Let me start out by saying, I express my sympathies and condolences with the family and friends of Gabby Petito whose remains were found earlier this week in Wyoming as authorities are labeling her death a homicide.
I covered about three dozen homicide cases in my years as a journalist. I just learned that because of the Supreme Court ruling in the McGuirt case, a manslaughter conviction in a case I covered is being overturned. The boy in the case was indigenous Native American, but the convicted wasn’t. Regardless, it’s being overturned and the feds can’t prosecute because the statue of limitations have expired.
And I’m sure many indigenous people watched the Petito case unfold shaking their heads. This same week, Haitian refugees are being whipped by Border Patrol officers on horseback. Every homicide should be treated the same. Every disappearance should be treated the same. Every incident of brutality against another person should be treated the same.
But it is isn’t.
Sadly, I don’t want the Petito family to feel she was more special than someone else but that’s the way it’s going to be handled. People go missing all the time in this country. Some get a lot of attention while others are easily forgotten. There’s a case of Stephan Adams, who was a student at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla., when he went missing in December of 2004 after he reportedly said he was going to give someone a ride.
His case is still on the FBI’s website here https://www.fbi.gov/wanted/vicap/missing-persons/stephan-mitchell-adams.
I hope he’s still alive but college students just don’t disappear under the pressure to start over somewhere else. And the direction he was supposed to be going there’s a lot of wooded areas and even Tenkiller Lake. When I was working in Wagoner, Ga., a woman decided to up and move to another part of the state. She was fine. She just needed a change of scenery. I talked to a colleague of hers who said everything was fine.
In America, you can just relocate without telling people. I had a great aunt who got mad at some of the other people in the family. One day, she called and wanted to speak to my mom. Basically, the conversation was, she was moving out of the house on the same street my grandmother lived and she was changing her phone number and she didn’t want certain people to know where she was.
Unfortunately, cases like Gabby Petito’s happen too much. And they don’t get a lot of attention. Mainly, it’s because the people aren’t white or of high standing in society. I recall a case in which I was working in Americus, Ga., when I heard there was an Amber Alert for a minor who had gone missing. It came over the radio band one evening in the Smithville, Ga. area.
If you know anything about Smithville, Ga., and I would presume you don’t, it is your typical south Georgia jerkwater town where people fly the Confederate rebel flag just as much as the American flag. I called the next day to talk to the police chief, a huge bubba, who angrily was upset on how I knew the girl was missing. I explained I heard it on the radio. He then screamed at me, she had just run off with some friends and after some colorful language hung up.
When I was working as a night supervisor at Georgia Southern University, I sometimes was asked to accompany the University Police because they had to conduct a welfare check on students. Most of the times, it was someone who had lived a basic and sheltered life in a small town and they were either in a dorm room watching movies or hanging out at the Mellow Mushroom pizzeria with their new friends. I’m sure some of these students had their parents calling them every day.
This was before mobile cellular phones and social media. You could run off to the library to finish up a term paper or go to a club after a rough week without having some helicopter parent wanting to know your business. I had a college friend who would lie to his grandparents every weekend because they would insist he come visit if he didn’t have things going on that he needed to do.
While we’re still in Georgia, who could forget the case of Jennifer Wilbanks, who reportedly ran away in late April of 2005 only to call from New Mexico and say she had been falsely kidnapped and sexually assaulted. The media was all over it because she was a young white woman from an Atlanta suburb. Wilbanks was supposed to get married and they called it the Runaway Bride Case.
The Wilbanks case is a textbook example of “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” And that’s what some people are saying about the Petito case. In a way, they’re right. We see young white women and we think the worst. My post about What Lies Beneath is a movie where “Missing White Woman Syndrome” is a tool.
Looking past the syndrome, the Petito case should look at how we examine mental health issues in America and how toxic relationships are handled by authorities. I’m not pointing a finger at her fiance Brian Laundrie, but why has he remained silent?
To be blunt, law enforcement in this country are not prepared to handle cases of missing person, domestic disputes and mental health issues. So many law officers are like that one in Smithville just assuming it’s some kid who needs a trip to the woodshed for what she’s done. John Walsh said that when his son, Adam, was abducted and later murdered, the Hollywood, Fla. police just told them that Adam would return. He had ran off with some friends and would be back, authorities said. Adam Walsh was only 6. And there was nothing out there for people to know he was missing.
