Gabby Petito autopsy: Strangulation can be precursor to homicide, domestic violence, experts say

Grieving parents of Gabby Petito visit memorial for their daughter

The mother and stepfather of Gabby Petito visited a memorial on Long Island, New York, on Tuesday, when a Teton County coroner announced the woman had been strangled.

NORTH PORT, Fla. – Strangulation can “very well” be a precursor to homicide, as it was in the case of deceased 22-year-old Gabby Petito, experts say.

Teton County Coroner Dr. Brent Blue on Tuesday announced that Petito died from manual strangulation, weeks after the FBI uncovered the 22-year-old’s remains at Bridger-Teton National Forest, north of Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

“It is very important to understand that a non-fatal strangulation incident is an incident of an indicator that you are 750% more likely to die at the hands of that abuser,” Andrea Wyant told Fox News Digital. Wyant is assistant director of Hope United Survivor Network, which helps victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Wyant added that controlling finances and isolating victims from friends and family are “considerable red flags” of a relationship moving in an unhealthy direction.

Mollie Weakland, special events and marketing coordinator of Hope United Survivor Network, said strangulation specifically is the “ultimate form of power and control” for perpetrators who can control a victim’s ability to breathe and, therefore, live.

Steven Webb, Ph.D. — a threat assessment expert and law enforcement officer of 11 years — similarly said that “any type of grabbing, holding or another means of trying to physically control a person is essentially the definition of battery and should be charged by any competent state’s attorney as such.”

“Studies suggest that this type of behavior — particularly, non-fatal strangulation, makes you up to seven times more likely to be involved in extreme violence, including homicide, as we have seen in this case,” Webb said.

The law enforcement officer added that there are three main signs of potential violence: a high-stress catalyst, such as financial issues; testing the limits of a relationship after physical altercations; and the urge to have control over another person, Webb said.

Gabby Petito (Instagram)

More than one in four women who identified themselves as being in abusive relationships said they had experienced non-fatal strangulation, according to a 2008 study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). 

“Research has repeatedly demonstrated non-fatal strangulation and other forms of violence are important risk factors for homicide. This speaks to the importance of screen[ing] for non-fatal strangulation and other types of violence when assessing abused women in emergency settings,” Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, Harvard-trained clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University in New York City, said.

Strangulation can also leave more “minimal observable injury” compared to other forms of physical violence such as hitting with fists, Romanoff said, but strangulation can also “lead to significant physical and mental health consequences.”

“While strangulation is a relatively widespread form of violence toward women who experience violence in abusive relationships, it is important to recognize how it is a predictor for future lethal violence,” Romanoff explained.

Lizbeth Meredith, a former domestic violence advocate and probation officer who now works as a domestic violence educator, similarly told Fox News that strangulation “very well can be a precursor to homicide.”

Meredith, who is herself a victim of domestic violence and, specifically, strangulation, said the violent act “is considered to be a red flag of an extremely volatile abuser and now taken more seriously … as it can very well end in homicide.”

“It is truly one of the most deadly forces of violence,” she said.

Petito’s parents reported her missing eight days before her remains were discovered. The 22-year-old was traveling cross country in a Ford transit van with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, when she went missing.

Before her disappearance, Petito and Laundrie were recorded in Aug. 12 Moab, Utah, police bodycam footage following an incident in which Petito takes blame for hitting Laundrie, though she does tell police that Laundrie grabbed her face. In a statement given to Moab police regarding the same incident,, a witness describes a male — presumably Laundrie — apparently hitting and slapping Petito.

Laundrie, 23, returned home to North Port, Florida, Sept. 1 in the van without Petito, and her parents filed a missing person report on Sept. 11. Laundrie is a person of interest in the case, and his whereabouts have been unknown for weeks. His parents reported him missing to North Port, Florida, police Sept. 17.

On Sept. 23, the FBI issued an arrest warrant for Laundrie, accusing him of bank card fraud. Authorities alleged at the time that he used an unidentified person’s Capital One card and the personal identification number to charge or withdraw over $1,000 between Aug. 30 and Sept. 1, during which time Petito was missing. 

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