The apparent argument taking place on the side of the road was growing so heated, a passing driver called 911.
And when Officers Eric Pratt and Daniel Scott Robbins of the Moab City Police Department pulled over a white Ford Transit Connect van in eastern Utah on Aug. 12, they found an out of breath Gabby Petito sitting in the passenger seat, tears streaming down her face.
The cops directed the 22-year-old to come sit in their car for a talk, wanting to get some distance between her and the vehicle's driver, her fiancé Brian Laundrie.
"I'm sorry," she said, according to police body cam footage obtained by NBC News. "We've just been fighting this morning. Some personal issues." Laundrie told the officer, "It's been a long day. We were camping yesterday."
Police asked Laundrie how he got scratches on his face.
"She had her phone and was trying to get the keys from me," he explained. "I said, 'Let's just step back and breathe,' and she got me with her phone."
Robbins' eventual report stated: "The male tried to create distance by telling Gabbie [as she's referred to throughout the document] to take a walk to calm down, she didn't want to be separated from the male, and began slapping him. He grabbed her face and pushed her back as she pressed upon him and the van."
Sitting in the patrol car, per the camera footage, Petito tearfully told an officer that she had been "really stressed out" that morning and had thrown "a bunch of stuff" into the back of the van. She apologized to her fiancé for getting so stressed out, she explained, "'cause I have OCD...Sometimes I just have a mean attitude, but I'm not trying to be mean...I was apologizing but I guess I said it in like a mean tone and he got really frustrated with me and locked me out of the car and told me to take a breather."
That only made her more upset, she continued.
Pratt noted in the police report, according to CNN, that Petito slapped Laundrie, and he then "grabbed her face and pushed her back as she pressed upon him and the van." Laundrie had "minor scratches" on his face, while Petito seemed to be in a "manic state."
"At no point in my investigation did Gabrielle stop crying, breathing heavily, or compose a sentence without needing to wipe away tears, wipe her nose or rub her knees with her hands," Robbins wrote in the report, per CNN.
Also in the cam footage, one officer is heard saying to the other, "The witness says I never saw him hit her, I saw him shove her but I couldn't tell if it was an aggression against her or a defense against her...So at this point, from what—unless the guy's screaming that he needs to go to jail and did something to this girl—it sounds to me like she was the primary aggressor."
Robbins wrote that, as far as he could tell, the situation had not "escalated to the level of a domestic assault as much as that of a mental health crisis." Still, he suggested that the couple spend the night apart, which they agreed to do.
"I instructed both Brian and Gabrielle to take advantage of this time apart to relax their emotions," Robbins wrote, and advised them to avoid contacting each other until the next morning "if at all possible." He noted that he helped book a hotel room for Laundrie through Safe Haven, which aids trauma victims.
No one was arrested or otherwise cited, and that was the last the Moab police saw of the couple, who were in the middle of what for all intents and purposes was supposed to be a #VanLife adventure, chronicled on social media and their website, Nomadic Statik. The age-old desire to leave society behind in favor of a simpler way of life now fodder for travel inspo on Instagram, the hashtag was fostered some years back by a committed crop of live-more-with-less influencers who've turned spartan but picturesque road-tripping into a full-time job.
"They were holding hands, they were ecstatic about their rebuild [of their van]," Jaye Foster, a fellow traveler who was also living on the road in a tricked-out VW bus, told The Daily Beast about his interaction with the couple on Aug. 10 in Moab. "That's what I find so weird about the whole situation, is that they were both really cool. There didn't seem to be anything wrong whatsoever."
That was the dream, to commune with nature amid the most gorgeous landscapes this country has to offer, their only possessions whatever they could fit in the van. But the journey that began on July 2 ended for Petito on or not long after Aug. 27, the day of the last reported sighting of her at a restaurant in Jackson, Wy.
Her mother, Nicole Schmidt, said they last FaceTimed on Aug. 24 and texted the next day. The final text she received—an "odd" message, she later told police—from Petito came Aug. 27. According to the family's attorney, another text came on Aug. 30—"No service in Yosemite"—but they had come to believe she didn't write that. Schmidt reported Petito missing to the Suffolk County Police Department on Sept. 11.
"I believed she was in a place with no service," the distraught mother told reporters during a Sept. 12 press conference with law enforcement in upstate New York. "It was day eight, nine that I really became concerned and I figured she couldn't be off the grid for that long." She added that Petito "could be alone somewhere. She could be stranded somewhere in the wilderness and she needs help."
