The family of Gabby Petito has accused the lawyer for the family of her missing boyfriend of using images of the van life blogger, whose body was found in a Wyoming forest on Sunday, to try and drum up business.
Ms Petito, whose death was ruled a homicide by a coroner on Tuesday, disappeared while on a road trip with her fiancé Brian Laundrie in August. Mr Laundrie, a “person of interest” in the case, has since also gone missing, prompting a major ongoing manhunt for him.
In a letter addressed to Steven Bertolino via their attorney Richard Stafford, Ms Petito’s family demanded that he “remove Gabby Petito’s picture from your Yelp page” and “cease and desist posting pictures of Gabby Petito to any and all of your social media pages, web pages or advertisements in an effort to gain business.”
Mr Bertolino was given until 2pm to make the changes or further action would be taken, said the letter.
He responded with a statement that said: “This is sad. I have never used social media or any other electronic platform for advertising other than maintaining a website. I do not control the internet sites nor the hacks and public that have been overrunning the internet with fake comments and posts. Yesterday Yelp had shut down its page for my firm due to inordinate and unconfirmed posts. I would certainly agree with Mr Stafford that any such post he is referring to should be removed but advise him that I have no control over that Yelp site.”
A Yelp spokesperson told The Independent: “We can confirm that the user who uploaded the photo removed it today.”
The spotlight has fallen on the New York lawyer several times throughout the case of Gabby Petito,
Mr Bertolino drew ire from Ms Petito’s family after her body was formally identified by authorities on Tuesday, and he made a statement saying: “May Gabby rest in peace.”
In response, Ms Petito’s uncle Steve Petito told Fox News his family “don’t require nor want your empathy”.
“As far as the law is concerned this law firm may be immune due to attorney/client privilege,” Mr Petito, the brother of Ms Petito’s father Joe, wrote on Instagram. “But in the eyes of the public you are as guilty and complicit with this massive cover-up and stalling tactic.
“We don’t require nor want your empathy. By you trying to show compassion here at this moment is beyond disgusting.”
Mr Bertolini had come under fire previously for advising his client not to speak to police, explaining in a statement: “In my experience, intimate partners are often the first person law enforcement focuses their attention on in cases like this and the warning that ‘any statement made will be used against you’ is true, regardless of whether my client had anything to do with Ms. Petito’s disappearance,” he said, continuing: “As such, on the advice of counsel, Mr Laundrie is not speaking on this matter.”
North Port Police, who said Mr Laundrie’s lack of cooperation was “hindering the investigation” tweeted a direct plea to the lawyer, asking for help.
Chief Todd Garrison posted: “Mr Steven Bertolino, esq. the @NorthPortPolice needs your help in finding Gabby Petito. Please call us to arrange a conversation with Brian Laundrie. Two people left on a trip and one person returned! #wheresgabby #FindGabby #fbitampa #gabbypetito”
Reviewers flooded Mr Bertolini’s Yelp page with negative comments, accusing him of having behaved unethically. Others argued that regardless of public suspicion, Mr Laundrie deserved fair and equal representation, which was Mr Bertolini’s job.
The platform temporarily disabled the posting of content on the page, and placed a statement on it saying Yelp would “investigate the content you see here reflects actual consumer experiences rather than the recent events”.
A spokesperson said: “Yelp placed an Unusual Activity Alert, as part of our broader Consumer Alerts program, on the business’s Yelp page on Tuesday.”
The Independent has reached out to Mr Bertolini for comment.