My mother makes her living as a murder mystery writer, which is a cousin genre to true crime and has a lot of overlapping fans, so I’m familiar with its pull.

Humans love true crime for many of the same reasons humans have been telling ghost stories for thousands of years: We want to stare into the dark depths from the safety of our own home. We want to look evil in the eye through a window that provides us a protective barrier. We are fascinated with true crime for the same reasons we are fascinated by car crashes and train wrecks: It’s grotesque. We can’t pull our eyes away from it. We want to study it and dissect it and figure out what exactly went wrong so we can prevent it from happening again.  

When a girl or woman is murdered in real life, however, there usually isn’t a mystery involved. Depending on their age, the murderer is usually their father, boyfriend or husband. (Or ex-boyfriend/ex-husband: The most dangerous time for an abuse victim is during the process of leaving.)

In mid-September, a 22-year-old woman named Gabby Petito went missing while on a cross-country road trip. She was a social media influencer: making her living by showing the fun side of living out of a van and exploring America.

Social media was all over the case. Millions of tweets and TikToks and posts were dedicated to sharing theories about what happened to Gabby. The whole internet was hoping that she would come home. After all, that’s why so many people retweet, reblog, repost missing-persons flyers: We’re all hoping that if we just put someone’s face out there, maybe someone somewhere will spot them and they’ll be rescued.

Unfortunately this was not the case here: Petito’s remains were found Sept. 19. An autopsy confirmed her death was a homicide. The FBI is looking for her 23-year-old fiance, Brian Laundrie, in connection with the case. It’s true we don’t know exactly what happened yet, but available evidence strongly seems to suggest that this is, once again, plain old domestic violence with an Instagram filter.

Another reason readers and viewers find true crime compelling is there is usually some sort of hero in the tale who stops at nothing in the search for justice: a determined district attorney, a grieving parent, a dogged police officer. But here, in this very true and godawful crime tale, the police missed a chance to be heroes.

About a month before she went missing, Moab City, Utah, police were called to the scene of a “domestic dispute.” There’s body-camera footage. It’s horrible to watch, knowing that the woman – who, by the way, is several years younger than I am, which means she was very young indeed – in the recording will be dead in less than a month. The cops determined that Gabby Petito was the aggressor in the incident, and that Brian Laundrie was the victim.  

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. We all need more awareness of what abuse can look like: nobody is immune to becoming a victim; after all, nobody is immune to falling in love and forming a relationship. That’s one of the most evil things about domestic abuse, I think – it takes love and partnership, the things that set human beings apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, and twists them into violence. Anyone can find them trapped in an abusive relationship.

Race, gender and class privilege will not save you. What privilege can do is help victims escape. It’s a lot easier to leave a husband who hits you if you have enough money to afford first and last month’s rent on a new apartment. We need to pour more resources into domestic violence shelters, so that anyone who is being abused can find a safe place to go and rebuild their lives.

As a society, we can start by taking the taxpayer funds used to buy police officers weapons of war and pay them excessive overtime and putting them into building shelters and training domestic abuse crisis counselors. At the very least, all police officers need to go through dozens of hours of training on what domestic abuse looks like. The dynamics can be messy; a victim may have gotten physical in self-defense; knowing how to gain the trust of potential victims of domestic violence is vital.

Untrained cops should not be going to the scenes of domestic disputes to make judgment calls: The police officers who did so in this case failed Gabby Petito. And every year across the country, thousands of women (and, yes, men) are failed.

Here in Maine, where about half of our homicides are related to domestic violence, we are failing. And every October, we put up the posters and paste the purple ribbons and refuse to put actionable resources towards the problem of domestic violence. And so we continue to fail. 

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @mainemillennial


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