NORTH PORT, Fla. – With the City of Moab in Utah announcing an investigation into the police handling of an Aug. 12 domestic dispute involving Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie, experts say the officers may have acted appropriately — based on incomplete information.
“It’s proper if they determine that it’s only a mental health situation because now officers are being trained, because people get shot, [to] handle mental health situations differently than they handle regular cases,” Susanne Gustin, a Salt Lake City-based defense attorney, told Fox News Friday. “You want to de-escalate. You don’t want to necessarily arrest somebody who was having a mental health episode.”
Under Utah law, police are required to either arrest the suspect or issue a citation in a domestic violence situation. They have no discretion in the matter, she said.
“The statute’s clear because it says ‘shall,’” Gustin said. “And that’s very important because when it says ‘shall’ in a statute, it means they have to do it.”
But bodycam video of police responding to the domestic incident, which Fox News Digital first reported, shows officers debating how to proceed before ultimately deciding that Petito, who they were told was the aggressor by herself, Laundrie and a witness, was having a mental health “break” and was not a domestic violence suspect.
“If they followed the law strictly, she’s the one who would have gotten the citation or been taken to jail,” Gustin said.
Moab police did not immediately respond to a Fox News request for comment.
“They were trying to calm the situation down,” she said. “So even in that situation, I think they did the right thing by making them separate for the night.”
However, critical information was not available to the officers at the scene. A witness had called a non-emergency line to report he had seen Laundrie “slapping” and hitting Petito.
With that information, Gustin said police may have considered Laundrie the aggressor, not Petito, and made an arrest.
“People are coming down on the officers here, and they didn’t have that very critical piece of information,” she said. “I think the dispatcher is going to be in big hot water.”
The caller who reported the incident between Laundrie and Petito on Aug. 12 told the dispatcher that “the gentleman was slapping the girl” and hitting her, Fox News confirmed Monday after exclusively obtaining the audio of the call.
“He was slapping her?” the dispatcher asked.
“Yes,” the caller answered. “And then we stopped. They ran up and down the sidewalk. He proceeded to hit her, hopped in the car, and they drove off.”
Without being aware of the allegation that Laundrie had physically struck Petito, officers may have misinterpreted the situation, said Kit Gurelle, a longtime advocate for domestic violence victims who works alongside police and said she greatly respects them.
“It’s quite common in domestic violence cases, when law enforcement roll up, that the victim is upset and crying and hysterical — and the offender is cool, calm and collected,” she told Fox News Friday.
And that’s exactly what appeared on bodycam video of the incident. Petito was in tears, and Laundrie appeared calm and soft-spoken. But Petito did not dispute Laundrie’s story that she was the aggressor, and contradictory witness statements do not appear to have been discussed by officers at the scene.
“She was obviously very upset,” Gurelle said. “She articulated her thoughts and feelings in much the way that domestic violence victims oftentimes do: They blame themselves.”
Gabby blaming herself is a major red flag indicating that she was a domestic violence victim, she said.
At that point, the officers could have called in a domestic violence victims’ advocate, according to Gurelle. And that person may have been able to deduce more information about what actually happened.
Gurelle said another red flag was Laundrie allegedly threatening to take Petito’s phone and drive off without her, as one witness stated.
But Laundrie appeared to convince officers that Petito had a breakdown and attacked him and even struck up chitchat as they drove him away from the van.
“What is horrifying to me is after that interaction with law enforcement, I just wonder what that drive up from Moab to the Tetons was like for Gabby,” she said. “I just I fear that he felt tremendously emboldened by that interaction that he had with law enforcement.”
After leaving Utah, the couple reached Grand Teton National Park, near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, around Aug. 25.
“I think that in looking at all of the video, the good and the bad, that’s a typical domestic violence cycle,” Gustin said. “And of them making up and kissing on the beach and holding hands and being happy.”
Domestic abusers tend to balance out their abuse with apologizes and warmth, she said.
“It’s the typical abuse cycle,” she said. “They explode, and they feel better because they got all their anger out.”
On Aug. 27, Laundrie was seen arguing with female restaurant workers at Merry Piglets in Jackson Hole. It may have been the last time Petito was seen in public.
At one point, Petito apologized for Laundrie’s behavior — and that could have set up the next fight, according to Gustin.
“Because she was embarrassed, because she went back into the restaurant to apologize for his behavior, he probably went ballistic over that,” she speculated. “The fact that she went and took sides with the wait staff instead of him. And so once they got back in the van, they probably had a huge blowout fight.”
Laundrie showed up at his parents’ Florida home in Petito’s van on Sept. 1. Her mother reported her missing 10 days later. Investigators found her remains at a campground near Jackson Hole on Sunday, and the FBI on Thursday named him in a federal arrest warrant for alleged debit card fraud during his drive home.
Gurelle said there are nonviolent and nonsexual signs of domestic abuse that do not constitute criminal offenses that the public should be aware of, including manipulation, isolation and intimidation. Learn more about bout the “Power and Control Wheel” here.
Fox News’ Stephanie Pagones, Greg Norman and Paul Best contributed to this report.