SALT LAKE CITY -- An investigation has found that Utah police made “several unintentional mistakes” when they stopped Gabby Petito and her boyfriend before she was killed in what became a high-profile missing person case.
The independent report released Wednesday examines a traffic stop by police in the tourist town of Moab on Aug. 12. Officers investigated a fight between Petito and her boyfriend Brian Laundrie but ultimately allowed the couple to leave after requiring them to spend a night apart.
Police body camera video of a visibly upset Petito, 22, was widely viewed as the investigation unfolded and raised questions about whether a different police response could have prevented her death weeks later. Laundrie, 23, later killed himself after being named the only person of interest in her death.
The report faults officers for not issuing a domestic violence citation to Petito after she told police she had hit her boyfriend first, though it also points to indications she was likely a victim in the broader scope of the relationship. The report also faults investigators for failing to take a statement from a 911 caller who had reported seeing the couple outside their van and a man slapping a girl.
“Would Gabby be alive today if this case was handled differently? That is an impossible question to answer despite it being the answer many people want to know. Nobody knows and nobody will ever know the answer to that question,” wrote Capt. Brandon Ratcliffe, from the police department in Price, Utah, who prepared the report.
The ultimately tragic search for Petito drew worldwide attention, sparking social media sleuthing, discussions about dating violence and shining a light on the disproportionate coverage of missing white women in the U.S. compared to other missing persons.
Long before their names appeared in headlines, the couple was stopped by police officers during a cross-country trip. Their van was seen speeding and hit a curb near the entrance to Arches National Park. Laundrie told police the couple got into a minor scuffle that began when he climbed into the van with dirty feet.
Petito told a similar story, and faulted her own desire to keep the converted camper van clean. She told police she had hit him first, and since Laundrie was injured but declined to press charges officers separated the couple and then allowed them to leave.
Petito was reported missing a month after that traffic stop, and her strangled body was discovered Sept. 19 on the edge of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Laundrie was the only person ever identified by law enforcement officials as a person of interest in the case. He was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a swamp after returning alone to his parents’ home in Florida. Both were originally from Long Island, New York.
Utah law says police should cite an aggressor in domestic violence assaults. In this case, police didn't cite anyone, finding the incident was more of a mental or emotional health break.
One officer who argued against citing Petito said Laundrie might bail her out of jail and then have “more control over her.”
That officer told investigators that if he had known she was in life-threatening danger he would taken his own time to follow them. “I would have done anything to stop it if I would have known that was coming ... I am devastated about it.”
The city of Moab said they would follow the report's recommendations, though they also said the officers “showed kindness, respect and empathy in their handling of this incident.”
The report found that the officers did what they thought was right at the time, and responsibility for Petito’s death lays with her killer alone.
Nevertheless the report recommends improved training, especially in domestic violence investigation, and that the officers involved be put on probation or have existing probation extended.
Ratcliffe wrote that while it appears Petito was the aggressor in the specific fight Moab police investigated, that wasn't necessarily the tenor of their relationship.
“There have been many times in my career where someone who we know from past experience to be a long-term victim of domestic violence, gets arrested for committing an act of domestic violence against their long-term abuser,” Ratcliffe wrote. “It’s very likely Gabby was a long-term victim of domestic violence, whether that be physically, mentally, and/or emotionally.”