Melissa Hulls can still hear Gabby Petito’s voice.
On Aug. 12, the visitor and resource protection supervisor at Arches National Park, heard a call come over her radio of a possible domestic assault, stemming from an argument in Moab between Petito and her fiance, Brian Laundrie.
Hulls arrived to find the couple pulled over by a Moab police officer inside the park. Knowing that in a domestic violence situation the female usually feels more comfortable talking with another female, she focused on Petito, who at that point was sitting in the back of a police cruiser.
“I can still hear her voice,” Hulls said in an exclusive interview with the Deseret News. “She wasn’t just a face on the milk carton, she was real to me.”
Hulls pictures the sobbing 22-year-old sitting in the back of the cruiser. She knows her mannerisms, just from the roughly hour-and-a half interaction.
“I was probably more candid with her than I should’ve been,” Hulls recalls, warning Petito that her and Laundrie’s relationship had the markings of a “toxic” one.
“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,” she said.
“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.”
In the end, Petito stayed with Laundrie.
“This wasn’t a good day for anybody. We thought we were making the right decision when we left them.”
And on Sunday, when she heard the news that the FBI recovered a body in Wyoming “consistent with the description of Gabby Petito,” the law enforcement ranger of 17 years tilted her head back and let out a sigh of someone all too familiar with a body recovery effort.
“I honestly haven’t looked at my body camera footage for that night. It’s hard to think about now because I feel like I could’ve said more to help her,” she said. “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.”
‘Where is Gabby?’
It’s a video that millions of Americans watched. Gabby Petito, sitting in the passenger seat of her van crying uncontrollably as she and Laundrie are approached by a Moab police officer.
Petito apologizes multiple times. Laundrie, soft-spoken, nervous and also apologetic, sits in the driver’s seat as he takes the keys out of the ignition and proceeds to explain why the van hit the curb.
“He really stresses me out. This is a rough morning,” Petito tells officers.
“I don’t know, it’s just some days I have really bad OCD and I was just cleaning and straightening up and I was apologizing to him,” she says as the officer walks her away from the van, sitting her down on the curb before helping her into the air-conditioned cruiser.
“I’m sorry that I’m so mean.”
Petito then details a fight between her and Laundrie earlier that afternoon, where she says her fiance tried to lock her out of the car, telling her she “needed to calm down.”
Their stories line up, with Laundrie telling officers, “I said, ‘Let’s just take a breather and let’s not go anywhere. Let’s just calm down for a minute.’” He then tells police that the several scratches on his face were from Petito hitting him as she tried to get back into the van.
A striking image soon emerges — a sobbing Petito, surrounded by male officers. Then Hulls arrives.
After consoling Petito, Hulls discusses what to do with her colleagues.
They had several options. With the facts suggesting Petito was the aggressor, they could’ve taken her to jail. But Hulls said the situation appeared to be more of a mental health crisis than a case of domestic violence.
What Petito did to Laundrie “was emotional,” Hulls said. “She shouldn’t have done it, but it wasn’t done maliciously.”
“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,” she said.
On Monday, audio of the 911 call was released, giving new insight into what led up to Hulls’ interaction with Petito.
“A gentleman was slapping the girl,” the caller tells dispatchers. “They ran up and down the sidewalk. He proceeded to hit her, hopped in the car, and they drove off.”
Hulls detailed the complexing, difficult — and often scrutinized — relationship between law enforcement and domestic violence situations. Sometimes the choice is clear, and knowing the victim is in imminent danger can make the responding officer’s job easier. But it’s not always black and white.
“Sometimes you get evidence and they don’t own up to it, and they’re just lying to your face and it’s unsafe, and you know that something more is going to happen if you let them go home together. That’s a much easier decision to arrest,” she said. “With this one, I just don’t think she understood how big a deal this was.”
So they separated the couple. Petito took the van, Laundrie was taken to a hotel, and a few days later, they were back on the road, headed north to Salt Lake City.
Their social media presence resumed, showing every indication of a happy couple in love and living out the coveted van life. They stopped in Ogden, where Petito is pictured in front of a butterfly mural, the last thing posted to her Instagram account.
A few days later, Petito texted her mom before the couple reportedly went camping in Wyoming. It was the last time they heard from their daughter. A week later, she was reported missing.
On Sunday the story took a heartbreaking turn when investigators made the grim announcement from Grand Teton National Park.
The case is still under investigation — what exactly happened to Petito and the role Laundrie played has yet to be announced. But according to the thousands, maybe millions, following the story, Laundrie is guilty.
“Where is Gabby?” became a rallying cry, repeated ad nauseam in the thousands of comments under Laundrie’s still active Instagram account.
When the news broke of the incident outside Arches, Moab quickly became a focal point. Screengrabs from the body camera footage, with Utah’s iconic red rocks in the background, became the main image used by national media.
Even now, weeks after the incident, the case is still casually mentioned all over Moab — spend a few hours at a coffee shop, bar, even the Arches National Park visitors center, and you’re bound to overhear Petito’s name.
Sometimes they’re expressing grief. Sometimes they’re speculating on what happened. And sometimes they’re criticizing the response from Moab police.
Why was Petito treated as the aggressor? Why was Laundrie, who towered over his fiance, treated as a victim? And why didn’t they notice, as some on Twitter suggested, the signs of a controlling and manipulative relationship?
Hindsight is 2020, Hulls said of the criticism, noting that “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.”
“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 said. “We have to go by the facts that we were faced with at the time, and not let our emotions drive the decision.”
And while Hulls doesn’t fault the actions taken by her colleagues that day, she admits it can be hard not to fixate on what else she could have said to Petito.
“It’s hard not to think that I could’ve done something more, or found the exact words to make her change her life right then,” she said. “There are so many circumstances where you wish it had gone a certain way, and if you get stuck with the ‘would have, could have, should have,’ you can’t do this job. You got to learn from it and keep going, otherwise you’re not going to be help for the next Gabby.”