Police in Utah made several mistakes when they handled an alleged incident of domestic violence involving Gabby Petito and her boyfriend Brian Laundrie, just months before the young woman was found dead, an independent investigation has found.
Officials in Moab recommended police receive additional domestic violence investigation training, to “ensure officers understand state laws and statutes”.
Authorities Moab announced last September they were launching an investigation into the actions of its officers who encountered the couple in the middle of what appeared to be an argument or a fight, in the middle of their van trip to several of the nation’s national parks.
At the time, police who spoke to the couple did not seek to arrest them, or even question Laundrie at length, and suggested that Petito had been the aggressor. Later, it emerged that police dispatchers had received a 911 call from a witness who alleged they could see Laundrie “slapping” the young woman.
Then bodycam footage was released by the police showing Petito telling officers that she had been struck by her boyfriend, but said that she had “hit him first”.
Utah police talk to Brian Laundrie after pulling over the van he was traveling in with his girlfriend, Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito
“The independent agency’s investigative report finds that the officers who responded to the incident made several unintentional mistakes that stemmed from the fact that officers failed to cite Ms Petito for domestic violence,” says a statement from the City of Moab.
On Wednesday, the City of Moab released its report into the incident, that was was carried out by an independent law enforcement agency. The author was Capt Brandon Ratcliffe of the Price City Police Department, located 120 miles northwest of Moab.
The authorities launched the investigation after police came under criticism for not recording the incident as one of domestic violence, something they were obliged to do by law. Rather, they recorded the incident as a “mental health break” experienced by the young woman and advised them to spend the evening apart.
Officials said they had received received criticism and praise for “their response and their resolution of the incident involving Ms Petito and Mr Laundrie”, on Aug 12.
“The Moab City Police Department has clear standards for officer conduct during a possible domestic dispute and our officers are trained to follow those standards and protocol,” the city stated.
“At this time, the City of Moab is unaware of any breach of Police Department policy during this incident. However, the City will conduct a formal investigation and, based on the results, will take any next steps that may be appropriate.”
Shortly afterwards, the city’s police chief took a leave of absence.
Gabby Petito’s mother reveals her frustration in new interview
In his report, Mr Ratcliffe said he had interviewed several Moab officers, including Eric Pratt and Daniel Robbins, who spoke to the young couple.
“There are many “what-if’s” that have presented itself as part of this investigation, the primary one being: 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,” he writes.
“Nobody knows and nobody will ever know the answer to that question. My job is to provide information into the details of this investigation and if it was handled appropriately.”
He later adds: “After reviewing all the information and speaking with the officers, I am confident and comfortable in stating the mistakes that were made were not made intentionally. The officers did not know what they were doing was wrong at the time.”
He says while it may have appeared the young woman was the aggressor during the incident, it did not mean she was “the long-term predominant aggressor” in this relationship.
He adds “Oftentimes in cases of domestic violence, the long-term victim gets to a point emotionally where they defend themselves or act out in such a way where law enforcement is summoned.”
He says “It’s very likely Gabby was a long-term victim of domestic violence, whether that be physically, mentally, and/or emotionally. Gabby had a job which she left in order to travel the country with Brian. Gabby was trying to start an online career which Brian didn’t support or believe she could accomplish. Brian tried locking Gabby out of the van in an attempt to control her movements.”
Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie
The incident in Utah took place just weeks before the young woman’s mother, Nicole Schmidt, reported her 22-year-old daughter as missing. Her body was found on September 19 at the Spread Creek Dispersed Campsite in Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming.
Teton County Coroner Dr Brent Blue ruled her death a homicide, and weeks after that, it was announced she had been manually strangled to death.
Police, who had named Laundrie a person of interest but never filed any charges, then spent weeks trying to locate him. In the end, his remains were located in October in the Carlton Reserve, close to the couple’s home in North Port, Florida.
The incident in Utah was reported by a witness who called 911.
“We drove by and the gentleman was slapping the girl,” the caller said, according to 911 audio from Grand County Sheriff’s Office. “Then we stopped. They ran up and down the sidewalk. He proceeded to hit her, hopped in the car and they drove off.”
When police body cam video of her daughter was later broadcast, Ms Schmidt told 60 Minutes Australia that she wanted to “jump through the screen and rescue her”.
She added: “I saw a young girl that needed someone to just hug her and keep her safe. I just felt so bad for her. I wish that she reached out to me.”
Gary Rider, a member of board of the Gabby Petito Foundation, told The Independent on Wednesday the family had received an advanced copy of the 100-page report but had no immediate comment on its findings.