A Free Spirit Who Was 'Living the Dream': Inside the Tragic Gabby Petito Case

Friends react to Gabby's adventurous life and mysterious disappearance

gabby petito

In the videos and photos shared on social media from her camping trip beginning July 2, a vibrant, smiling 22-year-old Gabrielle "Gabby" Petito painted an appealing picture with fiancé Brian Laundrie, 23.

In their converted white Ford Transit van they started out at Blue Point, N.Y., and visited national parks and campgrounds in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. Whenever they selected a spot to stop, they'd film and upload videos of the scene around them, documenting their "van life journey" with shots of themselves swimming, hiking and kissing.

"All of their friends are either still in college or searching for entry-level jobs," the couple's friend Ben Matula tells PEOPLE exclusively in its latest issue. "They were living the dream that we all want. They were having the adventure of a lifetime."

The couple's relationship began when she was a sophomore and he was a junior at Long Island's Bayport-Blue Point High School. The romance was on-again, off-again to the point that sometimes it was hard for friends to know if the couple were together.

The pair seemed to fall in and out of love, but friends say they didn't see anything concerning between them.

"I never saw any sort of physical abuse," Gabby's high school friend Alyssa Chen tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week's issue.

After Laundrie graduated in 2016, the couple broke up for several months until Gabby finished high school the following year. After her graduation the two decided against college, instead moving in with his family in Florida. Gabby worked as a pharmacy technician, while Laundrie sold his watercolors and digital artwork.

The couple shared a love of travel, and when they struggled to come up with cash for hotels or Airbnb rentals, they brainstormed a new way to live: They pooled their money, purchased a Ford Transit van and, inspired by YouTube videos and home-renovation shows, used their artistic skills to transform the vehicle into a small home.

"They had very high highs and very low lows," says Chen. "But she always said he was a good boyfriend."

For exclusive interviews and details on the Gabby Petito case, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.

Gabby was first reported missing on Sept. 11. On Sunday, Sept. 19, the FBI confirmed they discovered a body in Wyoming matching Gabby's description.

Laundrie was identified as a person of interest in the case after he refused to sit down with investigators to discuss Gabby's whereabouts. He has also since gone missing, with authorities in Florida currently conducting searches for him.

He has not been named a suspect at this time. Laundrie's lawyer has not responded to PEOPLE's requests for comment.

Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Sign up for PEOPLE's free True Crime newsletter for breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases.

While authorities search for Laundrie and try to figure out what happened to her, Gabby's friends are grief-stricken and shocked.

"It seemed," Matula tells PEOPLE, "like they were seeing the world with the person they loved."

If you have information on this case, call 1-­800-­CALL-­FBI (225­-5324).

Related Articles