- Gabby Petito, who was murdered by her fiancé, was failed by a legal system that misunderstood her victimization as a domestic violence survivor.
- The officers who interviewed Petito prior to her death made many mistakes absent a trauma-informed lens regarding domestic violence.
- The legal system must incorporate trauma-informed investigation to avoid another murder like Gabby Petito's.
The system lost her. Gabby Petito was a beautiful, free-spirited 22-year-old woman and aspiring vlogger murdered by her fiancé, Brian Laundrie. But this tragedy is about so much more than homicide. Petito represents the lethality of domestic violence. She is also the face of intimate partner victims when they meet a legal system that, with all its advancements, still has no idea how to protect them.
The police committed numerous mistakes when dispatched to the 911 call that a witness made to save Petito. These errors stemmed from a systemic failure in teaching dispatchers, cops, detectives, prosecutors, and judges the subtleties of domestic violence and what it can do to the abused’s mental state.
Facts of the Case
- In June of 2021, Petito and Laundrie began a cross-country trip from the east coast in her white Ford van to the Western United States. By all accounts, she was a young, vibrant woman who was excited to share her journey on social media with followers, family, and friends as a budding vlogger.
- On August 12th, the Moab Utah dispatch center received a 911 call from an individual reporting a domestic dispute that he witnessed coming from a white Ford van where the “gentleman was slapping the girl.” This caller observed Petito being hit repeatedly.
- Officers from the Moab City Police Department responded to this 911 call and, after speaking with Petito and Laundrie, concluded this was a mental health breakdown on her part.
- The assumption was that this was a mental health crisis because Petito was crying and claimed to suffer from OCD.
- It is unclear how close Petito was to Laundrie when questioned by the police, but it doesn’t appear they were far from each other.
- The officers believed Petito to be the aggressor because when asked if Laundrie had hit her, Petito replied, “I guess, but I hit him first.” When questioned about a cut on her cheek, she explained that Laundrie had grabbed her face during their fight.
- The officers didn’t take photographs of her injuries nor speak with the 911 caller to understand precisely what they had witnessed between the couple. Also, the police did not offer Petito any medical attention for her injury.
- Petito and Laundrie were told to separate for the evening, and the police left the scene.
- On September 11th, Petito's family reported her missing; eight days later, remaining consistent with her description was found in Wyoming. After an all-out search for Laundrie, his body was located in a Florida reserve with a note admitting that he killed Petito.
Mistakes Made Absent a Trauma-Informed Lens
- The police never interviewed the 911 caller to follow up on their statements that they witnessed Laundrie hitting Petito repeatedly. This person was crucial to their investigation as they saw Petito being beaten.
- Petito's statement that she was to blame for hitting Laundrie required analysis by the police before they assumed its accuracy. If they had used a trauma-informed lens, they might have understood that as a domestic violence survivor, she would likely take the blame for her perpetrator. This is the state of mind of the intimate partner victim, which is the view police must use when questioning individuals about a domestic altercation.
- Leaving Petito near her abuser while being investigated meant she couldn't feel safe enough to disclose the truth of being in danger.
- Filing the report as a mental health crisis because the victim was crying perpetuates stereotypes that females are histrionic and emotional. In reality, this was a domestic dispute that the officers blamed the victim for and, in doing so, acutely underscored the risk of lethality to her.
- Neither officer provided the couple with domestic violence informational handouts or connected them with a victim advocate. An advocate may have been able to speak to Petito away from Laundrie, where she could have felt more at ease to disclose her abuse.
- Petito was isolated from friends, and family, many miles from home alone with her perpetrator. Isolation of the victim is part of the cycle of abuse and should have been assessed to understand if she was being victimized.
- The police didn't photograph Petito's abrasion on her face or offer her any medical assistance. Domestic violence cases require that police take photos of all injuries for future prosecutorial evidence.
What to Do Differently
We failed to protect Gabby Petito. The legal system has yet to incorporate trauma-informed investigation into its ranks. It's not clear that these officers could have saved her life. However, we can improve how domestic violence victims are approached, questioned, and perceived by those in the system.
Specifically, knowing how to interview a victim with a trauma-informed lens, what to look for in their statements and behavior, where to question them so they feel safe enough to be honest, and how to analyze any injuries observed are just some of the critical points missed by the police who arrived on the scene to speak with Petito and Laundrie. In an all-too-common sleight of hand, the cops were convinced that Petito was the aggressor simply because she was willing to take the blame. Unfortunately, this is textbook behavior for domestic violence victims who will assume responsibility to protect their abusers.
This is precisely how being brutalized repeatedly will affect an abused person’s mental health, which the legal system must come to understand. Petito was likely terrified, isolated, and hopeless, realizing the police had sided with Laundrie. She deserved us to meet her where she was mentally instead of blaming her for it.
While no one can say if these errors resulted in her death, they are clear and convincing evidence that trauma-informed investigation training is missing within the legal system. This need is dire to prevent more fatal outcomes like Petito's. She is lost because we as a system lost her; we must do better.
Forshey, H. (2022). The Gabby Petito Murder: Observations on Intimate Partner Violence. https://attorneyatlawmagazine.com/the-gabby-petito-murder-observations-…
Romani, A. (2021). How to prevent another death like Gabby Petito's. https://www.vox.com/culture/22758030/-gabby-petito-domestic-intimate-pa…