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Moab Police Investigation Finds Officers Made Mistakes When They Pulled Over Gabby Petito And Brian Laundrie

An independent investigator concluded that Moab Police officers made “several unintentional mistakes” but could have never anticipated Gabby Petito’s death weeks later.

By Jill Sederstrom

Moab Police officers should have cited Gabby Petito for domestic violence after receiving reports that the couple had been fighting outside a community cooperative, according to a newly released internal police investigation.

The finding was just one of the conclusions drawn in a 102-page report prepared by an independent agency who evaluated the actions of Moab Police during the domestic violence stop on Aug. 12 after a formal compliant had been filed by an attorney questioning the officer’s actions.

“The independent agency’s investigative report finds that the officers who responded to the incident made several unintentional mistakes that stemmed from the fact that officers failed to cite Ms. Petito for domestic violence,” city officials wrote in a statement obtained by Oxygen.com announcing the findings.

While the report, composed by Price City Police Department Capt. Brandon Ratcliffe and obtained by Oxygen.com, concludes that officers should have arrested Petito after deeming her the “predominant aggressor” during the dispute between her and fiancé Brian Laundrie, it stresses that it’s not possible to know what impact that could have had on the future.

Just weeks after the traffic stop, Petito disappeared and was later found strangled to death in Grand Teton National Park, where she last been seen camping with Laundrie.

“There are many ‘what-if’s’ that have presented itself as part of this investigation, the primary one being: Would Gabby be alive today if this case was handled differently?” Ratcliffe wrote. “That is an impossible question to answer despite it being the answer many people want to know. Nobody knows and nobody will ever know the answer to that question. My job is to provide information into the details of this investigation and if it was handled appropriately.”

Laundrie and Petito were pulled over by police outside Arches National Park on Aug. 12 after a witness called 911 to report he had seen a “gentleman slapping the girl” outside the Moonflower Community Cooperative in Moab, Utah. According to the caller, the couple jumped into a white van and took off, but he was able to provide police with the vehicle’s description and license plate.

Officers pulled the van over a few minutes later outside the national park and spent around 75 minutes investigating before deciding to separate the couple for the night and not arrest either party, classifying the episode as a “mental health break” rather than a domestic violence incident.

Ratcliffe concluded, however, that officers misinterpreted state statutes and said that based on the statements made by Petito, Laundrie and a witness who saw the couple fighting, along with evidence at the scene, there had been “probable cause for an arrest,” according to the report.

Although the 911 caller reported seeing Laundrie slapping Petito, Petito told officers that she had slapped Laundrie several times after he told her to “shut up” during an argument.

When asked directly whether Laundrie had hit her as the caller had stated, she responded “I guess but I hit him first.”

Officers also observed an injury near Laundrie’s eye, scratches on the left side of his neck and face and bruising and bleeding to the right side of his head, according to the report.

Although police never followed up with the 911 caller—something Ratcliffe recommended police do even months after the incident—they did speak with another witness who reported seeing the couple fighting over a phone. He believed Laundrie had been trying to prevent Petito from getting into the couple’s van and said he saw Petito hit Laundrie several times before she climbed over him to get into the van before it drove away.

Officers ultimately decided not to make any arrests after concluding that Petito did not intend to harm Laundrie, who also told officers he didn’t want to press any charges. They separated the pair for the night and took Laundrie to a local motel.

“As it relates to the primary duty of law enforcement while responding to a domestic violence call, the officers protected the victim by separating Brian from Gabby; however, I do not find that they enforced the law,” the report said. “They responded to a confirmed domestic violence incident and they had evidence showing an assault had taken place.”

Ratcliffe concluded that he did not believe the mistakes were made “intentionally” and said he believed the officers “believed at the time they were making the right decision.” He recommended both officers be placed on probation and receive additional training.  

Ratcliffe also noted that although Petito had been deemed the “predominant aggressor” in this incident, it did not mean she wasn't a long-term victim of domestic abuse.

“It’s very likely Gabby was a long-term victim of domestic violence, whether that be physically, mentally, and/or emotionally,” he wrote.

According to the report, one of the officers at the scene, Officer Eric Pratt, said he has been devastated by the murder and told authorities that if he had believed she was in any danger that day he would have taken vacation time and followed the couple’s van.

“I would have taken my own time; I would have missed my family to go do that,” he said. “I’m desperately f---ed over that she got killed. I really am. I would have done anything to stop it if I would have known that was coming.”

After reviewing the report, the City of Moab officials concluded the officers “showed kindness, respect and empathy in their handling of this incident” and said they planned to enforce the recommendations within the report.  

“The City of Moab sends our sincere condolences to the Petito family,” officials said. “Our hearts go out to them as they continue to deal with the tragic loss of their daughter.”

Although Laundrie was named a person of interest in his girlfriend’s disappearance, he vanished himself just as the investigation ramped up and was later found dead in October of a suspected self-inflicted gunshot wound in a Florida nature preserve not far from his home.

For more on the Gabby Petito case, watch "The Murder of Gabby Petito: Truth, Lies and Social Media," streaming now on Peacock.