and Missing Foundation and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Relatives, along with the National Domestic Violence Hotline — to which they donated $100,000 in 2022 to help build the group’s capacity.

<p>Diana King</p> Joseph and Tara Petito and Nichole and Jim Schmidt

Diana King

Joseph and Tara Petito and Nichole and Jim Schmidt

Related: Gabby Petito’s Parents Want to Change the Way Domestic Violence Is Treated in the U.S.: 'Laws Are Changing' (Exclusive)

“We want to help all missing people,” says Joe. “If the media doesn't continue doing this for all the people then that's a shame because it's not just Gabby that deserved that."

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In recent months Joe Petito and his wife Tara along with Gabby’s mom Nichole Schmidt and her husband Jim have begun using their platform to raise awareness about the thousands of unsolved murders of Indigenous persons whose cases rarely attract the media spotlight.

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During their recent appearance at CrimeCon, they family invited Vangie Randall-Shorty, 49, to speak about her efforts to bring attention to her 23-year-old son Zachariah’s unsolved 2020 murder on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico.

<p>FBI Albuquerque</p> Zachariah Shorty was found fatally shot on July 25, 2020 on a dirt pathway in a field in Nenahnezad, New Mexico.

FBI Albuquerque

Zachariah Shorty was found fatally shot on July 25, 2020 on a dirt pathway in a field in Nenahnezad, New Mexico.

“Their support means so much to me and all the other families like mine,” says Randall-Shorty, who has spent years trying to get investigators to do more to bring her son’s killer to justice. “It gives me so much hope.”

Zachariah’s story is just one of many cases involving Native Americans that have languished. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, there are some 4,200 unsolved missing and murder cases involving Indigenous people. “It's not a crisis, it's genocide,” says activist and attorney Darlene Gomez, who works on pro bono cases for the murdered, missing Indigenous women and their relatives in New Mexico.

“Generally, Native American people don’t get justice. Because if you look at the numbers of missing murdered Indigenous women and relatives to include boys, men and children, and our transgender and LGBT community, for Native Americans being such a small population, the numbers of the missing far outweigh that of any other nationality.”

Gomez, whose childhood friend Melissa Montoya, 42, disappeared in 2001 on the Jicarilla Apache Nation, says she doesn’t find hope in law enforcement but with the communities and the advocates and the families who advocate for themselves.

“Every day, if we can just get one story out, and if we can find justice for one family at a time, that's what I hope for every day.”

Anyone with information about Zachariah's murder is asked to contact the FBI at (505) 889-1300 or go online at

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