SALT LAKE CITY — It’s easy to see why the mystery surrounding the disappearance and death of Gabby Petito has gained attention around the nation. A young couple traveling the country, appearing regularly on social media in beautiful settings appearing to be happy on their adventures.
Then the video feed disappeared, only the boyfriend appeared back home, and he wouldn’t talk about what happened.
As Petito’s family reported her missing, police reports and body cam footage from Moab, Utah showed the couple in a very different light.
Fighting. Crying. Struggling to co-exist in a close environment, the veneer of the carefree romantics was replaced by something more real. And that reality spurred good conversations about domestic violence and the need for social connections outside of one intimate relationship.
It is a compelling circumstance. The stuff of true-crime podcasts and detective fiction. It’s easy to see why people are fascinated and why any new bit of information on the case draws viewers, web-clicks and social media engagement.
But another good conversation is also taking place. It’s about why this disappearance and murder have gotten so much attention. There are missing women and men in every state. The United States has more murders per capita than any nation with an advanced economy. Each one is someone’s tragedy. If it turns out domestic violence was involved, the sad reality is we have a whole lot of domestic violence murders in Utah, in the U.S. and around the world.
The late pioneering 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, says the phenomenon has implications beyond TV ratings or true-crime podcasts.
She passed the Murdered and Indigenous Women and Girls Task Force with HB 41 in 2019. It was in response to a meeting with a Native American rights group called Restoring Ancestral Winds.
“They told me about the epidemic and about the number of women who went missing who are indigenous to our state … and it horrified me,” Romero said.
Romero herself is Latina and Native American. She’s also laser-focused on curbing domestic violence, human trafficking and sex crimes through legislation, but she had been unaware of the issue that extends beyond Utah.
Missing and murdered indigenous women and men is also an epidemic in Wyoming, where Gabby Petito died.
A report released in 2021 by two commissions of the State of Wyoming showed the stark facts. Indigenous people are just 3 percent of Wyoming’s population, but they are victims of 22 percent of murders. Indigenous women who are murdered get less attention than indigenous men. Only 18 percent of such murders are covered in a local paper.
A 2016 study in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology authored by Zach Sommers showed the same thing happens with minority women and men around the country. Black women made up 35 percent of missing persons cases in FBI statistics, but newspapers and broadcast outlets gave them 13 percent of missing person coverage.
For Romero, the media focus impacted her as a young woman born and raised in Utah.
“In high school I read The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison and it opened up my eyes to this feeling that I had growing up because I didn't have blond hair and blues eyes and I felt invisible at times,” Romero said.