Sheriff spokesman reflects on handling couple disputes, in the wake of Gabby Petito case

Oct 10, 2021

Credit Summit County Sheriff's Office

In recent weeks, headlines have focused on Moab police officers, after their interaction with tourists Gabby Petito and her boyfriend Brian Laundrie shortly before her death, which has been ruled a homicide.

Summit County Sheriff’s Lt. Andrew Wright talked to KPCW about how deputies respond locally to what are often challenging situations.    

For law enforcement agencies across the country, it’s fairly routine to receive calls of domestic disputes between couples. Officers are trained in de-escalation tactics and looking for signs of assault and abuse. But it’s an inexact science.

According to local and national news reports, Moab police officers on August 12th got a report of an altercation between Petito and Laundrie, who were traveling through the area.   The officers’ interaction with the couple was recorded on body-cam footage.    Charges were not pursued against either person.

Petito was reported missing in September and a few weeks later, was found dead in Wyoming.    Laundrie has since gone missing and is considered a person of interest. In the aftermath of the discovery of Petito’s body, domestic abuse prevention and victims’ rights advocates have criticized Moab law enforcement for not doing more to recognize danger signs.

Lt. Wright didn’t comment about the Petito case, but said officers take allegations of domestic violence very seriously and state law is clear about what they do if there is evidence of a crime.     

“And so when you go on a call where the parties are saying one thing or the other, but the deputy doesn’t have any evidence of a crime being committed, meaning they don’t see any marks on either person, there’s no broken property, there’s basically, a deputy can’t say for a fact that a crime took place based off of present evidence.”

He said in that kind of situation, officers do their best to see that all the parties are kept safe.    

“And that’s often done through separating the parties, providing them any resources, whether that’s additional housing, helping them get to a different location, stuff like that, if that’s what they want to do.  And oftentimes, law enforcement will encourage people—because if truly it is just a verbal altercation, they got into an argument, someone calls the police because they felt threatened or whatever, or whatever the circumstances are—we want to obviously provide them with an opportunity to kinda cool off, if you will, for the night, and hopefully go about their relationship with their lives without any actual crime being committed.”

Lt. Wright said it’s easy to be an armchair quarterback after incidents like this.    But it shows, he said, what a difficult job law enforcement can be.