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Just weeks before she was last seen alive, a Utah park ranger warned Gabby Petito that her relationship with Brian Laundrie might be “toxic” during a stop by police.
“I was probably more candid with her than I should’ve been,” Melissa Hulls, the visitor and resource protection supervisor at Arches National Park, told The Deseret News of the brief and haunting interaction she had with the 22-year-old.
Hulls, a visitor and resource protection supervisor at Arches National Park, responded to a report of a possible domestic assault after the couple was pulled over by Moab Police inside the park and urged Petito, who can be seen in body cam footage released by police crying in the back of a police car, to reconsider the relationship.
“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,” Hulls said.
According to Hulls, Petito had “a lot of anxiety” about being away from Laundrie, whom she had been dating for two years before embarking on a cross-country trip to visit the nation’s national parks earlier this summer.
The couple were pulled over by Moab Police officers on Aug. 12 after a concerned citizen had called 911 to report that a “gentleman was slapping the girl” outside the Moonflower Community Cooperative, the local paper reports.
“A gentleman was slapping the girl,” the caller said. “They ran up and down the sidewalk. He proceeded to hit her, hopped in the car and they drove off.”
The caller told the dispatcher the couple had been “arguing over a phone,” according to a police report obtained by Oxygen.com.
By the time police arrived at the scene, the couple had left in their white Ford Transit Van—which they had refashioned into a camper—but authorities spotted the van and pulled the couple over near the Arches National Park in Utah.
The couple were separated by officers but each delivered a similar story about the friction between the two.
Petito told the officers it had been a “rough morning” said that Laundrie—who she said “really stresses me out”—had tried to lock her out of the van and told her she needed to calm down.
Laundrie told officers a similar account.
“I said, ‘Let’s just take a breather and let’s not go anywhere. Let’s just calm down for a minute,’” he said in the footage.
He added that he had gotten several scratches along his face from where Petito had hit him.
“The man tried to create distance by telling Gabbie to go take a walk to calm down, she didn’t want to be separated from the male, and began slapping him,” officer Eric Pratt wrote in an account of the incident.
Laundrie then “grabbed her face and pushed her back,” before he tried to lock her out of the van. She forced her way inside and the vehicle drove off, according to the report.
Petito and Laundrie both admitted to officers that they struggled with anxiety and the tension between them had been growing on the cross-country trek.
“Sometimes I get really frustrated,” Petito told officers, seemingly blaming her mental health issues for the argument.
Officers would later conclude that the incident had been more of a “mental/emotional health ‘break’” rather than a domestic violence incident and never filed charges against Petito, who was deemed to be the “primary aggressor.”
“I wouldn’t have called (the relationship) unsafe,” Hull said. “If we had any reason to think any one of them was in danger, we would’ve separated them.”
Yet, officers had tried to encourage the couple to consider time apart.
Much like Hull, a Moab Police officer can also be seen in the body camera footage urging Petito to consider whether the pair’s anxiety could be feeding off of one another, even sharing his own personal experience with anxiety and the trouble it had once posed in his own marriage.
The officer told Petito that he and his ex “would feed off each other’s anxiety and spiral.”
“It may be bad for your soul,” he told her as she sat in the back of a police vehicle. “I’m just saying, and I’m not telling you what to do with your life, but if you know you have anxiety, look at, look at the situations that you can get in, you know what I mean?”
Rather than arresting Petito, the officers opted to separate the couple for the night, getting Laundrie a hotel room and sending Petito off in the couple’s van.
They instructed the pair not to contact each other that night and to use the time to cool off and recharge.
Just weeks later, Petito disappeared. A North Port Police detective said in a state search warrant that the 22-year-old’s “last communication” was on August 27 when her mother received an “odd text” from her phone before it was turned off.
“Can you help Stan, I just keep getting his voicemails and missed calls,” the message said.
The text was about Petito’s grandfather, but her mom told investigators she would have never referred to him by his first name.
Petito was formally reported missing by her mother on Sept. 11 and the FBI announced on Sunday that it had discovered human remains “consistent” with Petito in Grand Teton National Park—the last known location where she had been vacationing with Laundrie.
Laundrie has been named a person of interest in Petito's disappearance and to-date has refused to speak to investigators. He went missing last week after telling his parents that he was going hiking at Carlton Reserve area, according to a statement from North Port Police. The search for the 23-year-old remains ongoing.
The FBI conducted a search of the home where Laundrie lives with his parents Monday, but have provided few details about any evidence gathered.
In the days since the video footage of the couple’s police stop has been made public, some have criticized officers for not considering what they believe was Laundrie’s manipulative tactics, but Hulls defended the officers' actions saying “it’s easy to say that when you 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,” she said.
“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 decisions.”
Hull said she can still hear Petito’s voice and now just wishes she could have done more to save the 22-year-old.
“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.
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