There’s so much I could say about the Gabby Petito case. This won’t be a recap of the details as those have been endlessly reported and dissected online. If you’re not up to speed yet, read here, here, and here.
As someone who has both been in and lost friends to domestically violent relationships, I’ve found this story extremely triggering. As someone who has worked at the intersection of public policy, criminal justice reform, and mental health for many years, I’ve found myself working overtime to balance all of the nuances I know to be true in these circumstances.
What nuances? Well, that things are not always as they seem, first and foremost. For example, we have thousands of wrongful convictions in our system, and every single one of them was placed there by police departments, prosecutors, judges, and jurors who were absolutely certain of their guilt.
Due process is often more of a talking point than a practice in our legal system, and my standing advice for anyone is to never talk to the police unless you have to—and certainly never speak to them without an attorney. Individuals are frequently lied to during investigations, tripped up, or even sleep-deprived. Coerced confessions happen a lot, and the system often convicts people—even in capital cases—with shoddy to no actual evidence.
So when Petito’s boyfriend refused to speak with the police, I thought that was the smart thing to do. Ethical? Perhaps not. But while the general public thought it spelled guilt, I reminded myself that I would do the same no matter what the circumstances.
But while I believe a person must be legally presumed innocent until guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, in my heart, I believe her boyfriend to be guilty. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. Given the details we do know about the case, I recognize many familiar red flags in their relationship. And I also see a lot of problematic responses to it by the general public and the media. Let’s debrief.
- Social Media Is Not Reality
Just like Americans can’t tell the difference between the fake cheeseburger in a Wendy’s commercial and the real thing, the vast majority seem incapable of understanding that social media is all marketing.
Like many couples these days, Gabby and her boyfriend left a tremendous social footprint. They had Instagrams, and YouTubes, blogs, and pictures—all that painted the picture of a happy, loving couple. We now know, given police reports and video footage, that was simply not the case.
But this shouldn’t surprise people. Abuse victims rarely advertise their mistreatment. And abusers often love-bomb their victim, pouring out public affection and working overtime to convince everyone that they are especially in love and happy.
Many abusers are also controlling and pressure their victim to present a certain image to the public. In my abusive relationship, my ex would get mad at me if I didn’t post our pictures. He’d often insist on editing my captions and would pressure me to make public declarations of love for him.
A couple’s social media presence is nothing more than the image they’ve decided to paint for the world. And in many cases, couples who are over the top online are masking deeper problems.
- Abusers Can Fool Many People, Including Police
Let’s talk about the video. Police pulled Gabby and her boyfriend over in Utah shortly before she went missing. They pulled the van over for erratic driving and hitting a curb, but quickly realized more was going on inside the vehicle as Gabby was nearly hysterical.
It would later emerge that a 911 call had come in shortly beforehand. In that call, a witness said Brian was slapping Gabby in the street, but it seems police were unaware of this event at the time.
Instead, the police treated their encounter with Gabby and Brian predominantly as a mental health crisis. Gabby can be heard blaming their fighting on her moods and mental illness. Brian indicates they had a physical altercation where she slapped him, and he restrained her.
The cops, to their credit, treat both kindly, separate them, and implore them to spend a night apart. These are common and correct protocols in such an event. But they seem to take it for granted that everyone there is telling the truth. And while Gabby is practically hyperventilating, Brian is cool, calm, and collected. To me this indicates a common subconscious bias stepped in. To them, Gabby was a hysterical woman with a mental illness acting out, and her male partner was the patient and rational person trying to deal with her.
This is one problem with leaving these matters to the police. One, police districts do a terrible job communicating with one another—a simple protocol that could drastically improve clearance rates and save lives. If the police who pulled Gabby over had known about the 911 call, they would have had a fuller picture of what was going on. Likely, Gabby would still be alive if those officers had taken further actions.
Secondly, the sad reality is that police departments are prone to abuse themselves. Nationwide, police officers continue to be some of the biggest perpetrators of domestic abuse. Thus, making them much more sympathetic to abusers when they arrive on the scene.
And lastly, police departments miss a lot of things. Perhaps that’s because there isn’t enough diversity in their ranks, leaving them susceptible to subconscious biases against genders or races. Or perhaps that’s because they do not receive enough training to be intimately familiar with the realities of mental health or domestic violence.
Either way, it appears police were fooled by Brian’s behavior that day, and misclassified Gabby’s. When I watch that video, I see a woman who is trying to keep her partner out of trouble—which is extremely common in domestic abuse cases. I see a woman who is second-guessing and blaming herself, a typical side effect from gaslighting and abuse. And I see a woman who is terrified and sees no way out of the situation. And that’s the reality, when it comes to domestic abuse there are no easy pathways out. You’re in danger if you stay and you’re in danger if you leave. Our current system does nothing to change that.
- Killers Rarely Seem Like Killers
I’ve seen many people remark online that Gabby’s boyfriend did not strike them as a killer.
I get it. I really do. We’ve all been conditioned by Hollywood, the media, and the police to see killers as monsters. This is intentional. When you see killers as monsters, it makes you more willing to give the government great power to combat them, and it makes you less concerned with how they are treated in the system. This is how we got to a place of mass incarceration, vanishing jury trials, little due process, and thousands of wrongful convictions in the first place.
I used to believe this narrative too, until I started working around the system.
What I found in prisons and jails were not monsters, but broken men. The reality is the vast majority of people who commit violence were first victims themselves. Violence is cyclical, and the dichotomy of perpetrator versus victim in our system rarely exists—more often, they are one and the same.
Perhaps that is scarier, that killers are just normal people who do something heinous. But it is closer to the truth. And it’s important for us to recognize for our own safety, and for us as a society to more effectively grapple with violence and the ways to cure it.