Law enforcement should’ve done more to help Petito in that police footage, but they know nothing about how to handle mental health cases. More people in this country are getting shot by law enforcement when they need help. There should’ve been more done in this case. Even in a case of Jeffrey Dahmer case where Konerak Sinthasomphone, only 14, was released back to Dahmer’s custody, after spotting walking naked and intoxicated in public. He was later murdered by Dahmer.
Mental health is an issue police aren’t prepared for. This is why we need more social workers or more law officers with bachelor degrees and more training. Police should’ve done their best to save Sinthasomphone and Petito and the countless other people who were released back to the people who more than likely killed or harmed them. I’m not criticizing police who step in when they see a child or a person in danger in a relationship. Unfortunately, their hands are tired and they have to be told something is wrong before they can intervene.
I’m sure a lot of cops would turn a blind eye to a woman or a child with a black eye or some bruises. I covered a few cases in which law officers were involved in domestic disputes and even sexual assaults. They are just not prepared for the all their job duties require. Worse, a landmark Supreme Court case out of Colorado, Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzales, indicates the police really don’t have the authority nor legalities to protect its citizens. So, that basically boils law enforcement down to hall monitors with guns.
Or like in the Border Patrol case, they’re just a modern day runaway slave patrol.
I’m not accusing Laundrie of anything. I just know it doesn’t look like he’s innocent. But we shouldn’t blame Petito and the countless of other victims of domestic abuse and violence of their crimes. People with mental health issues are preyed on by those who know how to work them. Generally, people develop mental health issues in their youth or part of some traumatic experiences when they’re growing up. So, they’re more than willing to leave one environment into another that seems better. At first.
If you’ve ever watched nature shows a lot, you’ll notice that the predators prey on the most weak or one gazelle or antelope that strays a little farther away from the herd. You’ll see them all at the watering holes not bothering anyone because that’s not the time for the hunt. And most abusers have smiles on their faces. They’re clean-cut. They wear nice clothes. They shop at posh places. They’re involved in community events.
And abusers aren’t abusers 24/7. I once heard of an abuser who hit his wife hard, very hard after a Thanksgiving family meal. He kept her in line for many years with only two words, “Remember Thanksgiving.” I’ve known too many people, mostly women, who were in toxic and abusive relationships. And they’ve told me how they “escaped.” They didn’t split up. They didn’t divorce. They escaped.
Earlier this year, a younger woman and I were talking on social media. She had met this older man who had money and wanted to be with her. But after a few times with him, she was ready to leave. She asked if she was being dramatic and overthinking things. I told her she wasn’t. This is how it starts. With her in her early 20s and this man older, he wants to control her. He doesn’t want to be in a relationship. He wants to controls the relationship. Relationships take work. It’s give and take.
With social media, you should notice the signs. Does someone stop posting a lot. Are they always tagged in a photo with the same person. Are they always together in the photos? And I mean always. Surely, someone posts a time they went to a Girls Night Out. Some people just don’t do social media, I understand. But there are signs and you all should be concerned about your friends and loved ones.
But it’s not the victim’s fault. It never is. Even if they are in more than one abusive or toxic relationship, it is never their fault. The abusers and controllers are the ones who are to blame. And it should apply to people of all sexes. We shouldn’t laugh at movies like White Chicks or The Hangover where male characters are in abusive toxic relationships.
We need only to look at the Jodi Arias case to see how these usually end,. The shows Snapped and Deadly Women show just how violent women can be in relationships. And I’ve known a few men who were in relationships where their female partners got physical.
I don’t have all the answers here. I’m a journalist who’s covered too many crime cases he wished he could forget. (And I don’t care for these online sleuths who treat true-crime as entertainment.) I’m sure social workers and psychologists have read more and talked to many people over the years. They probably can tell you a lot more of these signs than I can. All I know is what I’ve been told and what I’ve observed in people I knew who were in them.
So, we definitely need to stop blaming people for being in relationships. And I’ll be blunt, we need to start telling young boys and men that they shouldn’t treat their partners the way they do in these relationships. We need to start cracking down and getting more extreme laws passed that punish abusers.
Many domestic abuse victims, like rapists, never even get arrested, because their victims don’t ever report it to police. We still got people who believe they should be allowed to hit their wives and their children if they deem necessary. And unfortunately this is the result of decades and generations of domestic abuse being considered “child-rearing” or “marriage issues.”
If you do know someone out there whose been in a toxic relationship or think they’re in one now, please be there for them as much as you can. They need you. They need friends. They need family.
They don’t need critics. They have too much of that.