About two weeks before Brian Laundrie strangled his 22-year-old fiancé Gabby Petito to death in late August 2021, the couple had an encounter with law enforcement in Moab, Utah.
In the days after her murder was confirmed, questions lingered about whether there were any signs of danger, and whether different decisions by the police officers could have prevented Petito’s death.
Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie’s Relationship
Petito and Laundrie, 23, had been living with his parents in North Port, Florida. The couple had dated in high school in Long Island, New York, and later reunited.
They set off in August 2021 on a “van life” trip across the American West, posting videos and photos of their travels on their shared YouTube page, and on their Instagram accounts. “Van life” is a nomadic, minimalist lifestyle where people live in their vans, either full or part-time, and travel.
The couple was stopped by Moab police on August 12, 2021 after someone called 911 to report an altercation between them. The caller said Laundrie was “slapping” Petito. Police body camera footage of the traffic stop shows a weepy Petito telling officers she hit Laundrie first.
Officers investigated the incident as one of disorderly conduct and separated Petito and Laundrie for the night. Petito stayed in the van, and Laundrie got a hotel room. The couple continued their journey the next day.
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A review of the Moab police response, made by an independent law enforcement agency, found the officers made “unintentional mistakes.” For example, they failed to cite Petito for domestic violence and didn’t obtain a statement from the 911 caller, local TV station FOX13 reported.
However, the report, issued in January 2022, also stated: “Just because Gabby [Petito] was determined to be the predominant aggressor as it related to this incident, doesn’t mean she was the long-term predominant aggressor in this relationship.”
Petito’s family told police they were last in contact with her in the last week of August. Laundrie returned home to Florida on September 1, 2021, alone and driving the couple’s van. Petito’s family reported her missing 10 days later.
On September 17, 2021, Brian Laundrie’s family told police they hadn’t seen him in three days.
Authorities found Petito’s remains September 19, 2021 during a search of a remote camping area in Teton County, Wyoming. An autopsy determined she’d been strangled.
Meanwhile, authorities launched a search for Laundrie at Florida’s Carlton Reserve, where his remains were found October 20, 2021. He died after a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, leaving behind a notebook in which he claimed responsibility for Petito’s death, the FBI said.
Petito’s parents said they never suspected that Laundrie posed any danger to their daughter. “We just didn’t see any red flags,” Nicole Schmidt said in a November 2021 TV interview.
Friends told People magazine the couple was on and off, alternating between toxic and healthy. “They always had some drama,” one friend said. “They had very high highs and very low lows. But they seemed to really love each other,” another friend said.
Intimate Partner Violence Among Young Adults
Women between the ages of 18 and 24 are most commonly abused by an intimate partner, according to data by the National Coalition Against Domestic violence. Altogether, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. This includes a range of behaviors (e.g. slapping, shoving, pushing) and in some cases might not be considered “domestic violence.”
People are always surprised to hear how prevalent intimate partner violence is among young people, Maureen Curtis,vice president of criminal programs for victims’ service agency Safe Horizon, tells A&E True Crime. Based in New York City, Safe Horizon is the largest such agency in the United States.
Young people, possibly out of insecurity and newness to relationships, generally have a tendency to view extreme jealousy as a sign of love, rather than the dangerous desire to control, Curtis says. They can also be more subject to peer pressure. So if they find themselves dating a popular person, for example, they might be more likely to excuse that person’s abusive behaviors, she says.
“When the behavior becomes more concerning, it can be really hard to get out of that relationship,” Curtis says.
For Petito, embarking on van life might have heightened her risk because it isolated her from others, Curtis adds.
The prevalence of intimate partner violence hits a peak in the 20s and declines over the adult lifespan, Sabina Low, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, tells A&E True Crime. Low was among researchers from the Oregon Social Learning Center who in 2017 published a 15-year study of young adults at risk that found intimate partner violence is most often bidirectional—meaning both partners engage in some form of violence.
The study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, examined relationships involving a total 323 couples or 646 young adults with an average age of 21.5. The results showed that 91 percent of couples participated in bidirectional intimate partner psychological violence, 71 percent in bidirectional physical violence, 66 percent in bidirectional sexual violence and 27 percent experienced bidirectional violence-related injuries.
“That’s not to say there isn’t unidirectional violence [where only one partner is engaged in violence]—it’s just a smaller percent of couples,” Low says.
However, the study doesn’t address which partner started the violence, and focused on a community sample that didn’t include many cases of severe violence.
Evaluating Risk Factors
Each person in a couple comes with their own developmental history, risk factors and personality, says Low, and the mix of all that creates a dynamic unique to each relationship. That dynamic can lead a couple to violence, give them the inability to deescalate a quarrel or even get them to the point of connecting through the conflict, she says. Individual risk factors can also determine whether people decide to stay in the relationship or leave, she adds.
“You have to consider both the risk factors that Brian [Laundrie] presents, and also the profile of Gabby [Petito] that, in some ways, makes her a target—or makes her vulnerable to staying with someone like him, or giving him multiple chances,” she says.
“This is not about blaming the victim,” she adds. “It’s more about understanding how assessing risk factors for both individuals gives you a more complete picture, versus only focusing on the perpetrator as we tend to do. Because then, you’re missing half of the story.”
Laws mandating an arrest in domestic violence cases started in the 1990s and spread across the country, Curtis says. Now, some states allow charging both partners, she says
Curtis and Low agree law enforcement must carefully analyze the situation with in-depth interviews and risk assessment for both partners before making an arrest. Arresting both people can be appropriate if both engaged in violence, Low says.
Curtis cautions against arresting victims who were violent to defend themselves. New York, for example, requires officers to determine, to the best of their ability, who was the primary aggressor, she says.
“Even in a relationship where you have a survivor who has hit back or punched back, it doesn’t negate there is a coercive-control domestic violence relationship where one person has control over the other,” she says.
The January 2022 review of the Moab police response gave several recommendations, such as providing additional legal and investigative training for officers who deal with domestic violence.
“Would Gabby be alive today if this case was handled differently? That is an impossible question to answer,” the report said. “Nobody knows and nobody will ever know the answer to that question.”
The Utah Domestic Violence Coalition commended the Moab police officers “for their kindness and compassion” during their encounter with Petito and Laundrie, FOX13 reported.
The quality of police response is crucial, Curtis says. “Understanding the law and [an individual department’s] own policies and practices is really critical, and probably what’s more important is to act in a more compassionate, nonjudgmental way,” she says. “I hear that from victims all the time.”