ST. GEORGE — The case of Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito, whose body was found near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming on Sept. 19, has gripped the nation, and local victim advocates say they have been following the case very closely since Petito was first reported missing Sept. 11.
Despite the horrific story, the intense media coverage has come with some positive effects in that it shines a light on the problem of domestic violence, advocates say, but it has also raised concerns about the nature of media coverage – or lack thereof for some victims.
An adventure gone wrong
Petito, 22, and her boyfriend, 23-year-old Brian Laundrie, had been traveling cross-country in her van since June, camping in national parks along the way. The couple was pulled over by police on Aug. 12 in Moab, Utah, following a report of a physical altercation.
Markee Pickett, communications director for the Dove Center, said the footage of the stop that showed officers interviewing Petito and Laundrie is telling.
The Dove Center is a St. George nonprofit that works with local hospitals and law enforcement to manage a 24-hour crisis and support helpline for victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault, stalking and human trafficking.
“Just from watching the arrest that happened in Moab … there are clear signs she (Petito) was experiencing some abuse or toxic behavior from her partner,” Pickett said. “It’s shined a little more light on domestic violence and how common it is.”
In the footage, Laundrie reported to police that tensions had been rising for a few days, and a tearful Petito said Laundrie had forcefully grabbed her by the chin – but only after she’d slapped him. She said Laundrie was irritated that she wanted to spend time on her computer rather than hiking and that he had been yelling at her. She felt he didn’t believe in her dreams of becoming a successful travel blogger. Additional body cam footage released more recently showed Laundrie saying that Petito tended to “swing at him” when she was mad.
Both said they were in love and didn’t want to press any charges. Police let the pair go after they agreed to spend the night apart so they could cool down. Petito’s body would be found Sept. 19, and Laundrie’s body was found in a Florida nature preserve in a case of what many are speculating was murder-suicide.
Pickett said she feels it’s important everyone be educated about domestic violence, not just those enmeshed in an unhealthy relationship.
“People need to be aware of the signs of domestic violence so they’re able to be a good bystander and speak up if they see something,” she said.
According to the Dove Center website, common red flags include explosive anger on the part of the abuser, as well as verbal abuse and controlling behavior, and the victim often makes excuses for their partner’s abusive behavior.
While it’s evident things had become physically abusive between Petito and Laundrie, Pickett said not all victims have bruises.
“Toxic relationships can include emotional, financial and even religious abuse,” she said, adding that this treatment can be just as damaging. It can also escalate to physical abuse.
‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’
Another issue of concern among victim advocates regarding Petito’s case has been dubbed “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” which posits that when a white woman disappears or is killed, it’s more heavily reported by the media than when a woman of color shares a similar fate.
Glenna Beyer, development and fundraising director at the Dove Center, says the phenomenon is real. Beyer cited another recent victim of domestic violence, 38-year-old Gabriela Sifuentes Castilla, a Hispanic woman who was fatally shot at her home in Taylorsville, Utah, on Oct. 17 by her ex-fiancé, Manuel Omar Burciada-Perea. Police are working to locate the gunman, who they believe has fled to Mexico; however, the case received far less attention than Petito. It’s an omission Beyer says bothers her.
Numbers show there is a particularly troubling epidemic of indigenous women going missing. For instance, 62-year-old Navajo rug weaver Ella Mae Begay disappeared Sept. 21 in Tooele, Utah, but the case has drawn little media attention.
In 2016, the Urban Indian Health Institute published the results of one of the most comprehensive studies undertaken about missing American Indian and Alaskan Native women and girls. The institute noted that while there were 5,712 reports of missing indigenous women and girls in the United States in 2016, only 116 of those cases were logged into the Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database, NamUS.
Leah Salgato, deputy director of IllumiNative, a social justice organization led by Native American women, spoke about the problem in a recent Associated Press story.
“So much of who we care about and what we care about is curated in ways that disadvantage people of color and indigenous people in particular,” Salgato said.
Mike Nelson, assistant director of the Dixie State University Multicultural and Inclusion Center and adviser to the college’s Native American Student Association, said he believes some indigenous women are going missing because of human trafficking.
“Girls are being lured away from low social economic conditions or domestic violence,” Nelson said. “Many of the cases are domestic abuse situations that are just unreported.”
As far as the scant media coverage, he said he believes there are other factors at play along with the so-called Missing White Woman Syndrome, including a lack of accurate data collection.
“If there is an unknown deceased victim, it may be difficult to identify race,” he said, “and in some cases, race is defaulted to Caucasian.”
Nelson continued to say that many Natives’ historical mistrust in government and law enforcement keeps them from involving the police or reporting the disappearance.
“Other times, a woman may leave, and it is not reported, because they think she will return in time.”
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