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Domestic violence survivors share red flags to watch out for in wake of Gabby Petito’s death

In cases of strangulation, there's often no visible mark on the neck, which makes it hard to detect cases of abuse.

Domestic violence survivors share red flags to watch out for in wake of Gabby Petito’s death
Screenshot: bodycam footage/The Moab Police Department

Trigger warning: This story contains themes of physical abuse that some readers may find distressing

Cross-country traveler Gabby Petito was strangled to death and for millions of women, traumatic memories of physical abuse came rushing back. Petito's boyfriend Brian Laundrie had been involved in an altercation with her and was subsequently pulled up by cops after someone reported seeing him slap and beat her. The bodycam footage showed cops speaking to both of them and many women could spot the red flags from a mile away. Women are now speaking up about their own trauma to help others recognize red flags and empower them to leave abusive relationships. Kayla Walters, who had survived strangulation attempts from her then-husband in 2020, watched the bodycam footage and knew immediately that Gabby Petito was at risk of being strangulated and even killed, reported Buzzfeed News.



It was the manner in which Petito held her own face while describing Laundrie's attack on her, to a cop, that set off the alarm bells in Walters' head. "Just by her saying, ‘He grabbed my face’ ... A lot of people that have been through it saw that as a big red flag,” said Walters, adding that he could go beyond just choking her. Brian Laundrie still hasn't been charged with Gabby's death but the coroner did confirm that she was indeed killed by strangulation. Many believe Gabby Petito could have been saved if cops knew to spot the tell-tale signs of abuse that countless women could spot in the footage. When the cops left the couple, Brian Laundrie was "assessed to be at low risk of danger or harm as a result of his proximity to his fiance," reported CNN.


Women who have been choked know that being murdered from strangulation is not a step too far. According to a study by the Journal of Emergency Medicine, women who are strangled by their partner are six times more likely to be the victim of attempted homicide, and seven times more likely to be a victim of homicide. Women who have survived strangulation by their abusive partners believe crucial awareness of such patterns and red flags can help save lives. 


Kit Hunt, who survived a strangulation attempt, said she didn't need the coroner's report to learn how Gabby had died. The bodycam footage had revealed as much. Strangulation is considered one the most dangerous forms of domestic violence as the warning signs are hard to detect. It also leaves no external injury marks. Even in the case of Gabby and Brian, she had scratches but no visible marks to suggest her life was in danger.



Brian also did have scratches on his face, possibly from fighting him off during the attempt. Laundrie gaslit the cops by repeatedly stating that she had been acting crazy. Gabby herself bought into Laundrie's story and blamed herself. Gabby did narrate how her boyfriend held her face but Laundrie had painted a picture of him being attacked. Hunt believes that is also part of the problem. "We need to talk about how survivors are treated ... We’re not believed ... We focus on the crime, and then everybody forgets about it. We need more discussion," she said. The lack of visible signs of abuse also makes victims hesitant to call the cops for the fear of not being believed.



“Women are not strangled for the first time when they are murdered,” said Casey Gwinn, president of the advocacy group the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention. "They are always strangled multiple times before they are killed.” Even in cases when the victims are not killed, strangulation can cause various short-term and long-term health issues from repeated burst blood vessels, and lack of oxygen to the brain which may cause blood clots, stroke, and other brain injuries. A 2007 study found that women of color face a bigger threat of being strangulated.


One strangulation survivor, Liz Bailey, wrote an open letter to Gabby. "I know the fear you must have felt," she wrote on Domestic shelters. "That feeling of your heart beating too fast while your brain tries to plan an escape and accept death at the same time. I wasn't ready to leave my family or leave this life. Not like this," she said. Bailey did manage to escape from his clutches and break away from her abusive partner. "May your story of abuse, of strangulation, of death, be a beacon for those who still believe their abusers who tell them it's not a big deal, and who gaslight them into gratitude for still being alive," she wrote.



Gael Strack, CEO of the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention pointed out that strangulation in domestic abuse is a gendered crime. "Men strangle women. Women virtually never strangle men. When officers are well trained, we can prevent domestic violence homicides,” said Strack. A former police chief says Petito and Laundrie would have been arrested if the officers had followed state law, to the letter, reported KSL News radio. “We have to question why it was that they didn’t arrest both of them under mutual combat of mutual domestic violence [laws]," said former Unified Police Department Deputy Chief Chris Bertram. He believed that the cops were trying to solve the issue and not escalate it. 

If you are being subjected to domestic abuse or know of anyone else who is, please visit The National Domestic Violence Hotline website, call 1-800-799-7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522.


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