Moab investigation finds officers made multiple mistakes during Gabby Petito encounter

An investigator with the Price City Police Department found officers failed to cite Petito for assault.

(Moab Police Department) Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito talks to a police officer after police pulled over the van she was traveling in with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, near the entrance to Arches National Park on Aug. 12, 2021.

In September emails to Moab Police Chief Bret Edge, officer Eric Pratt said that he was horrified and overcome with emotion after the death of Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito.

But Pratt, the subject of an internal investigation over his August police interaction with Petito, which occurred weeks before she was reported missing and later found dead, also said he rests a bit easier knowing there was nothing he could have done to prevent her killing.

“In fact if we’d done anything differently, the resulting murder ... would’ve happened just the same,” Pratt wrote to Edge on Sept. 22, “but the public outcry and scrutiny would’ve only been enhanced from where it is now,” according to emails obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune.

The completed investigation released last week does note that it is “impossible” to know if Petito would still be alive today if the Moab interaction was handled differently. But the investigation also identified several missteps from Pratt and his partner Daniel Robbins on the August day they stopped Petito and her fiance, Brian Laundrie.

The officers failed to contact the 911 caller who initially reported witnessing a dispute between the couple, the investigation states. They also did not photograph or mention Petito’s injuries in their written reports. And they should have connected the couple with mental health professionals, according to the investigation.

The officers also misunderstood state law requirements for domestic assault, the investigation concluded, noting that Petito should have been arrested.

“The officers protected the victim by separating Brian from Gabby; however, I do not find that they enforced the law,” Price police Capt. Brandon Ratcliffe, the third-party officer who conducted the investigation, wrote in the 99-page report he presented to the city. “They responded to a confirmed domestic violence incident and they had evidence showing an assault had taken place.”

In a statement Thursday, Liz Sollis, a spokesperson for the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, said Ratcliffe’s conclusions made sense, noting that domestic violence and intimate partner violence present complexities that make evidence-based, trauma-informed responses necessary.

Ratcliffe recommended that Pratt and Robbins be put on probation, and he indicated that they needed additional training on domestic violence investigations. A spokesperson for the Moab City Police Department last week said he could not disclose whether Pratt and Robbins had been put on probation.

‘This is concerning’

Petito was found dead near Grand Teton National Park on Sept. 19, months after she and Laundrie had departed Florida on a cross-country road trip, which Petito documented on Instagram.

Laundrie, who was considered a person of interest in Petito’s disappearance, returned to Florida alone in September — 10 days before Petito was reported missing. He later disappeared himself into a Florida nature reserve, where his partial remains were found on Oct. 21.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pictures of Gabby Petito, candles and flowers adorn a table at a vigil at Sugar House Park, Sept. 22, 2021 in her honor.

In August, they made their way to Utah, passing through Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks before arriving in Moab, when a caller on Aug. 12 reported witnessing a dispute between the couple outside of the town’s Moonflower Community Cooperative. The eyewitness said that Laundrie was “slapping the girl,” and that the couple “ran up and down the sidewalk,” where Laundrie “proceeded to hit her.”

Pratt resumed full-time employment for the Moab City Police Department in December 2020 and has 16 years of experience in law enforcement, according to the report, including nearly four years as police chief in Moab. He was the field training officer for Robbins, who was hired in May 2021 and was in the final phase of his training the day they responded to the Petito call.

Ratcliffe found that Pratt and Robbins made numerous mistakes in their interaction with the couple. When Pratt drove to the Moonflower cooperative, he could not locate the caller who originally reported the dispute. Another witness, identified as Chris, approached Pratt and asked if he was there for “the domestic,” and Pratt interviewed him. Pratt later asked Robbins to collect a written statement from the witness who initially reported the dispute, and Robbins confused Chris with the 911 caller.

“The fact that [the witness who called 911] has still not been contacted and a statement has still not been obtained from him, is concerning,” Ratcliffe wrote in his report.

Chris said he saw the couple fighting over a phone around 4:30 p.m. that day. He reported that Petito punched Laundrie in the arm and climbed over him through the driver’s side door to get into the van. Chris heard Petito say, “Why do you have to be so mean?,” according to a written statement. Pratt did not turn on his body camera during the interview.

Robbins pulled the van over outside of Arches National Park. For more than an hour, Pratt and Robbins separately spoke with Laundrie and Petito, who was captured crying on body camera footage.

Ratcliffe found that despite extensive photos of Laundrie’s injuries, Pratt never photographed Petito, even when he asked her about a cut she had on her cheek. Petito said Laundrie had grabbed her face during their fight at Moonflower. Neither officer asked Laundrie about Petito’s cut or offered her medical assistance.

Officer Pratt asked, “Did he hit you though?”; Petito replied saying, “I guess but I hit him first,” according to the report. After conducting their interviews and factoring in the statement from Chris, the officers determined Petito was the predominant aggressor. They deliberated on how to proceed and eventually decided to separate the couple for the night. The interaction was categorized as disorderly conduct in Robbins’ report.

Ratcliffe wrote in his investigation that there was enough evidence to provide probable cause to arrest Petito for assault, but Pratt failed to read a subsection of the Utah Criminal Code for assault and misinterpreted what he did read. Robbins said he did not make an arrest because he considered the situation to be more of a mental health crisis, according to the report.

