In the days since Gabby Petito’s remains were found and her death declared a homicide, police have faced questions and criticism for how they handled the case.
Many are asking why Florida’s North Port Police Department didn’t obtain a search warrant for her boyfriend Brian Laundrie’s home before he disappeared, for instance, or immediately interrogate him.
Walter Zalisko, a former New Jersey police officer and Florida police chief, said the criticism is warranted “to an extent.” He said North Port police “did a poor job of investigating” Laundrie initially.
“Once they believed he was a possible suspect, or a person of interest, they should have stationed a police officer at his house for 24 hours a day until they had more evidence to secure a search warrant,” said Zalisko, president of investigative agency Global Investigative Group. “They should have at least had him under surveillance in a secret capacity. They have made a few mistakes in the initial steps of this investigation.”
A spokesperson for North Port police, Joshua Taylor, said in a statement: “There will be a time and place to explain why things were done and why and when.”
“This is an ongoing investigation and our obligation is to protect its integrity,” he said. “We cannot release details of our investigative steps at this time. Please understand, it is a process that has to be followed to ensure justice.”
North Port police announced Friday that they don’t know the whereabouts of Laundrie, 23. He vanished just days after police declared him a person of interest in Petito’s disappearance. His family told investigators he had gone hiking in Carlton Reserve in Florida last week and never returned.
In July, Petito and Laundrie embarked on a cross-country road trip to tour national parks in a white van, posting about their journey on YouTube and Instagram. The social media updates and phone calls home came to a halt in late August and, on Sept. 1, Laundrie returned to the Florida home where he and Petito lived with his parents, alone. Petito was reported missing Sept. 11.
Authorities found her remains Sunday at the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area campground in Bridger-Teton National Forest, near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
The case has gripped the nation. Lisa Dadio, a former police lieutenant and now the director of the Center for Advanced Policing at the University of New Haven, said the police are likely doing their best and shouldn’t be judged harshly.
“There’s always that instinct to criticize all aspects,” she said. “This whole search warrant, bringing him in for questioning — it’s against the law to do that unless you have probable cause.
There’s absolutely no way possible that we know everything that’s going on in this case. Let’s wait to pass judgment.”
That hasn’t stopped social media users from vigorously digging into the case, scouring Petito’s Instagram account for clues, and providing updates. One woman, Jenn Bethune, even reported to police that she unknowingly captured the white van in one of her YouTube videos.
“All of Gabby’s family want the world to know that Brian is not missing, he is hiding. Gabby is missing,” Petito’s family said Sept. 17, before her remains were found.
Kenneth Nunn, a law professor at the University of Florida who specializes in criminal procedure and police practices, said police “dropped the ball” by allowing Laundrie to disappear. He added that officers could have considered Laundrie a “critical witness,” and ordered him to stay put.
“They should have been watching him,” Nunn said. “Police could have taken the matter seriously and had him under investigation, under watch, to decide what he was doing even if they didn’t think they had probable cause to search his house or make an arrest."
Most of the police criticism has centered around procedural matters, but critics have questioned the way Moab City police in Utah responded to a domestic violence call involving the couple Aug. 12. Police pulled the pair over near a grocery store in Moab, about 140 miles southeast of Provo.
A caller reported seeing a man slapping a woman, and another said they saw Laundrie take Petito’s phone and attempt to keep her out of the van. The second witness reported seeing Petito tussling with Laundrie to get back inside the vehicle. The video footage showed Petito visibly distraught after the alleged physical altercation. An officer is heard describing Petito as “the primary aggressor” in the incident, but the officers decided not to charge her. In the end, the police decided to separate the couple, having Petito remain in the van and giving Laundrie a fist bump before driving him to a hotel for the night.
Women’s rights advocates said the incident highlights how ill-equipped police can be to handle domestic violence situations. Nunn also criticized Moab police for the way they addressed the incident.
“It’s quite possible when you have a male-female couple that the female could be physically violent to the male and maybe the initiator of the conflict, but more likely than not, it’s the other way around,” he said.
“That police agency had some responsibility to try to sort out the details and see what was going on and provide more protection to Gabby than what she got. There was a problem that allowed the young lady to be killed.”