It was the perfect set up for an abuser to escalate.
Moab police were under fire when they released the body camera footage of their August 12 stop with Brian Laundrie and Gabby Petito for missing what experts say are clear signs of domestic violence red flags and for ignoring a 911 caller’s report that Brian hit Gabby multiple times.
There’s confirmation of the dispatcher relaying the witness report to the responding officers. Dispatch records obtained by Fox 13 News Utah confirm that the Utah police were told that Laundrie hit Gabby Petito.
Minutes after Utah police were told about a report of a man striking a woman and taking off in a white Ford Transit van with Florida plates, officers pulled over Brian Laundrie and Gabby Petito and appeared to zero-in on her as the aggressor, dispatch radio recordings show.
“RP (reporting party) states seeing a male hit a female, domestic,” the dispatcher states at around 4:38 p.m. MT on the day of the incident. “He got into a white Ford Transit van, has a black ladder on the back, Florida plate.”
The dispatch audio, first obtained by the investigative unit at FOX 13 Utah, shows the dispatcher did in fact inform the officers of allegations that Laundrie had been the aggressor – shedding new light on a situation that initially seemed like police didn’t know about the witness’ claims.
At 4:38 p.m., a dispatcher told Moab City Police Department officers that the person who reported the incident “states seeing a male hit a female, domestic,”
“… but the female who got hit, they both, the male and the female, both got into the van and headed north.”
That audio was released on September 24 by Fox 13 News Utah:
Yet, the officers never actually asked Brian Laundrie if hit hit Gabby during their stop, even though they identify that she also has marks on her body.
Speaker 2: (12:23)
She’s got some marks on her, too. We’re just trying to figure out what happened.
There are troubling instances and failures to follow up on statements in the stop:
– Moab police never asked Brian if he hit Gabby. They asked Gabby if she hit Brian, but never did they ask Brian if he hit her, even though they were alerted to pull the van over based on a 911 call stating that the male had slapped and hit Gabby outside of a co-op on August 12.
Gabby did say that Brian grabbed her. She also couched it in self-blame, but it’s there:
Speaker 2: (08:52)
He just grabbed you? Did he hit you, though? It’s okay if you’re saying you hit him, and I understand if he hit you, but we want to know the truth, if he actually hit you.
Gabby Petito: (09:01)
Speaker 2: (09:01)
Where did he hit you?
Gabby Petito: (09:01)
[Inaudible 00:09:01] like this. He didn’t hit me [inaudible 00:00:09:16].
Speaker 2: (09:05)
Did he slap your face or what?
Gabby Petito: (09:35)
No, he grabbed me with his hand [inaudible 00:09:36].
Gabby said Brian grabbed her by the face, but also says she slapped him. This is called reactive violence and can be a tell of domestic violence, even when the victim is blaming themselves as Gabby was, which is yet another typical reaction of a victim who is trying to manage their own safety after the officers leave and often protect their partner from getting into trouble.
The officers ask Brian about the scratches on his face, and he states that he was shoving Gabby away and she had his phone in her hand:
Officer Robbins: (05:28)
Okay. You want to tell me about those scratches on your face?
Brian Laundrie: (05:34)
She had his cell phone in her hand. That’s why I was pushing her away because she wanted… I… The keys so I could walk away. I said, “Let’s just take a breather and let’s not go anywhere, and just calm down for a minute, she was getting worked up. And, then she had her phone and was trying to get the keys from me. I was just trying to, I know I shouldn’t push her. I was just trying to push her away to go, let’s take a minute and step back and breathe and see, she got me with her phone.
There’s no follow up on him shoving her, or the fact that he wouldn’t give her the keys to her own van.
-Officer Robbins asks Brian about his hitting the curb and speeding as they were trying to pull him over. He blames Gabby for hitting the curb, saying she grabbed the wheel. Robbins counters:
Officer Robbins: (06:13)
What about the speed? Did she take over the pedal on you?
Brian Laundrie: (06:17)
If I was going fast, I’m sorry. No. It was probably just, the moment of… I’m still freaking out. In general, seeing the lights flashing out and there her grabbing the wheel, so if I sped up, I’m sorry about that. If I was speeding before that, I’m sorry about that.
Officer Robbins: (06:28)
Yeah, it took quite a bit to catch up to you.
This would have been a good time to note that Brian is apologizing “if” he sped up, and “if” he was speeding previously – and blamed Gabby for the curb jump. There’s a complete lack of ownership for his control of the vehicle, which Robbins seems to grasp when he asks if Gabby also took over the gag pedal.
– Brian says of Gabby, “She just gets crazy.” Disparaging their partner like this is a huge red flag for domestic violence, additionally even if she had a mental illness, that doesn’t make it legal for him to shove her, lock her out of her own vehicle, or take her keys:
Speaker 1: (17:08)
Does she take medication?
Officer Robbins: (17:08)
Yeah, do you know if she takes any?
Brian Laundrie: (17:09)
She just gets crazy. No. No, I don’t think so. None that I know of.