Her father, Joseph Petito, told The Daily Beast, "We had been in touch with her as she traveled. I'd speak to her once a week or so, her mom spoke to her two or three times a week. My son would talk to her often on Snapchat, FaceTime; my niece would be in constant contact with her."
Laundrie, meanwhile, had arrived back at his parents' North Port, Fla., home by himself on Sept. 1. On Sept. 6, Laundrie and his mom and dad camped overnight in Fort De Soto Park and all returned home together, their family attorney told NBC New York.
After Petito was reported missing, North Port Police went to Laundrie's parents' home to speak to him, but a police spokesman told reporters they did not see him and were told to contact the family's lawyer.
"I've got thoughts about the guy," Joe Petito told The Daily Beast of his daughter's fiancé, "but I can't share them...I would love to say more, but I can't."
Two women have shared accounts of allegedly picking up a hitchhiking Laundrie in Wyoming on the evening of Aug. 29; authorities have interviewed both and are investigating the alleged encounters. One, Miranda Baker, claimed in a Sept. 17 TikTok that she and her boyfriend picked him up at around 5:30 p.m. but he "freaked out" when they said they were headed to Jackson and wanted to get out, so they dropped him off by Jackson State Dam. It was only after seeing Baker's TikTok that Norma Jean Jalovec realized that she had given the 23-year-old Floridian a ride that night, too, stopping to pick him up at around 6:15 p.m. after leaving a church service.
"He said, 'My fiancée and I live in a van. We're traveling cross-country and blogging about our adventures,'" Jalovec recalled to People. She was busy blogging and working on their website, she recalled him saying, and he'd been hiking on his own.
There was "nothing extraordinary about him," Jalovec said, but he got "antsy" as they approached the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area, where he said his van was parked. "He got agitated when I said, 'Do you want me to take you past the gate, down the road?'" she recalled. "He was like, 'No, no, no, no, no. This is fine.' He said, 'Just let me out here. You can let me out here.'" He barely waited for the car to stop before he hopped out, Jalovec shared.
On Sept. 19, human remains swiftly identified as belonging to Petito were discovered in Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest, near the Spread Creek site. After an autopsy, the Teton County coroner ruled her death a homicide.
A Louisiana couple told CNN a few days after Petito was confirmed dead that they had seen a "commotion" go down between the young woman and Laundrie at Merry Piglets Tex-Mex in Jackson, Wyo., on Aug. 27. She was in tears and Laundrie, looking angry, got up from their table and walked in and out of the restaurant several times. A manager at the establishment witnessed the incident as well and called the FBI on Sept. 22, CNN reported.
Also on Aug. 27, vloggers Kyle and Jenn Bethune captured footage on their GoPros of the white van parked in the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area, about 25 miles away from the restaurant, between 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
"We figured maybe they were out hiking or they were just chilling inside," Kyle told CNN.
The last text Schmidt received from her daughter's phone Aug. 27 read, "Can you help Stan, I just keep getting his voicemails and missed calls." "Stan" was Petito's grandfather, Schmidt said, but she didn't call him that. The message made her "concerned that someone was wrong with her daughter," noted the timeline of events North Port Police compiled to get a search warrant for an external hard drive found in the Ford van, which was obtained by Florida's NBC 8 News.
The warrant noted that, in once-frequent communication between Petito and her mother prior to her disappearance, "there appeared to be more and more tension between her and Laundrie."
Hundreds of mourners joined Petito's family in honoring her at a Sept. 26 memorial in Holbrook, N.Y. Countless more watched the livestreamed service online. But there are still infinitely more questions about her fate than there are answers.
The city of Moab confirmed Sept. 27 that there would be an investigation into the police's response to the 911 call about Petito and Laundrie's argument following an outside complaint about how the incident was handled. The city said in a statement, per CNN, it was "unaware of any breach of Police Department policy during this incident. However, the City will conduct a formal investigation and, based on the results, will take any next steps that may be appropriate."
While the city noted that there had also been positive feedback, some sort of backlash was inevitable as countless armchair detectives directed their attention to every move made leading up to Petito's disappearance and the search's tragic conclusion.
"No one reported that the male struck the female, both the male and the female reported they are in love and engaged and to be married and desperately didn't wish to see anyone charged with a crime," the police report stated. "There were no significant injures reported and both agreed that Gabbie suffers from serious anxiety."
