CRIME, POLICE + COURTS

National Park Service stonewalls public records in Gabby Petito case

Sep 28, 2021, 3:28 PM | Updated: 8:50 pm
gabby petito autopsy results to be released tuesday...
Pictures of Gabby Petito and her boyfriend/fiance before her disappearance

SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. National Park Service has denied two requests for public records filed by KSL under the Freedom of Information Act. The requests are in connection with the disappearance of Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito.

In a pair of response letters on Tuesday, the agency said release of backcountry campsite reservation data from Yellowstone National Park and ranger body camera footage from Arches National Park could interfere with “enforcement proceedings.” The National Park Service added providing those public records could “afford a virtual roadmap through the government’s evidence” and “prematurely reveal the full scope of the evidence that has been obtained to date.”

Related: Campsite planning app offers new clues in case of missing woman Gabby Petito

Both of KSL’s requests were filed before federal prosecutors last week obtained an arrest warrant for Brian Laundrie. He is Petito’s boyfriend and the man with whom she’d spent the summer of 2021 traveling across the western United States. Their vehicle was a 2012 Ford van.

A previously released search warrant affidavit revealed the van, which was registered in Petito’s name but most often driven by Laundrie, was photographed exiting I-75 near Laundrie’s home in North Port, Florida late on the morning of September 1, 2021.

Laundrie is currently the subject of a manhunt. Police in North Port have spent days scouring a swampy preserve searching for him.

Neither letter from the National Park Service mentioned Laundrie by name. The letters said KSL could resubmit its records requests once an undefined “enforcement action” was complete. They added “we are unable to provide you with an estimate of when that might be.”

Gabby Petito’s Yellowstone plans

KSL’s requests were filed at different stages of the search for Petito.

The first was filed on September 16, 2021 while Petito was still a missing person. It sought “reservation records for Yellowstone National Park backcountry camping site 4R1 for dates between Aug. 30, 2021, and Sept. 7, 2021.”

Related:  Boyfriend named person of interest in disappearance of van lifer Gabby Petito

At the time, KSL was attempting to discern whether or not Petito or Laundrie had made definitive plans to stay in Yellowstone National Park after departing the area of Grand Teton National Park. KSL had honed in on the specific site, which sits along the south rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, by analyzing information from a campsite planning app Petito had used called The Dyrt.

KSL’s review of Petito’s profile on The Dyrt had showed a strong correlation between places she’d pinned and locations she and Laundrie had actually camped in Colorado and Utah during July and August, 2021. This suggested Petito might have sought or obtained a backcountry camping permit from the National Park Service for site 4R1. If she had not, it might suggest her trip had been cut short, potentially at one of the sites she’d pinned near Grand Teton.

Gabby Petito The Dyrt Yellowstone

Gabby Petito used an app called The Dyrt to search for and review potential camp sites. Her public profile showed she had marked a backcountry site within Yellowstone National Park as a place she intended to visit with Brian Laundrie, during their cross-country road trip.

Petito’s body was subsequently located on September 19, 2021 by FBI and National Park Service staff near the Spread Creek dispersed camping area in the Bridger Teton National Forest, immediately outside the boundary of Grand Teton National Park. Spread Creek was a location Petito had pinned on The Dyrt app. It was an area of interest in KSL’s coverage of the search for Petito.

The Yellowstone backcountry site reservation data might still yield insight into whether or not Petito and Laundrie had intended to continue their cross-country road trip through Yellowstone National Park when, on or about August 30, 2021, Laundrie abruptly drove from Wyoming to Florida in Petito’s van.

Another perspective of Gabby Petito in Moab

KSL’s second request, filed on September 21, 2021, came days after the recovery of Petito’s body.

The second FOIA request asked for “any video from the Arches National Park entry stations and/or body-worn camera video from National Park Service staff related to the Aug. 12, 2021 domestic violence situation involving Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito and Brian Laundrie (to include body-worn camera from NPS ranger Melissa Hulls).”

Moab police were the lead agency responding to a 911 call the afternoon of Aug. 12, 2021 from a person who’d reported seeing Laundrie shove Petito during an argument outside of the Moonflower Co-Op. An officer made a traffic stop on the couple, pulling them over near the entrance gate to Arches National Park.

Related: Gabby Petito case brings domestic violence to the forefront

Body camera video from one of the two Moab officers involved in that situation, as well as the 911 call recording, had previously been released under Utah’s public records law. The more than hour-long body camera video showed at least two National Park Service rangers on scene, interacting at various points with both Petito and Laundrie.

The Moab officer in charge of the investigation determined after speaking with both parties that Petitio had been the aggressor. However, he decided the situation did not fit the definition of assault under Utah law. He released both Petito and Laundrie without charges, telling the couple to instead cool off by spending the night apart.

Shortly following Moab city’s release of the body camera footage, the Deseret News published an article focused on Arches National Park ranger Melissa Hulls. Hulls was one of the Arches rangers who’d also responded to the domestic dispute call. The Moab officer’s video showed Hulls was wearing a body camera. The Deseret News quoted Hulls as saying she’d told Petito her relationship with Laundrie appeared “toxic.”

National Park Service ranger Melissa Hulls is captured on a Moab police body camera recording from August 12, 2021. Hulls was one of several law enforcement officers to respond to a “domestic dispute” between Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie. The National Park Service has refused to release footage from the camera Hulls and other park rangers were wearing.”

This supposed conversation between Hulls and Petito was not reflected in the Moab officer’s body camera footage. The Moab officer was standing away from Hulls and Petito at the time. KSL sought Hulls’ video from the National Park Service in an effort to verify the comments Hulls made to the Deseret News. KSL also sought to glean additional insight into how Petito responded to the characterization of her relationship with Laundrie.

Related: FBI: Remains found in Wyoming belong to Gabby Petito

Two days after KSL’s second records request was filed with the National Park Service, the city of Moab announced it would conduct an investigation of its police department’s response to the domestic dispute between Petito and Laundrie. In an unattributed statement, the city said it was unaware of any breach of department policy. However, it added “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 Moab statement said the purpose of the investigation was to gather facts and evidence in order to make a “thorough, informed evaluation of such actions.” The National Park Service has made no such similar announcement.

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National Park Service stonewalls public records in Gabby Petito case