You took away my innocence, My hopes, my dreams, my youth. You took from me my very soul. What could have been, I never knew.

— From a poem by survivor, Lynette Gutwein

Blonde, creative, beautiful and Emily’s age, 22-year-old Gabby Petito took off this summer on a cross-country trip in a van with her fiance, 23-year-old Brian Laundrie. We now all know that journey ended in Gabby’s death. Her body was found in a national park in Wyoming and authorities are calling it a homicide. I can’t get the 911 call out of my head and how similar this young couple seems to Emily and her long-time boyfriend, whom I will call Rick, for the purposes of this blog. While Brian Laundrie is the main suspect in the death of Gabby, Rick never faced any criminal charges in relation to Emily’s death. In fact, the two of them had broken up about three weeks prior to her injecting herself with heroin that she didn’t know was laced with fentanyl. However, Emily and Rick’s volatile relationship was much like what I saw play out on the 911 call in the desert in Utah, prompted by a caller who says he saw Brian “slapping” Gabby and chasing her up and down a sidewalk. 

Emily started dating Rick at the age of 16. He was a year older and he was a drug dealer. It seems at the time, he was mostly dealing with marijuana. Naturally, I was extremely concerned about my daughter being involved with this guy. However, they were “in love” and she would do anything to see him, including lying and sneaking out. This is also when her regular marijuana use started. Rick once told me he “loved being high.” He also resented any efforts I made to intervene in their relationship. He was extremely disrespectful to me, sending me nasty texts and telling my daughter that I was crazy and always wrong. I told Emily that if a guy disrespects her mother, he is certainly going to disrespect her. My cryptic words proved to be only too true. I was terrified for my daughter’s physical, emotional and spiritual safety. 

By age 18 or 19, Rick had a record for dealing weed. But it was his control over Emily, much of it through drugs, that only got stronger and stronger. Just like in the case of Gabby Petito, Emily fought back much of the time. Emily and Rick engaged in physical fighting and Emily always took all the blame and responsibility. Rick took none. In typical abuser fashion, he isolated her from her friends and family. The two would also take road trips to Colorado and I always worried about whether or not she would return. One morning when she was 20, Emily showed up at my door with a swollen, bruised nose with a band-aid on it. She told me her nose was broken. When I asked her what happened, she told me she had fallen in the bathroom the night before and her face had hit the bathtub. She said she had gone to the doctor, but there was nothing they could really do. My intuition told me her story was a lie and I asked her directly if Rick had broken her nose. She vehemently denied it. 

Emily following surgery for her broken nose January 28, 2017.

I proceeded to get her into an ear, nose and throat doctor, followed by a plastic surgeon who said he could fix her broken nose. I took her to surgery and back to my house where she became violently ill coming off anesthesia. Once she was feeling a little better, she seemed anxious to leave my house and go back to Rick. I never got her to admit that Rick had abused her. However, after her death, I met with someone Emily had confided in and she confirmed that indeed, Rick had broken her nose. Emily said the two had used drugs, were in bed and had started fighting. Rick broke her nose during the squabble. In my heart, I always knew that was the truth. 

Perhaps the saddest story I heard after Emily’s death was what happened on her 21st birthday. This was recounted to me by her friend, Lisa, who picked Emily up that day from the apartment she shared with her boyfriend. Rick and Emily had been fighting and he poured water on her computer and ripped up the watercolor painting she had been working on. Her friend told me that Emily did “H” to feel better, but started feeling sick and began crying, so Lisa took her back to Rick. She was dead less than two months later. 

Three weeks before her death, Emily and Rick broke up. I was so relieved and felt I finally may have a chance to get Emily the help she needed. Rick’s clutches on her were so strong that I could never penetrate through them. She had started dating a new guy and I figured it was just a rebound relationship. This guy had been Rick’s friend, but I didn’t know much about him. I found out after her death that the new guy was using heroin too. Eventually, he faced federal charges in another fentanyl death, which I wrote about that in a previous blog that you can read here. 

To this day I struggle with Emily being in an abusive and controlling relationship and my helplessness in the face of it. I know all about abusive relationships. My college boyfriend reminded me so much of Rick. He was controlling and abusive, slapping me, breaking my possessions, and driving off, stranding me in a remote area after a fight. Eventually, he hit me so hard, he broke my eardrum. I remember seeing a male doctor who looked at me compassionately and told me, “nobody should ever do this to you.” I believed him and although it took a couple more years for me to get out of that relationship, I finally was able to make the break from my abuser at age 22. 

That’s the exact age of Gabby Petito. As I watched the 911 tape of the incident in the desert, I wanted to cry. It was the kind of scene that played out in my own life as a young woman and in Emily’s life. The abuser always remains calm and the frantic woman appears crazy. Our abusers make us believe we are crazy and we do feel out of control. While it appears that Gabby’s boyfriend was involved in her death, Rick did not outright kill Emily. However, he did provide her with drugs and controlled her since the age of 16. At the same time, I know that  Emily must own her addiction–no one person can be blamed. I also struggle because I know forgiveness is necessary for my own healing. Logically I know that nothing will bring Emily back and I can’t rewrite the past.

Rick has been in trouble for drugs a couple more times since Emily’s death, most recently for a DUI, where fentanyl was in his system—fentanyl! I don’t know if he will overdose too or eventually get help. I have no idea if he feels any sorrow, responsibility, or guilt. However, most of all, while I seem to be able to forgive so many in my life, I have not been able to forgive him. I’m going to keep working on it. 

Faith, Hope & Courage,

Angela