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Strangulation not uncommon in domestic violence assault

Bodycam footage from the Moab Police Department shows Gabby Petito while speaking with officers. Photo: Moab Police Department

SALT LAKE CITY — Word that Gabby Petito died as a result of strangulation shines a light on a trend many people may not know about: in more than 40% of the deaths of women murdered in domestic violence assaults, their partners strangled them at some point in the year before their deaths. 

The role of strangulation in domestic violence

A 2008 study found 43% of women killed in domestic violence homicides experienced choking or strangulation at some point in the year prior to their murders.

Liz Sollis, spokesperson for the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, told KSL NewsRadio’s Dave and Dujanovic Wednesday strangulation not only happens more often than you think, it also may not always result in death. 

Read the study: Non-fatal strangulation is an important risk factor for homicide of women

“A lot of times, those who are strangling their loved one, their victim, are doing it to indicate that they have power over their life, and that they can kill,” she said. 

That does not necessarily mean someone used their hands to carry out the strangulation. 

“It could be kneeling on their neck, it could be a pillow, it could be a cord, a tie – like, it could be any tool that they could try to constrict that airway,” said Sollis. 

Strangulation does not always leave a visible mark

Sollis said strangulation in domestic violence may not always leave a visible mark behind, either. Often, she said, it leaves neurological damage in the form of memory loss or headaches. Bruises, if they appear at all, might be hard to see. 

“The blood vessels that rupture are usually above the area of constriction. So you might see it behind their ears, you also might see it higher up on their face,” she said. 

She noted many female victims become very good at covering any visible marks with makeup, feeling shame or blaming themselves for the assault. 

Importantly, Sollis also pointed out many victims don’t realize they’ve been strangled. Therefore, law enforcement must ask the question in many different ways to determine someone’s risk. 

“People may not know the term strangulation, so ‘choked’ makes more sense,” she said. “Asking in a variety of ways, like ‘Did they strangle you, did they choke you? Have they ever tried to do anything that would cut off your breathing?’ So that people can go, ‘Oh, yeah. Actually, that one time they did put the pillow on me but they said they were just playing, but I couldn’t breathe.'” 

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Domestic violence resources

If you or somebody you know are experiencing trouble linked to domestic violence, the following resources are available to you.

Utah Domestic Violence LINKLine
1-800-897-LINK (5465)

If LINKLine advocates are experiencing an increased call volume, calls will be forwarded to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

National Domestic Violence Hotline
1-800-799-SAFE (7233)

StrongHearts Native Helpline
1-844-762-8483

Why is KSL NewsRadio covering this?

Domestic violence is an issue that affects Utah even more than residents of other states. We think it's important to learn more so we can help be a part of the solution.

Where did the idea come from?

When high profile stories happen in the news, they often inspire our listeners to ask really good questions. In this case, we heard from people who wanted to know whether the cause of Gabby Petito's death could teach us more about how to prevent domestic violence. We were just as surprised as you likely are to learn about the role of non-fatal strangulation in domestic abuse.

How did KSL report the story?

Just like you, when we want to know the answer to a question, we usually start with a search. Sometimes that means going online, but more often, we reach out to experts to get their input. In this case, we interviewed advocates in domestic violence prevention to learn more about the phenomenon.

I have an idea for a future in-depth report. How do I tell you about it?

We would love to hear your ideas. You can email our team at radionews@ksl.com. If you are hoping to reach a specific member of our team, you can also contact them directly through our bios, here.