It remains unclear whether the officers were aware at the time of exactly what the 911 caller had reported seeing.
City officials stated, "We understand that individuals can view the same situation in very different ways, and we recognize how the death of Ms. Petito more than two weeks later in Wyoming might lead to speculation, in hindsight, about actions taken during the incident in Moab. The purpose of the City's formal investigation is to gather the underlying facts and evidence necessary to make a thorough, informed evaluation of such actions."
Police Chief Bret Edge said an "unaffiliated law enforcement agency" would conduct an independent investigation, noting, "We take all complaints seriously and we are committed to fully addressing these concerns."
And if Petito didn't want to press charges against her fiancé (both she and Laundrie assured Robbins that neither wanted to press charges, that they loved each other, the police report stated), or otherwise report any alleged abuse, the cops' hands were legally tied as far as arresting him went—even if they had thought something was amiss. Sadly, that sort of thing happens a lot.
"Sometimes you get evidence and they don't own up to it, and they're just lying to your face and it's unsafe, and you know that something more is going to happen if you let them go home together. That's a much easier decision to arrest," National Park Service ranger Melissa Hulls, who heard a call about a possible domestic assault come in over her radio and responded, arriving at the scene after the Moab police, told Deseret News. "With this one, I just don't think she understood how big a deal this was."
In footage from a second officer's body cam, obtained by TMZ Oct. 1, the officer, apparently noticing marks on Petito's face and arm, asks Petito if she'd been hit. "I guess, yeah, but I hit him first," she replies, demonstrating how Laundrie grabbed her face and might have left a mark. "Where did he hit you? Don't worry, just be honest," the cop reassures her.
"He didn't, like, hit me in the face or punch me in the face or anything," she says. Asked if she'd been slapped, she says, "Well, he grabbed me, like with his nail...I definitely have a cut right here 'cause I can feel it. When I touch it, it burns."
In body cam footage shown on 48 Hours, an officer is also heard asking Laundrie if his fiancée "takes anything," to which he replies with a laugh, "She's just crazy. No, no, I don't think so."
Ruth Glenn, president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told USA Today, "Their response to law enforcement is typical. She is very upset and blaming herself while he is calm and also blaming her."
The aforementioned 911 caller had told the dispatcher, per the audio released to news outlets, "We drove by and the gentleman was slapping the girl...They ran up and down the sidewalk. He proceeded to hit her, hopped in the car, and they drove off."
Another witness at the scene, identified only as Chris, wrote in a statement to police, per CNN, that the two were "talking aggressively at each other." Chris said he thought he heard Petito say to Laundrie, "Why do you have to be so mean?"
Hulls, the Park Service ranger and visitor and resource protection supervisor for Arches National Park, admitted that she had a bad feeling about the overall situation between Petito and Laundrie.
"I was probably more candid with her than I should've been," Hulls told Deseret News. "I was imploring with her to reevaluate the relationship, asking her if she was happy in the relationship with him, and basically saying this was an opportunity for her to find another path, to make a change in her life. She had a lot of anxiety about being away from him, I honestly thought if anything was going to change it would be after they got home to Florida."
And then she heard that a body had been found, matching the description of the missing woman.
"I honestly haven't looked at my body camera footage for that night," the ranger said. "It's hard to think about now because I feel like I could've said more to help her. It's hard not to second-guess myself, and wish I said more, or wish I had found the right words to make her believe that she deserved more."
"[As] with so many women, Gabby's story ended in tragedy," writer Lauren Wellbank observed in a Sept. 25 Huffington Post column, in which she explained how Petito's situation, as far as what she had gleaned through official, friend and witness accounts, reminded her of her own experience as a survivor of domestic violence. "And while we don't know all of the details yet, enough information has been released for people to start speculating about what was going on in her relationship before her disappearance."
"Everyone from horrified spectators to amateur internet detectives began analyzing every bit of information they could find," she wrote. "They publicly rehashed the police footage, social media posts, and Gabby's own words, jumping to conclusions and placing blame...I quickly found out who in my social circle thinks Gabby's problem was that she had a thing for 'bad boys,' and that she would have been better off giving a 'nice guy' a chance. I know who thinks she should have left sooner."