This is also a dangerous tell because it suggests that the victim is somehow deserving of being harmed, and leads to the conclusion that a murder is an “accident” from a “toxic relationship” instead of what it actually is: A decision to harm someone who is smaller and more vulnerable.
Domestic violence experts point out that abusers, who are statistically most likely to be male, do not abuse their boss or other people who have power over them and therefore, they do not actually have an anger management problem and are not out of control.
Brian was extremely cooperative and calm with the police – another tell of a possible abuser in a DV call, as the victim will often be inconsolable and incoherent. This means that the violence they impose on their partner is a choice. When it leads to the death of their partner, it is murder. It should not be diminished as the result of a “toxic relationship.” Domestic violence is a systemic effort to control a partner that involves isolation, economic dependence, emotional abuse and physical fear.
– At one point, one officer is trying to decide what to do and he says, “… unless the guy’s screaming that he needs to go to jail and did something to this girl. It sounds to me like she is the primary aggressor.” Guilty people do not tend to scream that they are guilty, and again, they did not ask Brian if he hit Gabby.
In this moment, the officer is trying to decide how to handle the stop and ignores what the dispatch relayed about the first witness seeing Laundrie hitting Gabby while dismissing the report that he shoved her as possibly defensive against her, all the while Laundrie was trying to lock her out of her vehicle:
Speaker 5: (21:03)
So he said that he never saw the male strike the female. He saw the male trying to lock her out of the vehicle. She even told us that he was trying to lock her out and told him to go take a walk. So that she was trying to get in. She eventually couldn’t get in and actually clawed her way in through the driver’s door. He says “I don’t understand why she’s doing that” well I think it’s because it was the only door that wasn’t locked that she can get through. She’s trying to get it over him. He’s trying to disengage from her. I guess he hung her backpack on the back, probably so she would have her shit. So that he didn’t have to engage with her.
Speaker 5: (21:32)
Everything she’s saying is same thing. I haven’t heard what he said, but if that’s what he said it’s also what the witnesses saying. The witness says I never saw him hit her. I saw him shove her but I couldn’t tell if it was an aggression against her or a defense against her. As far as her being the aggressor. So at this point, unless the guy’s screaming that he needs to go to jail and did something to this girl. It sounds to me like she is the primary aggressor.
– “An officer wrote “it was reported the male had been observed to have assaulted the female,” but later determined that ‘no one reported that the male struck the female,'” according to the NY Post. This is factually inaccurate and problematic. Had the first report not been dismissed out of hand, this entire stop might have gone differently.
– The officers do not ask whose name the van is registered in , so when Brian tells them that he locked Gabby out until she calmed down, they react as if this is his right to do. However, the van is reportedly registered to Gabby Petito.
– A second witness reported that it looked like Laundrie was trying to take Gabby’s phone and drive away without her. Had the officers asked to whom the van was registered, this would have been further confirmation of Laundrie as the aggressor. If they had been trained by experts in domestic violence, they would also have recognized that locking a victim out, threatening to leave the victim stranded, and erratic driving are all methods of control and terrorizing employed by abusers.
But even without that knowledge, no one has the right to lock the vehicle owner out of their own car. The assumption was that the male owned the vehicle:
Does she have a good drivers license?
Brian Laundrie: (31:38)
Yeah she’s good she’s got a drivers license, yeah.
Speaker 5: (31:40)
You trust her with your vehicle?
Brian Laundrie: (31:40)
Yeah she can handle it.
– Perhaps due to Gabby’s obvious distress, an officer asks her if she has a lot of anxiety and stress and then talks about his ex-wife, which suggests he is seeing Gabby through the lens of the woman from whom he is divorced, which while perhaps an attempt to deescalate and empathize, cannot have helped Gabby’s confidence that she didn’t deserve what was happening to her. In this exchange, it is also missed by the officer that she states Brian is frustrated with her a lot:
Speaker 2: (10:31)
Do you tend to have a lot of anxiety and stress?
Gabby Petito: (10:34)
I have a lot of anxiety.
Speaker 2: (10:35)
Is it Brian. Is he usually patient with you?
Gabby Petito: (10:37)
Yeah. But I get… it just makes me… I know that he definitely gets frustrated with a lot (silence).
Speaker 2: (10:59)
Anxiety and bringing it down, buy my ex-wife, that’s why she’s my ex-wife, I’m just sharing, I know it’s a little personal, but to help you understand, we would feed off each other’s anxiety and it would spiral, do you know what I mean. And it doesn’t matter how much I loved her, it may be bad for your soul. Just saying, I’m not telling you what to do with your life, but if you know you have anxiety, look at the, look at the situations you can get in. You know what I mean? And we’re not here to be mean to you. They never, there’s a first time, and then it usually… let’s just.. We’ll go see what Brian’s saying. I think you’ve heard everything now.
It turns out, though, that Brian actually told officers his doctor told him he had anxiety and prescribed medication for it, which he seems to suggest he is not taking:
Brian Laundrie: (01:08:44)
My doctor told me I had anxiety, he prescribed me medication [inaudible 01:08:53] I believed that if I took the medication I might put myself off balance and be more anxious. That’s probably just a part of my anxiety.
