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Utah police missed 'red flags' in speaking with Gabby Petito and fiance, experts say

Body camera video shows Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito talking to police in the van she was traveling in with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, in Moab on Aug. 12. Domestic violence advocates say the encounter was a missed opportunity to help. But a former Moab chief says the officers treated the couple with dignity and compassion.

Body camera video shows Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito talking to police in the van she was traveling in with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, in Moab on Aug. 12. Domestic violence advocates say the encounter was a missed opportunity to help. But a former Moab chief says the officers treated the couple with dignity and compassion. (Moab police via AP)



Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — The difference was stark.

Gabby Petito was crying and nearly hyperventilating as she stepped out of the white van she and her boyfriend lived in as they rolled through one national park after the next.

Brian Laundrie smiled and laughed at times as he explained why the couple swerved and hit a curb outside Arches National Park and why he had scratches on his arms and face.

"If you know about domestic violence, you know that when one party is crying, sobbing — practically hysterical — and the other one seems pretty in control and in fact is laughing, that right there is a red flag to look further," said Lynn Rosenthal, a consultant and former White House adviser on violence against women for the Obama administration.

Moab police and a park ranger showed concern and compassion in separating and speaking with the young Florida couple on Aug. 12 and whether arresting either would do any good, according to advocates and experts in domestic violence who reviewed police body camera footage. But the officers missed the mark in other ways, failing to probe who had initiated a violent struggle earlier in the day or involve an advocate who could help evaluate any risk Petito faced.

"The whole advocacy community has just blown up around this, because everybody feels like this was absolutely preventable," said Kit Gruelle, a longtime advocate who trains law enforcers in Utah and other states on how best to address domestic violence.

The hour and 17 minutes of body camera footage has become a focal point for a public scrutinizing whether the officers could have helped to prevent Petito's death more than a month before authorities recovered her remains near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

A federal warrant has been issued for the arrest of Laundrie, 23. A search continues after he returned home to North Port, Florida, in the van, then vanished as police and Petito's family pleaded with him for information.

A 'tragic and perfect example'

Gruelle has helped Moab and several other of the state's rural communities hash out plans for law enforcers to work with social workers, mental health providers and schools to help prevent domestic violence and resulting killings.

She called the case "a tragic and perfect example," illustrating the need for such a multifaceted approach, known as a coordinated community response. The initiatives are sometimes referred to as homicide prevention programs.

"Imagine if one of those officers would have said to Gabby, 'I'm concerned this could get worse, and we have a really good program right here in this community that's not five minutes from here, and there's some women there who can help you sort through whatever relationship issues you might be facing,'" Gruelle said, referencing Seekhaven Family Crisis Resource Center. "They know how to do that and they would have done it if they would have gotten the chance."

The body camera footage shows Petito in tears throughout more than an hour of interaction with police, taking blame for what transpired earlier in the day. She told police that starting a blog has overwhelmed her and she sometimes gets frustrated because she has obsessive compulsive disorder.

"I've just been really stressed, and he doesn't really believe that I can do any of it," she says, adding the couple was fighting all morning and he wouldn't let her in the car earlier in the day.

Officers had been searching for the van after someone saw the couple struggling outside a grocery store in Moab and called 911, reporting that a man slapped and hit a woman before they drove off.

It's not clear how much the Moab police officers knew about the fight at the grocery store before speaking with the couple. They noted scratches on Laundrie's hands and declared Petito the "primary aggressor."

But visible injuries don't always paint a full picture of violence. For example, an abuser can end up with scratches to the face and arms after a victim tries to defend himself of herself against attempted strangulation, a common form of domestic violence, said Justin Boardman, a former West Valley police officer who now trains fellow law enforcers in responding to domestic and sexual violence. Someone who's been choked, however, may not have obvious injuries.

When police get involved, a victim generally does not want an aggressor to get in trouble, Boardman said. "That's very consistent with domestic violence and the trauma that happens."

'Confused and emotional'

Police in Utah are required to weigh whether a person acted in self-defense, but the video doesn't capture the Moab officers seeking out details to help determine if that was the case, Rosenthal said. Rather, they appeared to assume Laundrie was credible and asked Petito if she meant to hurt him.

"Everything is attributed to her 'confused and emotional state,'" Rosenthal said, quoting from the police report, "and not to potential fear and shock regarding the violence she may have experienced."

Officers classified the case as disorderly conduct, concluding: "This incident was more accurately categorized as a mental/emotional health 'break' than a domestic assault," the report says. They noted Laundrie was older, taller and heavier, and didn't appear to have "battered boyfriend syndrome" — a term none of the four experts interviewed for this story are familiar with.

In his conversation with the officers, Laundrie recounts telling Petito at the grocery store that they should breathe and calm down before hitting the road. Petito, in a "manic state," went to slap him, thinking he was going to leave her in Moab without a ride, the police report says. He said tension had been building as they lived together on the road for months.

Laundrie laughs and smiles at several points in in the video, telling officers "she's just crazy" when they ask if Petito takes medication for her anxiety.

"Any time you have a suspect answering your question by giving you a derogatory statement about the person that you're asking about, instead of an honest, detailed description of what happened — any time they start saying, 'she's just crazy,' 'it's all in their head,' 'they have a mental problem' — that's a red flag that you've got somebody masking something from you," said Mark Wynn, a former lieutenant with the Nashville Metropolitan Police Department who works with the U.S. Department of Justice.

"If you see an offender who's manipulating you, you're on the right track, because that's what they do to victims."

Wynn noted the case has drawn a high level of interest not seen in the cases of missing indigenous and nonwhite women. On Thursday, Moab announced it plans to ask an outside agency to review the officers' actions, something Wynn said should determine if they met national standards.

"There needs be some explaining from the agency about how these officers responded, how they investigated and how they prevented crime from occurring," he said. "That builds trust, and transparency is a big part of accountability."

Moab police declined comment, except to say why a supplemental report in the case was deleted on Sept. 12.

Office manager Kelli Day said an investigator accidentally attached an unrelated write-up for a different case and deleted it once he realized the error. She said it's a common scenario at the department and declined to provide further details.

Unfair blame

Former Moab Police Chief Jim Winder said he believes the officers are being unfairly blamed for Petito's death. Officers who mishandle domestic violence calls tend to be those that don't treat the parties with respect or listen carefully, he said. But Winder believes that wasn't the case with Petito and Laundrie.

"They acted with great respect and dignity and compassion from my perspective in terms of their customer service and how they treated these two people," Winder said. "I can't help but think about those guys driving around in that town of 7,000 — which ain't friendly to cops to begin with — and the grief they're taking, and their families are taking. I'm wondering, who would go back to work in that town?"

He said the department had a policy for officers responding to domestic violence to use a questionnaire that's designed to determine the risk a victim faces. But he's not certain if that remains in place since he left the post in 2019, when the policy was recent and the department was still developing its approach to using it.

Under his tenure, the department used the evaluation in circumstances "where there has been significant violence," Winder noted.

"I'm not sure that at the time they were dealing with these two folks on the side of the road — and in the circumstances they were — I don't think that it would have dawned on them to use the (domestic violence lethality screen)."

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Annie Knox

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