SALT LAKE CITY – It’s easy to see why the mystery surrounding Gabby Petito’s disappearance and death has caught the nation’s attention. A young couple traveling the country, appearing regularly on social media in beautiful settings, seeming happy about their adventures.
Then the video stream was gone, only the boyfriend came home and he didn’t want to talk about what had happened.
As Petito’s family reported his disappearance, police reports and body camera footage from Moab, Utah, showed the couple in a very different light.
Combat. Tears. Struggling to coexist in a nearby environment, the veneer of carefree romantics has been replaced by something more real. And that reality sparked some good conversations about domestic violence and the need for social relationships outside of an intimate relationship.
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It is a compelling circumstance. The makings of real crime podcasts and detective fiction. It’s easy to see why people are fascinated and why any new information about the case attracts viewers, web clicks, and social media engagement.
But another good conversation also takes place. This is why this disappearance and murder have attracted so much attention. There are missing women and men in every state. The United States has more murders per capita than any country with an advanced economy. Each is someone’s tragedy. If it turns out that domestic violence was involved, the sad reality is that we have a lot of domestic violence murders in Utah, the United States, and around the world.
The late black journalist Gwen Ifill coined the term “missing white woman syndrome” to put a name to the intense media coverage and public interest in a case involving an attractive, usually young, white woman or girl.
Utah State Representative Angela Romero, a Democrat from Salt Lake City, said the phenomenon had implications beyond TV ratings or podcasts on real crime.
She passed the Murdered and Indigenous Women and Girls Task Force with HB 41 in 2019. This was in response to a meeting with a Native American rights group called Restoring Ancestral Winds.
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“They told me about the epidemic and the number of missing women who are indigenous to our state… and that horrified me,” Romero said.
Romero herself is Latin and Native American. She also focuses on addressing domestic violence, human trafficking, and sex crimes through legislation, but she was unaware of the problem that extends beyond Utah.
Missing and murdered Indigenous women and men are also an epidemic in Wyoming, where Gabby Petito died.
A report released in 2021 by two Wyoming state commissions showed the striking facts. Native people make up only 3% of Wyoming’s population, but they are victims of 22% of murders. Indigenous women who are murdered receive less attention than Indigenous men. Only 18% of these murders are covered by a local newspaper.
A 2016 study in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology written by Zach Sommers showed the same is happening with minority women and men across the country. Black women made up 35 percent of missing person cases in FBI statistics, but newspapers and media gave them 13 percent of missing person coverage.
For Romero, the media attention touched her as a young woman born and raised in Utah.
“In high school I read Toni Morrison’s Blue Eyes and it opened my eyes to this feeling I had growing up because I didn’t have blonde hair and blue eyes and I felt like I was invisible, ”Romero said.