Still unavailable for comment as the accusations and assumptions pile up, however, is Laundrie, who according to his family took off on foot Sept. 14 with a backpack, supposedly headed to the sprawling Carlton Reserve, but without his cell phone or wallet.
Officers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission joined investigators in searching the 24,000 acres of swampland and wilderness, but they haven't found a trace of him yet. Duane "Dog" Chapman, aka "Dog the Bounty Hunter," is also now on the case, having volunteered his services. A rep for the reality TV star told TMZ the Chapman family has also donated $10,000 to bring the reward for information leading to Laundrie's whereabouts to $180,000.
The FBI now have his phone—which his family purchased when he first came home, according to their lawyer—in its possession, according to NewsNation.
Chris and Roberta Laundrie have told authorities that they have no idea where their son is, and they've adamantly denied helping him lie low—not when he was first considered a person of interest in Petito's disappearance and not now that he's the target of a federal arrest warrant alleging unauthorized use of a debit card and PIN number to access upward of $1,000.
He has not been named a suspect in Petito's death.
"The Laundries did not help us find Gabby. They're sure not going to help us find Brian," Richard Stafford, the Petito family's attorney, said at a Sept. 28 press conference, during which Petito's mom, dad and stepparents pleaded for help getting justice. "For Brian, we're asking you to turn yourself in to the FBI or the nearest law enforcement agency."
Nicole Schmidt and the others showed the matching tattoos freshly inked on their hands the night before: "Let it be" and "Believe" in script Petito, an aspiring artist, had designed.
"Here's the end-all," her father, Joseph Petito, said. "We need positive stuff to come through this tragedy that happened. We can't let her name be taken in vain. We need positive stuff."
It wasn't long before the viral response to Petito's disappearance started to cannibalize itself, the outsized attention paid to her story serving as a pointed reminder that, historically, only certain victims—particularly photogenic white women—have ended up with their faces leading every newscast. At the press conference, her father urged those who devoted so much time to his daughter's case to apply their online sleuthing skills to the forgotten victims. But the timeline of events leading up to her death are all too familiar to a depressing number of women from all walks of life.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in three women in the United States has been a victim of intimate partner violence.
Over the past several weeks, as Petito's story has consumed the media, local and federal authorities, and amateur investigators who've been piecing together potential clues in Reddit threads and on TikTok as if it was their job, friends of Petito and Laundrie have painted a picture of a relationship that didn't match the idyllic scenario on display in the couple's Instagram snaps.
"Never got around to posting these!" Laundrie captioned a photo of the couple kissing last October. "I'd die just to watch all of our memories on repeat, never loved anyone as much as this girl."
Friend Rose Davis, who met Petito when she moved to Florida to be with Laundrie, told CBS News' 48 Hours, "She'd let me know what they did and, you know, He'd make her breakfast. And it was always such a cute little thing. And they did cute little dinners."
But Laundrie had "toxic traits" as well, Davis said.
She explained, "When Brian wants something, he's gonna get it. And I don't mean in a physical way, he's gonna force it...I don't want people to say I'm calling him a full manipulator, but he'll manipulate the situation to get what he wants out of it. And, you know, he didn't want her to go out one night with me and he stole her I.D. because you can't get into the bar without your I.D....and, you know, this was really upsetting to her...You're engaged...It's not supposed to be like that."
Davis had seen the police body cam footage of a crying Petito, and she told 48 Hours, "I knew it was more than a little argument. She's not gonna slap him for no reason."
She was nervous about the couple heading off, just the two of them, on their excursion, Davis admitted. "I was concerned with them spending that much time together because when I was last seeing them, they were rocky."
As for Laundrie's whereabouts now, "He's good with nature," Davis said. "He can go into nature. So, my first thought was...he's in the woods. He's somewhere in the woods."
Ben Matula, a friend of Laundrie's who knew the couple when they were high school sweethearts in New York, recalled to People. "One minute, they'd be all over each other, the next minute, he'd be like, 'We're fighting.' They always had some drama."
Petito's friend Alyssa Chen described a relationship that could seem lovely but was also unmistakably tumultuous. "They had times they were toxic and times where everything seemed a lot more healthy," she told People. "They had very low lows and very high highs. But they really seemed to love each other. When things were good, you'd be like, 'Why can't I have a relationship like that?' When they were bad, you'd be like 'Oh my God, just break up and spare yourself from the drama and everyone else from having to hear about it.'"