A Utah police officer who stopped Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie to investigate reports of a domestic violence incident weeks before she was found murdered has said he feels “desperately f***ed over that she got killed”.
Officer Eric Pratt of the Moab Police Department made the jarring statement in a report on an independent investigation which found that the officers who conducted the traffic stop made several mistakes in their handling of the incident.
Authorities announced last September they were launching a probe into the actions of its officers who encountered Petito and Laundrie on 12 August in the middle of what appeared to be an argument or a fight, during their van trip to several of the nation’s national parks.
At the time, officers who spoke to the couple did not seek to arrest them, or even question Laundrie at length, and suggested 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”.
Petito was last seen two weeks later on 24 August, and her body was found at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming on 19 September. Laundrie, who was named a person of interest in his fiancee’s death when he went on the run in Florida after she was reported missing, was found dead by suicide the following month. He was never officially charged in connection with her murder.
The investigative report, released Wednesday, featured an interview with Officer Pratt, who shared regret at his failure prevent Petito’s death.
“I’m desperately f***ed over that she got killed. I really am,” he said. “I would have done anything to stop it if I would have known that was coming.”
“If I would have known [Laundrie] was going to murder her, I would have taken vacation to follow them, because I care about people, to the point where he was going to murder her … and I would have intervened and citizens arrested him in Wyoming! I would have taken my own time. I would have missed my family to go do that.”
The report, authored by Captain Brandon Ratcliffe of the Price City Police Department, located 120 miles northwest of Moab, did not lay blame on Officer Pratt or fellow responding officer Daniel Robbins, saying they “both believed at the time they were making the right decision based on the totality of the circumstances that were presented”.
However, Mr Ratcliffe suggested that the traffic stop should have ended with Petito’s arrest because she admitted to hitting Laundrie. “Based on the information provided, in this specific incident, Brian would be the victim with Gabby being the suspect,” he wrote.
“I do not find that they enforced the law. They responded to a confirmed domestic-violence incident and they had evidence showing an assault had taken place. The statements of all those involved, along with the evidence presented, provided probable cause for an arrest.”
The report recommended that both officers be put on probation and that the entire department receive additional domestic violence investigation training to “ensure officers understand state laws and statutes”.
“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,” the City of Moab said in a statement following the release of the report.
Moab city spokesperson Lisa Church told KUTV the police force intended to implement the report recommendations, but would not comment on whether the two police officers had been placed on probation.
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 12 August.
“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.
In his report, Mr Ratcliffe wrote: “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 added: “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 said 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.
“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 wrote.
“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.”
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 19 September 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.