Gabby Petito was strangled by human hands around her neck, the coroner who performed her autopsy said on Wednesday.
Teton County, Wyoming, Coroner Brent Blue announced Tuesday that the cause of Petito’s death was strangulation, and a memo from his office further said she died by “manual strangulation/throttling.”
“Throttling generally means that it was done with human hands as opposed to an instrument,” Blue told NewsNationNow.com. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be, but manual strangulation basically means it was not done with equipment.”
Blue previously ruled Petito’s death a homicide, shortly after her body was found on September 19 in a remote campsite in Bridger-Teton National Forest. She was reported missing on September 11 but hadn’t been seen since August 27, when she and boyfriend Brian Laundrie were at a Jackson restaurant, where Laundrie argued with staff. The two had been traveling together in a converted van since July 2, and Laundrie returned home to Florida on September 1 in the van but without Petito.
Neither he nor his parents communicated with Petito’s family, who were desperately asking for information about their daughter’s whereabouts. Two days before Petito’s body was found, Laundrie’s parents reported that he was missing, having left to go hiking days before and not returned.
Laundrie has been named a person of interest in Petito’s disappearance but not a suspect, although 911 callers reported a potential domestic violence situation involving the couple two weeks before Petito vanished. The callers reported seeing Laundrie striking Petito, but Moab, Utah, police officers who responded to the call determined Petito was the “primary aggressor” and separated them for the night. Laundrie has been charged with bank fraud for using her bank cards to withdraw cash after she was last seen.
Domestic violence experts say manual strangulation is increasingly common in intimate partner violence.
“It’s one of the most frightening experiences that women tend to report in intimate partner violence situations,” Dr. Eve Valera, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, told USA Today. “It’s really about power and control. … It’s sort of of like saying, ‘I can take your life at any moment.'”
Valera, who studies intimate partner violence and brain injury, urged reporting agencies to begin using “strangulation” in non-fatal cases — the technical definition of strangulation is death by compression of the airwaves — in order to bring more attention to the problem. Women who have survived strangulation can experience a number of symptoms, up to a serious brain injury.
“There are likely more women who have experienced repetitive, or at least single, but probably multiple, mild traumatic brain injuries from their partners than professional athletes,” she said.
University of Maryland law school professor Leigh Goodmark agrees, noting that victims of domestic violence often refer to being “choked,” which she says is something that happens when a piece of food is caught in the throat.
“When people say ‘choking,’ it really does minimize the amount of harm done by strangulation and the intentionality of it,” she said.
What happens in a domestic violence situation, she said, is a deliberate attempt to minimize the flow of oxygen to the brain.
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[Featured image: Moab Police Department]