And Gabby told officers at the beginning of the stop that she is relatively calm even though Brian told her to calm down. She stated that Brian really stresses her out and Brian wouldn’t let her in the (her) car:
Gabby Petito: (03:19)
…I’ve been really stressed and he doesn’t really believe that I could do any of it, so, we just been fighting all morning and he wouldn’t let me in the car before. And then I…
Officer Robbins: (03:43)
Why wouldn’t he let you in the car? Because of your OCD?
Gabby Petito: (03:46)
He told me I needed to calm down, yeah. But I’m relatively calm. I’m down all the time. He really stresses me out. And this is a rough morning.
The City of Moab released statement saying they’re investigating how officers responded to the stop, but determining if wrong doing occurred will be difficult if the entire department is not educated about domestic violence. The issues are many-fold, some due perhaps to lack of awareness or training on the issue of intimate partner violence and some due to a failure follow up on observations at the scene; for instance, Gabby’s face was distorted in pain and fear, while Brian Laundrie got out of the police vehicle grinning from ear to ear in what appears to be not just relief, but pleasure.
The Moab police department website does not suggest they are specially trained in domestic violence on their home page where they list several other trainings. When PoliticusUSA reached out to Moab Police to determine the level of domestic violence training their officers receive, we were patched through to Lisa Church, the Communications and Engagement Manager for City Of Moab, who told us “Police officers do receive training on domestic violence… there is a section regarding responding on domestic violence calls in the police manual and they work closely with the local domestic violence shelter.”
Church didn’t know if the officers have had extra training per any federal or state grant or the Violence Against Women Act, but promised to get back to us.
Highlighting what went wrong during the Gabby Petito/Brian Laundrie police stop is important not just for the current tragic case of the homicide of Gabby Petito, but also because policing of domestic violence is funneled through the same problematic lens as the general cultural hierarchy, which is to say that white women don’t fare well, and black and brown women fare much worse. With three women a day being murdered by an intimate partner, we need to do better.
National Lawyer Guild Notes wrote, “According to US Department of Justice statistics, African American women experience intimate partner violence at a rate 35% higher than white women, and 25% higher than women of other races. Black women who survive intimate partner violence also experience criminalization in connection with their abuse at a higher rate than white women.”
Representative Sharice Davids (D-KS) pointed out in a push to get the Violence Against Women Act reauthorized, “Native women are ten times more likely to be victims of sexual violence than any other group of women in this country. Many people call this the “silent crisis” due to the lack of attention on the issue. When I was elected to U.S. Congress in 2018 as one of the first two Native American women to serve in the House of Representatives, I made it a priority to call out the “silent crisis” and seek solutions.”
Getting domestic violence stops right matters for everyone involved — including law enforcement officers, as domestic violence calls are often dangerous situations for the responding officers. Add to this the fact that many mass shooters have a domestic violence or stalking incident in their history, and we have cultural problem that is even larger than the tragic and horrific statistic that three women a day on average are murdered by their intimate partner in the United States.
It’s also clear from reading the transcript and watching the video so many times that police officers who aren’t specifically and expertly trained in DV bring their own relationship knowledge to the incident. While this might come from attempts to de-escalate and empathize – both of which are important ways for officers to better serve their communities – when it comes to domestic violence, the relationship does not mimic a non-violent, non-controlling relationship.
A domestic violence relationship can be good at times and look loving on the surface, but at its core it is a power imbalance where one person is being tortured. It is a relationship of pain and dominance that slowly erodes the victim’s sense of self until they believe they are responsible for the harm inflicted upon them.
None of this is meant as an indictment of the Moab Police, as it’s also important to bear in mind the pressure officers are under in the moment. Mistakes will be made, no one can read minds, and it’s easy to piece this together in hindsight, under calm conditions. None of this is to suggest that the police are responsible for the homicide of Gabby Petito. Someone else killed Gabby Petito, not the police. And that person is the guilty party.
But our police need to be trained more in domestic violence, so they can better spot the red flags in order to better protect victims and themselves.
Because even if officers normally commiserate with parties in an attempt to de-escalate, that is seen by abusers as a green light. We can see the sh*t-eating-grin on Laundrie’s face as he exits the police vehicle: He not only got away with it with two separate witnesses, but Gabby got blamed. This is not the face of a victim scared that the abuser will retaliate when next he sees her. This is the face of an abuser who just got away with it and got to watch as several police officers sided with his version of events and found his victim to be the aggressor – inadvertently helping him gaslight his victim even further.
It was, tragically, the perfect set up for an abuser to escalate.
Click here if you want to talk to someone about domestic violence.
Image: Brian Laundrie/Moab Police Department
Ms. Jones is the co-founder/ editor-in-chief of PoliticusUSA and a member of the White House press pool.
Sarah hosts Politicus News and co-hosts Politicus Radio. Her analysis has been featured on several national radio, television news programs and talk shows, and print outlets including Stateside with David Shuster, as well as The Washington Post, The Atlantic Wire, CNN, MSNBC, The Week, The Hollywood Reporter, and more.
Sarah is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.
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