When 22-year-old Gabby Petito was reported missing on September 11—just 10 days after her fiancé Brian Laundrie returned to his parents' home with her van, following a cross-country trip—the US immediately became captivated by her case. Now, nearly a month after Petito's remains were found in a remote area of the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming, officials have released her official cause of death: homicide by strangulation.
Teton County Coroner Brent Blue, MD, revealed the results during a news conference Tuesday afternoon, as reported by CBS News. Though Dr. Blue could not reveal many details regarding how Petito died (he could not say who may be responsible for her death, nor how his team determined her cause of death), he was able to say that, by his estimates, Petito's "body was outside in the wilderness for three to four weeks."
Strangulation occurs when external pressure is placed on the neck, blocking air flow or blood flow, according to the Family Justice Center Alliance's Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention. Though strangulation is sometimes called choking, that's incorrect—choking occurs when an object or foreign body (like a piece of food) blocks a person's airway internally, per the Alliance. Both are examples of asphyxia—when oxygen is cut off from the body—but strangulation is typically intentional. Strangulation is a felony in most states, per the Alliance.
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There are also several different types of strangulation, according to the Alliance: fatal strangulation versus non-fatal strangulation; and manual strangulation, ligature strangulation, or hanging.
- Non-fatal strangulation occurs when a victim survives an event in which they're strangled.
- Fatal strangulation occurs when a victim does not survive a strangulation event.
- Manual strangulation is when a suspect strangles a victim using their hands, arm, leg, or other body part.
- Ligature strangulation is when a suspect strangles a victim with an object, like a rope or shoelace.
- Hanging is when strangulation occurs as a victim's body is either partially or fully suspended.
While Petito died as a result of her strangulation, it's unclear whether she was a victim of manual strangulation or ligature strangulation.
Regardless of how it happens, fatal strangulation injuries usually lead to death through something called cerebral hypoxemia, a condition in which there's a decrease in oxygen going to the brain, despite normal blood flow, the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke (NINDS) says. Cerebral ischemia is a possibility too—that occurs when there isn't enough blood flow to the brain for it to continue functioning, per Columbia University's Irving Medical Center. Cerebral ischemia can also lead to cerebral hypoxia. Brain cells are extremely sensitive to a lack of oxygen, the NINDS says—they can begin to die within five minutes, and the longer someone is unconscious, the greater the chance of death or brain death.
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While officials have yet to press charges against anyone in Petito's homicide (Laundrie has only been named a person of interest, and charged with using her bank card, per CNN), Dr. Blue reportedly appeared to imply that Petito was a victim of domestic violence. "This is only one of many deaths around the country of people who are involved in domestic violence and it's unfortunate that these other deaths do not get as much coverage as this one," Dr. Blue said, as reported by NBC News.
Strangulation is "unequivocally" known as "one of the most lethal forms of domestic violence," according to the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine found that women who had prior, non-fatal strangulation events by an intimate partner were more than six times more likely to become an attempted homicide, and more than seven times more likely to be the victim of a completed homicide.
As of now, authorities are still looking for Laundrie, who was also reported missing on September 13. As they continue to wait for other specialists to aid with the investigation into her death, and for toxicology results to be returned, Petito's family set up a foundation in her honor. The Gabby Petito Foundation was created to give resources and guidance to families looking to bring missing children home, according to a tweet from her father, Joseph Petito. "No one should have to find their child on their own," he wrote. "We are looking to help people in similar situations as Gabby."
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