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Manual strangulation is the biggest sign domestic abuse will turn deadly, experts say

Advocates say the Gabby Petito case reiterates a point they have long been trying to make: If they strangle you, they will likely kill you.

On Tuesday, a Wyoming coroner announced Gabby Petito was strangled to death. While authorities have not yet charged anyone with the 22-year-old's murder — her now-missing fiancé has been named "a person of interest" — this most recent development in the Petito homicide case follows weeks of speculation that she was a victim of domestic abuse

Authorities have not confirmed that information. But just weeks before her death, a man who called 911 told Moab police he saw Brian Laundrie slapping Petito.  

Subsequent police body-cam footage taken from that day shows Petito telling police Laundrie hit her.

Credit: Moab City Police Department

The video, coupled with new information that Petito was strangled to death, has disturbed local domestic violence advocates, who say they have long seen a link between strangulation and domestic homicide. 

Sandra Ziebold is the executive director of Beacon of Hope Crisis Center in Indianapolis, and said she has seen an increase in victims who have been victims of strangulation.

Since the start of 2021, her organization has served 1,073 victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. More than 200 of those victims reported strangulation, or had neck and head trauma due to domestic violence.

It is a problem that continues to get worse. 

"Nonfatal strangulation has been reported in nearly 45 percent of attempted homicides in domestic violence situations against women, and 97 percent of victims are strangled manually," Ziebold said. 

RELATED: Gabby Petito case focuses attention on missing and murdered indigenous women

Her organization saw such an increase in reported strangulations, that they began collecting data on their own. What they found aligned with previous reports from researchers and law enforcement professionals concluding nonfatal strangulation is a leading indicator of escalating violence in a relationship, and an important risk factor for homicide

"That data collected, just time after time, shows that a strangler typically ends up committing other homicides. And oftentimes, just with the gun. Most often, even cop killers, you can typically link them back to having been prior stranglers," Ziebold said. 

RELATED: What can the Gabby Petito case teach us about domestic violence?

According to the San Diego-based Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention, a woman who has suffers a nonfatal strangulation incident with her intimate partner is 750% more likely to be killed by the same person with a gun. 

70% of victims who are strangled believe they will lose their life during the event, and indeed death can occur in just under 5 minutes. Loss of consciousness can occur in less than 10 seconds.

Despite the brutality of the crime, strangulation is not always a violation that can be easily seen.

"Sometimes strangulation leaves a mark, many times it does not. So someone can be strangled, and there be no external evidence, only internal. It could just be a hoarseness of the throat. And just from that trauma alone, they could later have a stroke and die, and you would never even know it on an external presentation," Ziebold said. 

RELATED: Central Indiana advocates, families remember 34 lives lost to domestic violence last year

The concerning uptick in domestic violence is something experts say is directly connected to the pandemic. 

Back in December 2020, Beacon of Hope spokesperson Jackie Bowman told 13News the center’s advocates saw more people facing some form of domestic violence since last year. 

“We have seen a remarkable increase in not the just the number of calls that we get, but the complexity we get,” Bowman explained, who added requests for protection orders were up 148% since 2019. 

RELATED: Indianapolis woman speaks about search for mother, says more needs to be done to help find missing people of color

At that time, incidents of stalking and harassment were up 66%, while domestic violence incidents where the victim is strangled by their abuser were up 212%.

At least 34 people in central Indiana have died because of domestic violence this year. 

RESOURCE: Contact Beacon of Hope here

Experts believe what makes manual strangulation a precursor to that type of deadly abuse we've seen across Indiana is that, in the moment of violence, a perpetrator has complete control over a victim.

The psychological trauma for survivors of having been controlled that way is one Ziebold said, can be severe. 

"Certainly those that have been victimized ... there's a lifetime of trauma, and we are focused on helping helping them get the care that they need for sure," she said. 

RELATED: Experts say 'Missing White Women Syndrome' played role in media coverage of Gabby Petito

Officials estimated Petito's time of death to be three to four weeks before her body was found Sept. 19 in Grand Teton National Park. 

Brian Laundrie, her fiancé at the time and a person of interest in her case, has not been seen since mid-September. 

More information about Domestic Violence Month can be found through the Domestic Violence Network and Silent No More, Inc.

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