The disappearance of Gabby Petto riveted the nation, and it dominated the news cycle for a good part of a month. Many are moved by the story of a young, beautiful woman who disappeared at the start of her adult life. Gabby could have been a sibling, a friend or a daughter.
Denise’s parents, now in their 70s, have known for years that a happy ending was unlikely — but they have held out hope for some closure.
Some families, like mine, find Gabby’s story to be more than just a story. It strikes a nerve. Gabby’s story, which isn’t a warning tale about what might happen, is a reminder of the painful things that have already happened.
In the cases where missing loved ones weren’t prominently covered for weeks and who still search for their daughters, sisters, and cousins decades later — particularly families of Indigenous women and women of color — Gabby’s story raises difficult questions about why some cases of missing young women are so well-reported and are resolved in part. While others remain open cases and unresolved, Gabby’s story is a reminder of what can happen. They deserve our attention.
My cousin, Denise Pflum, was a white 18-year-old high school senior when she vanished. It was 1986. It was when I was a small girl.
She’d gone to a party the night before with friends at a home in the countryside of southeastern Indiana and left her purse behind. She set out the next morning to find it. She wore a red Motley crue T-shirt, pinstriped pants and her class ring. She was never seen again. Her car, a 1981 cream-colored Buick Regal, was later found on a rural farm lane, abandoned.
Denise is an honors student. Two months before her prom, she vanished. She was five months away from starting her studies at Miami University, and embarking on her dream to become a scientist. She was an unfortunate statistic when she vanished.
In 2020, slightly more than 543,000 people went missing in the United States, according to records compiled by the National Crime Information Center. According to records compiled by the National Crime Information Center, half of all missing persons were women, with a third being African American. Approximately 8 to 11 percent of all missing persons cases are unresolved each year, which means thousands of women vanish — and remain missing. A few missing women are the focus of national media attention, drawing ongoing and perhaps critical attention to their cases. Gabby Petito is one. There are also three others: Chandra Levy, Elizabeth Smart and Natalee Holloway.
More women aren’t household names. Behind every case that has gone cold is a story full of heartbreak and endless questions about what should or could have been done differently in those days, weeks, and months. These are the kind of painful questions my cousin’s parents understand all too well.
There were many factors that impeded the investigation into the disappearance of my cousin. Because Denise was 18 at the time, a legal adult, some law enforcement officers initially suggested that she had simply run away for a few days and encouraged her parents to give her time to return. It’s a roadblock other families of missing women claim slowed down the start of searches and hindered the seriousness of cases being taken by authorities. Every hour counts in a missing persons case, and any time lost waiting for someone to return home on their own can make potentially critical differences.
The local authorities that were initially assigned to Denise’s search did not seem to have the necessary experience in missing persons cases. Although small towns are often beautiful places to live in, officers assigned to search for Denise have not been able handle complicated and time-sensitive cases of possible abductions. Denise’s parents regret that the initial investigators were not as well-intentioned as they should have been. They didn’t know how to preserve the crime scene at the abandoned vehicle and look for clues such footprints or tire marks around it.
Being from a small town may have also hurt the search in other ways. Denise is from a small farming community that is about an hour away from Indianapolis, Dayton, and Cincinnati. These cities are home to the largest newspapers in the region and TV stations. The speed and severity of the authorities’ response to the case and the number of tips received might have been affected by the persistent and early coverage from large media outlets.
There were still rays of hope for many years. Authorities thought that Denise’s disappearance was solved until last summer. They later revealed that the man in question had given a false confession, possibly to obtain reward money. He also didn’t give enough details prior to his death to prove his involvement in the crime. The remains of Denise were never found and no evidence has been provided to prove her death or alive.
Denise’s parents, now in their 70s, have known for years that a happy ending was unlikely — but they have held out hope for some closure, for some pieces of credible information that might help them know what happened to their firstborn before they die.
Every milestone, such as holidays and birthdays, is a painful reminder of what may have been. Strangers asking about how many children they have can be devastating to the heart.
While they waited for the answers, Denise’s room remained untouched. Everything should be waiting for her, just like it was. They have now moved all her belongings into storage bins in their garage, but kept them close by for any eventuality. They kept the same number for decades in the hope that she would call it one day. They chose to remain in the same area to be close to their families and long-time friends. This led to feelings of unease and mistrust. Do their neighbors and colleagues know anything they don’t? Is it possible that the person responsible for their daughter’s disappearance was in their midst, passing by them in the grocery aisles?
Their grief and pain are widely shared. Denise’s story forever changed my view of small towns as the most safe. Never again will I believe that my rural Midwestern home or the idyllic farm country where Denise disappeared were peaceful and secure. Denise’s disappearance taught me that even in the most idyllic and neighborly places, darkness and shadows can lurk.
As a society we must do more to find all young women who have disappeared in the prime of life.
Gabby’s remains were discovered last month and she was laid into rest a week ago. Although it was deeply sad, the burial offered some closure. Her parents are now continuing their search for justice. It’s important to keep in mind the heartbreak of all families searching for missing loved ones, the open wounds that can last years or even decades and that may never heal. The stories that aren’t covered by the national media get little attention.
A report by Wyoming, the state in which Petito’s remains were recovered, found just 30 percent of Indigenous missing and murdered people in the area made the news, compared to 51 percent of white people. A Northwestern University study found that missing Black women are underrepresented in media coverage. As a society we must do more to find all missing young women at their prime — and to reflect on, and mourn the irreparable trauma that has been caused to the families and communities who were left behind.