The Times-Independent

Police nearly charged now-missing woman with assaulting boyfriendFree Access

Weeks later, the boyfriend has not told police what he knows about her disappearance

Moab Police stopped Gabrielle Petito, shown here, and her fiancée Brian Laundrie on Aug. 12. She went missing weeks later. Photo via Moab City Police

After receiving a call Aug. 12 about a domestic dispute in downtown Moab, city police stopped the involved couple’s van as they approached Arches National Park. The couple was six weeks into a cross-country road trip. The woman, Gabrielle Petito, is now missing.

Petito’s fiancée, Brian Laundrie, returned alone to their home in Florida, where the couple lived with his parents, on Sept. 1.

Laundrie said through his attorney that he is “remaining in the background at this juncture.” The Petito family and police are pleading for information from him and anyone else who knows about Petito’s whereabouts.

“In my experience, intimate partners are often the first person law enforcement focuses their attention on in cases like this and the warning that ‘any statement made will be used against you’ is true, regardless of whether my client had anything to do with Ms. Petito’s disappearance,” read the statement from Laundrie’s attorney Steven Bertolino. “As such, on the advice of counsel, Mr. Laundrie is not speaking on this matter.”

Petito’s mother, Nicole Schmidt, told investigators her daughter went missing sometime after the two left Salt Lake City on Aug. 24, the last time she was on a FaceTime call with her, and they were headed for Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

What happened on Aug. 12

During the stop last month, police said Petito had been the primary aggressor against Laundrie, who they listed in the police report as the victim.

The officers determined that state law required they charge Petito with domestic violence against Laundrie, who had scratch wounds on his face, neck, arm, and hands. Body camera footage showed Petito had an injury on her face, as well.

Both Laundrie and Petito said they had been fighting much of the day over “small things,” such as the messiness of the van in which they had been living, but the scuffle broke out when Laundrie tried to separate himself from Petito by driving away.

The officers made their initial decision to charge Petito after hearing statements from Laundrie, Petito, and a witness that Petito had hurt Laundrie outside of a downtown coffee shop before Laundrie pushed Petito away and tried to drive away from her. Petito also said that Laundrie had grabbed her by the jaw during the fight.

Laundrie, left, has not provided information to investigators about Petito’s whereabouts. Photo via Moab City Police

Upon a closer reading of state law, the officers realized that it did not only matter whether Petito hurt Laundrie; for a domestic violence charge to stick, she had to also intend to hurt him.

So, they asked her about her intent.

“How you answer this question is going to determine what happens next, but the only person who can answer this question is you” an officer told her. “Think very hard before you answer the question. Do not quickly answer it. Think very hard.

“When you slapped him those times, were you attempting to cause him physical pain or physical impairment? Was that what you were attempting to do to him?”

“No,” Petito immediately responded.

“What were you attempting to do?” the officer asked. “What was the reason behind the slapping and that stuff? What was it you were attempting to accomplish?”

“I was trying to get him to stop telling me to calm down,” Petito said.

“Well, it doesn’t sound to me like she attempted to injure him,” the officer said to another.

The officers then left Petito alone and discussed what to do. They could charge her with domestic violence to ensure that the couple stayed separated for the night. They could send the two on their separate ways and implore them not to reconnect until morning.

The two options were a far cry from the most punitive, third scenario. Officers had previously told Laundrie that the only choice left would be to put Petito in jail if arrangements could not be made to ensure the couple stayed separated overnight.

“Can I go to jail?” Laundrie asked the officers amid a conversation about how to keep the two separated. “You did nothing wrong,” one responded. Laundrie then jokingly suggested he would steal the officer’s radio.

Before the epiphany that officers could avoid charging Petito, Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center had provided a path forward by finding a room for Laundrie. The Moab-based nonprofit provides services to survivors of domestic violence, among other services, and regularly secures temporary housing for survivors.

This gave police the option to not put Petito in jail but instead separate the two until the next day. At that point, they presumed, Laundrie would go to the police station to waive the mandatory no-contact order that comes with domestic violence charges, and the couple could go on their way together.

After a lengthy discussion about the pros and cons of citing Petito with domestic violence, the officers opted not to. Neither a restraining order nor arrest would be in order.

“This is what I’m going to do,” the officer in charge told Petito. “I’ve decided I am not going to cite you for domestic violence — battery.”

Petito, who had been crying when police first pulled the couple over, started to cry again at the news.

Petito learns from a Moab police offier that she will not be charged with domestic violence. Photo via Moab City Police

“You are not going to be charged with anything,” the officer told Petito. “But this is what I have to do: I am separating you two tonight.”

Police would take Laundrie to the hotel room without telling Petito its location and leave Petito with the couple’s van. He relayed the message to Laundrie next.

“The other thing is: I don’t want you guys to contact each other [tonight], unless it’s world-shattering news,” the officer said. 

Laundrie butted in, “When you said that she can text me or whatever, I was going to send her a message that said, ‘Please don’t message me, but I love you,’” Laundrie told the officer.

Laundrie first told the officers he’d been trying to physically separate himself from Petito when he had tried to drive away from her in downtown Moab.

“She just gets worked up sometimes, and I try and really distance myself from her,” Laundrie said clarified after police pulled him over. 

“I was just saying, ‘Let’s go for a walk,’ and she was trying to get the keys from me, so I just went, ‘Wait, back up, back up,’ and that’s when she hit me,” Laundrie said. “I didn’t get overtly physical; I was just trying to push her away and not get hit, and then I got really loud, and that’s probably what drew everyone’s attention. I was going, ‘Back up, get away, just give me—’ I don’t know.”

The couple did draw attention, and a witness reported the incident, saying he did not see Laundrie hit Petito, but did see Petito hit Laundrie in the arm before climbing into the van through the driver’s window.

Petito said she didn’t want Laundrie leaving her on her own, so she fought to get into the van. The witness told police she “clawed” her way into the driver’s side of the vehicle while they were fighting.

At the end of the discussion, police took Laundrie to his hotel, leaving Petito with the keys to the couple’s van, and requested that the two not communicate until the next day, when they were told they could reunite.

When police wrote up the report, the only offense listed was disorderly conduct, a minor infraction. They marked the case closed.

Now, a missing person case is open on Petito.

The FBI is assisting Florida police, who have said that Wyoming is currently the focus of the investigation. Anybody with information about the case can call 1-800-CALL-FBI (or 1-800-225-5324).

Sophia Fisher contributed to this report. 

The full, 1-hour body camera footage of Moab City Police interactions with Petito and Laundrie shows what they and police said happened on Aug. 13, when the two got into a fight in downtown Moab.