For the true crime community, 2021 was full of twists, surprises, and tragedy. The Gabby Petito case rocked the US in the fall, and even years-old cases, such as those of Kristin Smart, Elisa Lam, and D.B. Cooper, were revived through limited series and fresh evidence.
Here are the true crime cases we couldn't stop thinking about in 2021.
The Murder Of Gabby Petito
In June 2021, Gabby Petito and her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, embarked on a cross-country road trip together in Petito's white Ford van. Although Petito stayed in near-constant contact with her parents throughout the trip, she stopped texting them after August 30. Her frequent social media posts also ceased. Petito's family reported her missing two weeks later, shortly after Laundrie returned alone to his family's Florida home in Petito's van.
Police body cam footage released after Petito's disappearance shone light on an incident from August 12 in which the couple was pulled over for a reported domestic dispute. Though Petito appeared visibly distressed in the footage, no charges were pressed. This footage raised significant suspicion against Laundrie, who was not cooperating with investigators.
On September 17, Laundrie's parents reported that he had been missing for several days. On September 19, investigators found human remains in a Wyoming National Forest that they later identified as Petito. Her death was ruled a homicide via manual strangulation. During this time, Laundrie was considered a person of interest in Petito's case, but not an official suspect.
After a month-long manhunt for Laundrie, investigators found his remains on October 20 in a Florida nature reserve. Nearby, they found a notebook in which he seemingly confessed to killing Petito. In it, he described an incident in which Petito somehow became injured while crossing a creek and was in “extreme pain.” According to Laundrie, she appeared to be succumbing to the freezing-cold temperatures outside and asked him to make her pain stop. He wrote, “I ended her life, I thought it was merciful, that it is what she wanted but I see now all the mistakes I made.”
- Video: YouTube
TikTok's Rescue Of A Teenage Girl From Her Abductor
On November 4, 2021, 61-year-old James Herbert Brick was driving through Kentucky with a young girl in the passenger seat. The two had already traveled through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio together, even stopping along the way to visit the man’s family.
The 16-year-old girl, whose name has not been released by the police (likely due to her status as a minor), had actually been reported missing from Asheville, NC, a mere two days earlier by her family. She was acquainted with Brick, but the two were unrelated. He had kidnapped her and transported her across state lines.
While traveling south from Ohio, she began making a harmless-looking hand gesture she learned from TikTok out the car window. While to Brick she appeared to simply be waving or stretching, she was actually signaling for help.
Someone driving near Brick's vehicle spotted the signal and called 911, explaining that they thought the girl was in trouble. The caller then followed Brick, updating the dispatcher on his movements until law enforcement could arrive. The girl was rescued by police and returned home, and Brick was arrested on two felony charges - one for unlawful imprisonment and another for illicit content found on his phone.
The Disappearance Of Phoenix Coldon
Her car was found in the middle of the street just 25 minutes from her family's home, yet she was nowhere to be seen. On December 18, 2011, Phoenix Coldon's parents watched their daughter pull out of their driveway and never saw her again. This marked the beginning of a nightmare for the Coldon family. Though the car was impounded that very night, her parents didn't learn about it until weeks later. Alleging police negligence, Coldon's parents began a search for her themselves, spending tens of thousands of dollars in the process, but were faced with costly hoaxes that wound up costing them their home and life savings.
Despite their dedication, Coldon has never been found. A 2018 Oxygen documentary, The Disappearance of Phoenix Coldon, featured revelations about the young woman's personal life and a Snapchat video that she had recorded about a month before her disappearance. "I just want to be happy, man. I can't remember a time when I was happy," Phoenix Coldon says in the video, which Oxygen describes as showing a "girl in crisis."
Did Phoenix Coldon run away from home to start a new life, or did something more sinister happen to her on that chilly December afternoon? To this day, her parents still don't know.
The Disappearance Of Brandon Swanson
"Oh shit!" were the last words Brandon Swanson uttered on a phone call with his parents. On May 14, 2008, he had accidentally driven his car into a ditch after celebrating the end of spring semester with his friends. He called his parents to come pick him up, but when they drove to where he said he was, there was no sign of him. The conversation continued on and off, with both parties trying to locate one another to no avail. After 47 minutes, the call cut off abruptly, and Brandon uttered that final expletive before the line went silent.
Though the Swansons phoned the police right away, officers didn't immediately get involved, pointing out that it wasn't so uncommon for young men to stay out all night after the end of college classes. When authorities finally did investigate, phone records showed that Brandon Swanson had been nowhere near the location he had described to his parents. Instead, his cell phone calls had bounced off a tower some 20 miles distant, where authorities eventually found his abandoned car. Of Brandon himself, however, there was no sign.
Though there have been no breaks in the case since, Brandon's parents haven't given up hope. In fact, perhaps one good thing has come from Brandon's disappearance: A year after their son vanished, the Swansons helped convince the Minnesota Legislature to pass Brandon's Law, which "requires authorities to conduct a preliminary investigation without delay when a missing persons report is received."