In August of 2021, Moab City police officers responded to a report of a possible domestic dispute between a man and a woman outside of Moonflower Market. The incident received national attention months later, after the woman involved in the dispute—Gabby Petito—was found murdered near a national park in Wyoming, and the man—Brian Laundrie—was missing.
Investigators considered Laundrie a person of interest in the case; he was later found dead by suicide in Florida. In the weeks before that, body camera footage of two Moab Police Officers’ handling of the engaged couple’s conflict in Moab was made public.
A formal complaint was filed alleging that the officers had violated both state code and department policy in their response. Moab Police Chief Bret Edge, who is currently on extended leave, and Assistant Chief Braydon Palmer (who is currently acting chief) asked the Price City Police Department to conduct an investigation.
The final report from that investigation, completed by Captain Brandon Ratcliffe of the Price City Police Department, was made public on the Moab City website last week. Ratcliffe found that while not all allegations in the complaint were sustained, the two Moab police officers had violated several aspects of state code and department policy.
Drawing on reports, body camera footage, interviews with the officers, and referencing codes and policies, the 100-page report analyzes the incident and offers a set of recommended actions to the Moab City Police Department, including putting the officers involved on probation and implementing more training for department staff. A statement on the Moab City website says “The City intends to implement the report’s recommendations.”
On Aug. 12 of 2021, a concerned witness called Moab dispatch and said he saw a couple fighting outside Moonflower Market, telling the dispatcher that “the gentleman was slapping the girl.” The reporting party gave dispatch a description of the couple’s van. Moab City Police Officers Daniel Robbins and Eric Pratt responded. Pratt went to Moonflower to contact the reporting party; Robbins caught up to the van near the entrance to Arches National Park. He pulled over Laundrie, who was driving, and questioned him and Petito separately. Pratt arrived on scene shortly after. Two National Park Rangers also attended the incident. Body camera footage shows Pratt and Robbins interviewing the couple and determining a course of action for about an hour. Petito and Laundrie separately reported that they had been fighting; Laundrie had scratches on his face that he said were from Petito hitting him. Petito said Laundrie didn’t strike her but did “grab” her face. Neither party wished to press charges.
Based on the couple’s stories, the report from a witness contacted at Moonflower (who was not the reporting party), and their observations, Pratt and Robbins identified Petito as the predominant aggressor if the case were to be handled as a domestic violence incident. They decided not to make any arrests or issue any citations, but instead to separate Petito and Laundrie for the night. A local service provider found lodging for Laundrie and Petito remained with the van in which the two had been living. Officers described the incident as a mental health issue and their report was later categorized as a “disorderly conduct” incident.
Violations of code and policy
Several of the violations sustained in the report stem from the fact that Pratt and Robbins failed to treat the incident as domestic assault.
According to Utah code, officers are required to make an arrest or give a citation in a case of domestic violence. If an arrest is not made and no citation given, officers must provide the victim in the scenario with written information on how to obtain a protective order, a list of victim services, and victims’ rights. Lack of arrests or citations in a domestic violence case also require a detailed report justifying that decision.
Ratcliffe’s report found that the incident was a clear case of domestic violence under state code and should have been treated as one. During the call, Pratt looked up state statute to see if the language allowed for the incident to be classified as something else.
Ratcliffe wrote that he believed that in checking the statute, Pratt both failed to read the complete relevant section, and misinterpreted the section which he did read. Pratt read that the definition of an assault includes “an attempt, with unlawful force or violence, to do bodily injury to another; or…an act, committed with unlawful force or violence, that causes bodily injury to another or creates a substantial risk of bodily injury to another.”
Pratt interpreted that language to mean that unless Petito intended to harm Laundrie, she wasn’t guilty of assault, and in questioning her, Pratt established that she had not meant to hurt Laundrie.
Ratcliffe wrote that Pratt’s interpretation of the code was incorrect.
Officers violated department policy in failing to gather a written statement from the reporting party. A second witness described the incident to Pratt, saying he saw Petito behaving aggressively toward Laundrie, but neither Pratt nor Robbins followed up with the person who initially called dispatch.
Moab City Police Department policy also calls for all injuries to be photographed. Robbins took photographs of Laundrie’s injuries, but did not ask further about Petito’s injuries: she had a scratch on her arm and said her cheek hurt where Laundrie had grabbed her face. The photos of Laundrie’s injuries were somehow lost, and not attached to the final report. Ratcliffe found the narratives in the officers’ reports to be lacking in detail and said Robbins’s report may have included his own speculation.
Pratt, according to the report, has about 16 years of law enforcement experience and has worked for the MCPD intermittently since 2018, with some of that being part-time. He returned to the department full-time in December of 2020 and was the acting field training officer for Robbins, who had no law enforcement experience prior to joining the department in May of 2021, just a few months before the incident.
Robbins was nearing completion of his field training when he responded with Pratt to the Aug. 12 call, but was not yet qualified to respond to calls without Pratt. Pratt and Robbins were the only two MCPD officers on duty at the time of the incident, Pratt told Ratcliffe in interviews.
Ratcliffe recommended that the officers be placed on probation; city officials said they could not comment on the officers’ probation status, as it is a personnel matter.
Other recommendations included an assessment of Robbins’s field training, to determine if it needs to be longer; eight hours of training each on report writing and investigation related to domestic violence; legal training to ensure officers understand state law; a review of the report approval process; a review of software used to attach photographs to reports; obtaining a witness statement from the original reporting party; and an overall policy review.
Ratcliffe also recommended implementing a lethality assessment protocol and policy in all domestic violence cases. Lethality assessments are evaluations that predict the likelihood of serious injury or death. The Moab City Police Department works with local nonprofit Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center to train officers to conduct such assessments, according to Palmer.
A statement from the city says it will implement the recommendations. Moab City Communications and Engagement Manager Lisa Church added in an email to the Moab Sun News that the department may also add other training options.
“This would include the AXON equipment that was funded in the December budget opening, as well as other opportunities that will be identified,” she wrote.
“Plans are in place to add a trained domestic violence specialist to oversee incidents investigated by Moab officers,” the statement adds.
‘Kindness, respect and empathy’
Despite the violations of code and policy, Ratcliffe wrote that the two officers treated Petito and Laundrie with professionalism, empathy and respect. According to Ratcliffe’s report, Pratt emphasized that he was deeply troubled by what happened to Petito later. He said he spoke to Petito the way he hoped another officer would treat his own daughter, and wanted the public to know that police officers care about the outcomes of their cases.
The city’s statement echoes Ratcliffe’s assessment, saying, “Based on the report’s findings, the City of Moab believes our officers showed kindness, respect and empathy in their handling of this incident.”
In a disclaimer near the beginning of the report, Ratcliffe wrote, “There are many ‘what-if’s’… the primary one being: Would Gabby be alive today if this case was handled differently? 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.”