As part of the internal investigation, Ratcliffe asked Robbins why he did not get Petito and Laundrie in touch with mental health professionals if he considered the situation a mental health crisis. Robbins told him it was a busy day and “calls were stacking up left and right and mistakes were made.”

“It completely slipped my mind,” Robbins continued. “I didn’t even think about it.” Neither officer provided the couple with domestic violence informational handouts or connected them with a victim advocate, Ratcliffe noted in the report.

Robbins also did not have legal authority to order the couple to separate for the night without making an arrest, Ratcliffe’s report states.

Ratcliffe also found numerous errors in how the officers reported the incident in their written records. In Robbins’ written report of the encounter, he wrote that Laundrie described Petito going into a “manic state,” but in body camera footage, Laundrie never said that.

“There are many details not documented in [Robbins’] report as well as details documented that appear to be speculation or just flat out inaccurate,” Ratcliffe wrote.

Pratt wrote in his report that “nobody reported Laundrie struck Petito” despite the 911 caller who saw Laundrie slap Petito, and Petito’s assertion that Laundrie had hit her, though she reportedly hit him first. Pratt also omitted that Laundrie had grabbed her face.

Despite their mistakes, Ratcliffe determined that neither officer intentionally did anything to benefit themselves.

A neutral third party

The investigation into Moab police response began after California attorney Tanya Reeves sent an email to chief Edge on Sept. 21, according to emails the Tribune obtained through a public records request.

Reeves outlined eight violations she noticed while watching the officers’ body camera footage and requested that a formal investigation be conducted into how the officers handled the case.

Reeves said the officers “twisted themselves into knots” to try and avoid an arrest because of their sympathy for the couple, stating that Pratt deliberately tried to coach Petito to answer questions about her intent in hitting Laundrie in a way that would allow Pratt to avoid arresting her. Reeves also noted that the officers did not follow up with any questions about how Petito sustained her injury to Laundrie.

According to the email records, Edge then wrote to Price City Police Chief Brandon Sicilia on Sept. 23, requesting an internal investigation from “a neutral third party,” noting that Moab police “received a formal complaint from an attorney in California who is unrelated to the case and the subjects of the case.”

Five days later, Edge was granted a medical leave of absence. A spokesperson for the police department would not comment about whether his leave was connected to the investigation. The spokesperson said Edge intends to return to his position after he is deemed fit for duty.

Sicilia assigned Ratcliffe to investigate the case. Ratcliffe responded to Reeves’ concerns by reviewing written reports, analyzing body camera footage and interviewing Robbins, Pratt and Assistant Chief Braydon Palmer throughout the monthslong investigation. Edge was not interviewed.

Addressing the errors

In his investigative report, Ratcliffe wrote that many “what-ifs” presented themselves throughout the 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,” Ratcliffe wrote. “Nobody knows and nobody will ever know the answer to that question.”

Ratcliffe recommended that both officers receive at least eight hours of training on conducting domestic violence investigations and writing reports after their recommended probation period. Robbins’ completion of field training should also be reviewed to determine if he needs additional training, Ratcliffe said.

“I would suggest building a stronger relationship with your local prosecutors to where if there are legal questions that officers are unable to answer, that they are able to and feel comfortable with, reaching out for additional guidance,” Ratcliffe wrote.

Ratcliffe also urged the department to contact the initial 911 caller and obtain a statement from them, regardless of how long it has been. He recommended that the city update its guidelines for domestic violence investigations, implement a lethality assessment protocol and instruct officers to take injury photos of all people involved, whether they are considered a victim or not.

Laundrie reportedly grabbing Petito’s face in an attempt to calm her down was “an extremely personal, violent, and controlling” act, Ratcliffe writes. Even though it didn’t cause significant injury, it could be have been indication that Laundrie was the long-term predominant aggressor in the relationship, according to Ratcliffe.

Sollis, with the state domestic violence coalition, said that bidirectional violence is common in abusive relationships.

“There are times when someone who has been a victim, short- or long-term, responds in the same manner in which their abuser treats them, an act that is more commonly known as self-defense or violent resistance,” Sollis said in a statement. “In some of these instances, short- or long-term victims may be legally considered, and subsequently charged as, the predominant physical aggressor.”

Sollis said that first responders must be equipped with behavioral health and victim services providers to intervene and follow-up with people experiencing abuse. Sollis commended Pratt and Robbins for acknowledging their mistakes in Ratcliffe’s investigation.

“Officers Pratt and Robbins provided a swift response to the call, took the time to attempt to understand the totality of the current and past relations between Petito and Laundrie — which is not always easy to do in an hour’s time, and appeared to show compassion, kindness, and professionalism toward both Petito and Laundrie,” Sollis said in a statement.

Moab officials said plans are in place to bring on a domestic violence specialist to assist officers. The department also is providing additional training and testing for officers to “ensure that the officers understand policies and procedures,” officials said in a statement Wednesday.

“Based on the report’s findings, the City of Moab believes our officers showed kindness, respect and empathy in their handling of this incident,” the statement said.