Editor’s note • This story includes a graphic image of a woman documenting what she later told police was a domestic assault. Those who are experiencing intimate partner violence, or know someone who is, are urged to call the Utah Domestic Violence Link Line, 1-800-897-LINK (5465), or the Utah Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis Line, 801-736-4356.
The timestamp on the photo is important.
Gabby Petito’s phone shows that she took the selfie at 4:37 p.m. on Aug. 12, 2021. Two minutes later, a bystander called 911 to say that they had just witnessed Petito’s boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, slapping Petito in a parking lot in Moab.
Police never located that caller; they instead found a man who said he thought Petito struck Laundrie.
But based on the timing, Petito appears to have taken the picture to document her injury from the slap the 911 caller described. In the image, she is sweating and crying in the back of the van the couple was traveling the country in. And the camera captures a long cut under her left eye, with blood smeared across her cheek and onto her forehead — consistent with the blow she would describe to police, when they later arrived at 4:45 p.m. and pulled the couple over.
The selfie was found on Petito’s cell by her parents after she was killed, and it has never been released publicly.
The attorneys representing Petito’s family are sharing it now as they build their case in a lawsuit filed against Moab police last year, for what they say was a failure by officers to realize that Petito was the victim in the case.
When officers arrived, the attorneys argue, police ignored Petito’s injuries and sided with Laundrie. And because of that negligence in not recognizing the risks Petito faced, they say, Petito was left to continue traveling with Laundrie, who killed her about a month later in Wyoming; Laundrie then killed himself after returning home to Florida.
“Moab police failed to listen to Gabby, failed to investigate her injuries and the seriousness of her assault, and failed to follow their own training, policies, and Utah law,” wrote attorney Brian Stewart, at the law firm of Parker & McConkie, in a statement this week about the photo.
Moab police declined to comment to The Salt Lake Tribune about the photo; the department also has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit from Petito’s parents, but it has said that it stands by its officers’ actions.
Domestic violence experts, though, say that based on the picture, Petito’s injuries were more serious than police seemed to realize. They believe Petito was documenting that she was a victim of domestic violence.
“The thing that stands out to me is she was definitely trying to come to terms with what was happening in her life with this photo,” said Jenn Oxborrow, a licensed clinical social worker and longtime victim advocate in Utah. “When I see people documenting an injury, it’s really important for them, they have something to refer back to.”
Domestic violence, Oxborrow said, is typically cyclical, with acts of violence followed by calmer periods. Victims sometimes feel gaslit by that pattern, she said, or are encouraged by a perpetrator to forget the severity of an assault.
Having a photo can help someone “have a good long look in the mirror” and remember the reality of their relationship, she said.
The attorneys in the case say Petito never sent the photo to anyone. And they don’t know what her intent was in taking it, including whether she planned to report Laundrie to law enforcement. But they believe she was trying to document her injuries.
Her parents approved the release of the photo, but their attorneys say they were too overcome by it to comment.
Gael Strack, the CEO and cofounder of Alliance for Hope International, which includes the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention, said she believes the selfie shows that Petito’s injuries were worse than she described to police. Seeing the markings on her face should have prompted officers to ask more questions, Strack said.
In the interaction with police — where Petito can be seen wearing the same shirt and necklaces as in her selfie — Petito tells an officer that Laundrie “grabbed my face.” She reenacts that by putting one hand over her mouth and across her cheek.
The officer asked: “Did he slap your face or what?”
Petito responded: “He grabbed me with his nail, and I guess that’s why it looks — I definitely have a cut right here. I can feel it. When I touch it, it burns.”
Even though a independent review later confirmed that the grab by Laundrie should have been seen as a violent act, the officer doesn’t ask about her injuries further after Petito said she hit Laundrie first, which can be a hallmark sign of an abused partner taking responsibility for the aggressor’s actions.
Strack said she isn’t sure she believes that Petito hit Laundrie first, either. Laundrie’s injuries, she said, were minor and appear to her more like attempts by Petito at self-defense; they were mostly small scratches, which seem to be caused by Laundrie moving his arm out of the way than Petito actually hitting him. Petito had said she punched his arm after he took her phone and tried to lock her out of their van. Police extensively documented his injuries.
In Utah code, any attempt by a perpetrator to cover a victim’s mouth or nose is defined as strangulation — not just someone putting their hands around another’s throat — and should be treated as aggravated assault. When Petito used her hand to cover her mouth to show officers what Laundrie allegedly did to her, Strack said, police should have recognized it as strangulation, a red flag for escalating domestic violence and a better indication that he was the primary aggressor in the situation.
Laundrie did later strangle Petito to death, investigators said.
Strack, who previously worked as a prosecutor, said victims don’t typically describe an experience like Petito’s as being “strangled” or “choked.”
“They usually say someone grabbed my face, which Gabby did,” she said. “It’s up to officers to ask more questions and know what to look for and listen for.”
Joe Bianco, a former detective who now works as a law enforcement support coordinator with Strack’s organization, said it doesn’t surprise him, though, that Petito didn’t show the selfie she had just taken to the officers.
He said, based on watching the body camera footage, that she didn’t appear comfortable with the officers. They didn’t really give her the space to collect herself, Bianco added, and open up. They were quick and asked things like if Petito wanted the officers to tell Laundrie that she loved him.
“You really have to go in there and ask questions,” Bianco said. “Have you ever documented anything like this before? Has these happened in the past? A victim then might be triggered to remember it or bring it up.”
The officers ultimately decided to categorize the case as disorderly conduct instead of domestic violence and separated Petito and Laundrie for the night. Laundrie stayed in town. And Petito stayed in the van.
In recent years, Strack said, she has seen more victims documenting domestic violence, especially with phones. She noted how Nicole Brown Simpson, the ex-wife of O.J. Simpson, kept a journal describing abuse in her marriage before she was killed.
Both Oxborrow and Strack said there were warning signs that officers missed when responding to the case, and they urged police departments to train and re-train constantly on domestic violence protocols.
Petito’s parents, Joe Petito and Nicole Schmidt, have recently been in Utah to speak in favor of SB117, a bill that would create a database for police of past domestic violence incidents and calls to police, even if the calls did not lead to criminal charges. The bill would also mandate police ask a series of questions called a Lethality Assessment Program to survivors in order to determine their potential danger.
“Our daughter, Gabby, died as a result of intimate partner violence that could have and should have been identified by law enforcement using the lethality assessment,” Schmidt said.