The disappearance of white 22-year-old Gabby Petito of Blue Point, Long Island continues to receive hours of national news coverage, top story status, talk shows and saturated media coverage. Meanwhile, Black 15-year-old Kelyshja Pearse from Syosset, Long Island, who’s been missing since Sept. 5, hasn’t made a single headline.
As of Sept. 21, the Center for Missing and Exploited Children is reporting 47 Black girls missing in New York State with 20 missing from the New York City area. They include 18-year-old Kashmere Wright-Ortiz from Manhattan, who’s been missing since July,.
Petito was on a cross country road trip with her fiancé Brian Laundrie and upon his return from the trip, Petito was not with him. Her family reported her missing on Sept. 11. This week, a body fitting her description was found in Bridger–Teton National Forest in Wyoming. Laundrie was named a person of interest but has not been found.
The case is said to be driven by social media and a heightened interest in the “true crime” genre. Critics say mainstream media has fallen into “missing white woman syndrome” with disproportionate coverage and resources being poured into the case.
Police departments from three states and the FBI are involved in the investigation of Petito’s disappearance. The outpouring of law enforcement has outraged the Indigenous community in Wyoming, where Petito’s body was found, where during the last 10 years, over 700 Indigenous people have gone missing with little effort to find them.
Why the overcoverage of a missing 22-year-old white woman and nearly zero for Black girls? Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black & Missing Foundation, said it’s a continuation of the media and law enforcement’s disregard for Black lives.
“There’s a disparity in the media coverage of missing persons of color, particularly women of color, so we’re not surprised at all,” Wilson said. “Our missing do not matter and their lives are not valued to get the media coverage. These are our mothers and daughters and sisters and our neighbors that are missing and we need to take these cases very seriously.”
Wilson added that her organization has been overwhelmed with so many calls, emails and social media messages from families of missing Black people she can’t count. Since Petito’s case broke, Black and Missing has been contacted about the high number of missing Black people. She hopes the momentum and interest continues.
“We’ve seen this before, where people are up in arms,” Wilson said. “They are outraged, and then it’s a fad and nothing happens. They go on to something else. Let’s stick with this, to bring about real change.”
According to Wilson, since the COVID-19 pandemic she’s seen an uptick in the number of missing girls and women particularly involving sex trafficking. Young people are spending more time online interacting with predators who are luring them from home.
This week, a grand jury indicted charging Christopher Thomas, age 38, of Colonie, NY, with crimes related to the sex trafficking of children and adults. Thomas allegedly recruited girls and women to engage in commercial sex at his direction and then paid him. He used a website to advertise the girls and women for commercial sex.
Jeremie Hoyt, 41, of Davenport appeared in federal court Monday on charges that he sexually exploited a child. In 2020, Hoyt took a sexually explicit photograph and video of a 14-year-old child and distributed the material over the internet.
“Predators know the buzzwords or what to say to groom these kids to get them comfortable and they lure them into sex trafficking,” Wilson said. “We continue to just hammer away and let communities know that this is still an issue that is happening in our backyards, it’s not happening abroad somewhere, it’s in our communities.”