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Great-aunt: Laundrie's parents gave him a 'head start'

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PORT CHARLOTTE — One member of Gabby Petito’s family who lives in the area remains shocked about her disappearance and death.

“It’s very, very upsetting,” Jill Hengel, of Gulf Cove, told The Daily Sun.

“I’m still in shock. I’m angry. And I don’t know how to … we’re a close family, so … it’s a shock to all of us that something like this would happen.”

Petito, 22, was reported missing Sept. 11. The North Port resident had been on a months-long journey with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, 23. The couple had dated for years and were, at one point, engaged. They lived with his parents in the 4300 block of Wabasso Avenue.

Laundrie returned from the travel out west on Sept. 1, driving Petito’s Ford van.

Her body was discovered Sunday in the Spreading Creek area of Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming.

Hengel, who is a great-aunt of Petito’s, said she is awaiting word on when she should return to New York for the funeral of her brother’s granddaughter.

Gabby Petito had other family, some in the area and others throughout Florida. Jill Hengel said she’d see Gabby on previous visits back north, but they had never connected since Gabby moved to North Port in 2019.

But, she said, she would communicate with Gabby online.

“Everything has been crazy, I am in awe right now — and numb,” Hengel said.

On Thursday morning, she hesitated on some questions, saying she didn’t want to speak for Gabby’s family. But she is helping to work on two nights of memorials this weekend.

On Friday night, Long Island residents are being asked to light a candle and put it at the end of their driveway for Gabby; Hengel encouraged that to happen “around the world,” she said.

Then, on Saturday night, a similar event will take place in North Port. It will in front of North Port City Hall, 4970 City Hall Blvd. There will be a memorial butterfly release at 7:15 p.m. and will be followed by a candle lighting at dusk.

The event is called “Butterfly Wings to Heaven for Gabby.”

The search continues for Laundrie on Thursday morning, with local and state authorities back in T. Mabry Carlton Jr. Memorial Reserve near Venice.

It is the area where Laundrie’s parents claim he went hiking on Sept. 14. They didn’t reveal that until they reported him missing from their Wabasso Avenue home on Sept. 17.

However, in yet another twist, Wabasso Avenue neighbors told Fox News on Wednesday evening that they had seen Laundrie and his parents, Chris and Roberta Laundrie, leave for a short trip on Sept. 11 — the day Petito’s family reported her missing.

“His parents gave him a head start,” Hengel said. “When they went camping the three days, that was the head start. They just left the car there to throw everybody off — and it’s not just me saying that; a lot of other people are saying that, too.”

She said she never met Brian Laundrie but she doubts he has harmed himself, as some have suggested.

“I hope he’s found alive only because I want answers. My family wants answers,” she said.

She’s “a little angry” at police for not keeping closer tabs on Laundrie after Petito was reported missing. She believes he should have been arrested for stealing her van when he returned without her.

But she also offered praise during the tragedy.

“I just want to thank North Port for everything they have done,” she said. “I appreciate everything everyone has done.”

For now, she is preparing for Petito’s funeral.

“I am waiting for Gabby to come home,” she said.


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