Moab, UT – The City of Moab has launched a formal investigation into how the Moab City Police Department (MCPD) handled the report of a domestic disturbance between Brian Laundrie and Gabby Petito several weeks before Petito was found dead.
According to a statement released by the city, the 15-member MCPD has received both positive and negative feedback from the public with regards to the officers’ “response and their resolution of the incident” involving the couple on Aug. 12, CNN reported.
“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 said. “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.”
The city noted that different individuals may view the same situation very differently, CNN reported.
“We recognize how the death of Ms. Petito more than two weeks later in Wyoming might lead to speculation, in hindsight, about actions taken during the incident in Moab,” the statement read. “The purpose of the City’s formal investigation is to gather the underlying facts and evidence necessary to make a thorough, informed evaluation of such actions.”
Officers will be available to answer investigators’ questions, and the MCPD will hand over any information from the Aug. 12 incident involving Petito and Laundrie to the investigating agencies, the city told CNN.
“We take all complaints seriously and we are committed to fully addressing these concerns,” MCPD Chief Bret Edge told the news outlet. “In compliance with police department policy, we will conduct an investigation. The police department will identify an unaffiliated law enforcement agency to conduct the formal investigation on our behalf.”
“Should the investigation identify areas for improvement we will take that information to heart, learn from it, and make changes if needed to ensure we are providing the best response and service to our community,” Chief Edge added.
Petito, 22, and Laundrie, 23, had been had been touring U.S. national parks in Petito’s converted camper van since early July.
Petito’s mother, Nichole Schmidt, said she last spoke with her daughter on Aug. 25.
Laundrie returned to his family’s North Port, Florida home in Petito’s van on Sept. 1, but she was not with him.
He refused to speak with police or Petito’s family about where he last saw her before he supposedly vanished while hiking in a Florida nature reserve on Sept. 14.
Petito’s body was discovered in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming on Sept. 19.
Her death has been ruled a homicide, but her exact cause of death has not been released.
Police named Laundrie as a person of interest in Petito’s homicide, but investigators have stopped short of labeling him as a suspect.
The U.S. District Court of Wyoming issued a federal warrant for Laundrie’s arrest on Sept. 22 for use of unauthorized devices, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Denver office announced in a press release.
He has been accused of using a Capital One bank card and someone else’s personal identification number to make unauthorized charges or withdrawals exceeding $1,000, according to the Associated Press.
According to the indictment, the unauthorized use of the card occurred from approximately Aug. 30 until Sept. 1.
The name of the card owner was not listed in the indictment, the Associated Press reported.
According to an MCPD report, a concerned witness called 911 at approximately 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 12 to report a “possible domestic violence” incident near Moonflower Community Cooperative, FOX News previously reported.
The witness said he saw a man and a woman arguing in the street about a phone.
According to a 911 recording reviewed by the news outlet, the caller reported having witnessed the alleged assault, FOX News reported.
“The gentleman was slapping the girl,” the caller said in the recording.
“He was slapping her?” the dispatcher asked.
“Yes, and then we stopped,” the caller said. “They ran up and down the sidewalk. He proceeded to hit her, hopped in the car and they drove off.”
But for reasons that remain unclear, details of the 911 call – including information about Laundrie striking Petito – were never passed on to the officers, the Deseret News reported.
Moab police pulled the couple over and spoke with them about the argument.
Petito, who was sitting in the passenger seat, was “crying uncontrollably” when they first made contact with her, the officer noted in the report.
The officers spoke with Petito and Laundrie separately before determining that neither of them had any significant injuries, FOX News reported.
“The driver of the van, a male, had some sort of argument with the female, Gabbie,” one of the officers who responded to the scene noted in his report, according to FOX News.
“The male tried to create distance by telling Gabbie to go take a walk to calm down, she didn’t want to be separated from the male, and began slapping him,” the officer wrote. “He grabbed her face and pushed her back as she pressed upon him and the van, he tried to lock her out and succeeded except for his driver’s door, she opened that and forced her way over him and into the vehicle before it drove off.”
“I have really bad OCD,” Petito said in the bodycam video. “I was apologizing to him saying ‘I’m sorry I’m so mean.’”
“We’ve been fighting all morning,” she said. “He wouldn’t let me in the car before…he told me I needed to calm down.”
One of the officers noted in his report that the argument could be “more accurately categorized as a mental/emotional health ‘break’ than a domestic assault,” according to the news outlet.
“Both the male and the female reported they are in love and engaged to be married and desperately didn’t wish to see anyone charged with a crime,” the report read.
“After evaluating the totality of the circumstances, I do not believe the situation escalated to the level of a domestic assault as much as that of a mental health crisis,” the second officer wrote in the report, according to CNN. “I then determined the most appropriate course of action would be to help separate the parties for the night so they could reset their mental states without interference from one another.”
The couple ended up staying in separate locations for the night to cool down and both had their own cell phones in case of an emergency, the officers noted.
Two National Park Service (NPS) rangers also responded to the scene while the MCPD officers were speaking with the couple, CNN reported.
Ranger Melissa Hulls later told the Deseret News she is aware females generally feel more comfortable speaking with other females in the event of a domestic violence situation, so she focused her attention on speaking with Petito alone.
“I was probably more candid with her than I should’ve been,” said Ranger Hulls, who has served the NPS for the past 17 years.
The ranger said she warned Petito that her relationship with Laundrie had the markings of being “toxic,” the Deseret News reported.
“I was imploring with her to reevaluate the relationship, asking her if she was happy in the relationship with him, and basically saying this was an opportunity for her to find another path, to make a change in her life,” Ranger Hulls told the paper.
“She had a lot of anxiety about being away from him. I honestly thought if anything was going to change it would be after they got home to Florida,” she added. “This wasn’t a good day for anybody. We thought we were making the right decision when we left them.”
Ranger Hulls said it has been difficult not to second-guess herself and the conversation she had with Petito that day, frank as it may have been.
“It’s hard to think about now because I feel like I could’ve said more to help her,” she told the Deseret News. “It’s hard not to second-guess myself, and wish I said more, or wish I had found the right words to make her believe that she deserved more.”
She said she and the other officers at the scene believed they likely could have taken Petito to jail for domestic assault, but that they believed the scratches she left on Laundrie were the result of an “emotional” moment.
“She shouldn’t have done it, but it wasn’t done maliciously,” Ranger Hulls told the Deseret News. “I wouldn’t have called (the relationship) unsafe. If we had any reason to think any one of them was in danger, we would’ve separated them.”
The veteran ranger said everyone seems to have an opinion on how the case was handled, but that law enforcement officers have to focus on criminal elements – not emotions.
“It’s easy to say that when you can break down a video, minute by minute, and judge it, versus being in the moment where we saw minor injuries and two people that were apologetic,” she told the Deseret News.
“It’s not that we didn’t think he was manipulative, but we have to worry about the safety, and not the psychology of it,” she noted. “We have to go by the facts that we were faced with at the time, and not let our emotions drive the decision.”