Gabby Petito’s case highlights racial disparities in response to missing persons cases

Sep 21, 2021, 10:25 PM | Updated: 10:44 pm

CHEYENNE, Wyo. – When news broke investigators had discovered human remains matching the description of 22-year-old Gabby Petito, Nicole Wagon immediately thought about Petito’s mother.

“For that family and the mother, you know, to me, that’s a blessing,” said Wagon. “You’re one of the fortunate ones to be able to bring your daughter home and lay them to rest.”

Wagon is a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe living on the Wind River Indian Reservation. She’s also a mother who can relate to the pain of losing a daughter and the agony of waiting for answers that are not guaranteed.

In January 2019, her oldest daughter, Jocelyn Watt, 30, was murdered in Riverton, Wyoming, along with her companion, Rudy Perez.

The case remains unsolved.

Watt had a big heart and made everybody smile, Wagon said.

She was musically gifted and “What Does It Look Like in Heaven” was one of her favorite songs to sing for people.

“It was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done in my life,” Wagon said, describing the day that her family played Watt’s favorite song and laid her to rest.

A year later, in January 2020, Watt’s younger sister, Jade Wagon, went missing.

She was found three weeks later on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Investigators attributed her death to hypothermia and drug use and closed the case, but Nicole Wagon believes the system failed her daughter.

Jocelyn Watt (left) was found murdered on Jan. 5, 2019. Her younger sister, Jade Wagon (right) was reported missing on Jan. 2, 2020 and found dead three weeks later. Their mother, Nicole Wagon is still waiting for justice.

Jade went missing as they were planning a one-year memorial for her sister.

“I know my daughter knew of the family’s plans, and there’s no way she would have missed this,” Wagon said. “So, that’s how we knew something was wrong.”

Wagon believes both of her daughters were murdered, and while she does not, in any way, begrudge the attention and resources given to Petito’s case, she cannot help but wonder why other cases are not treated the same way, and whether similar efforts could bring answers to Wyoming families who are still waiting.

In the aftermath of Petito’s disappearance, internet sleuths, national media outlets and multiple law enforcement agencies all worked to find answers.

“It is highlighting a disparity,” said Cara Chambers, director of the Wyoming Attorney General’s Division of Victims Services and chair of the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons task force.

“Why did Gabby’s case get so much attention? And again, so grateful that it did, but you had a beautiful young, blonde, white woman,” said Chambers.

In January, the state released a report that found 710 Indigenous people were reported missing in Wyoming between 2011 and 2020. And while Indigenous people only make up three percent of Wyoming’s total population, they account for 21 percent of the state’s homicide victims.

Researchers analyzed newspaper reports of those missing people and found homicide cases involving white victims were more likely to get covered, with 51 percent of them generating news articles, while only 30 percent of homicides with Indigenous victims were covered. That number drops to just 18 percent for Indigenous female homicide victims.

Wyoming issued a report in January 2021 about disparities in media coverage and community barriers Indigenous families face when a loved one is murdered or goes missing.

“What this study was also able to show is, even of those 18 or 30 percent who get media coverage, the way it’s covered, and the unfortunate negativity involved in the reporting – maybe the overly graphic description of a crime, very little personalization that’s done about the victim, referring more to a body versus a victim –  and you don’t see that as much when reporting on white victims,” said Chambers.

She said the way Indigenous victims have been portrayed could have a chilling effect on families’ willingness to reach out and ask for help.

“I think native victims and their families maybe don’t feel equally as empowered … or heaven forbid, have seen these years of articles of negative portrayal and certainly don’t want that for their loved one, so, you know, media, we have to do better,” said Chambers.

Incidences of Indigenous people going missing or being murdered is an epidemic, Wagon said. She knows too many families who are still waiting for justice.

“There’s more, many more, even after the fact of losing my two daughters,” she said. “So, there’s many families out here, I imagine, we’re watching it feeling the same way of, ‘Do we count and matter?’”

Wyoming’s January report listed ten indigenous people as still missing in that state, but Chambers said the numbers could be worse. Researchers ran into data gaps and inconsistencies and said there’s a critical need for meaningful, accurate and timely data collection for Indigenous people.

KSL Investigators reached out to state and federal authorities, but were not able to get an accurate count of cases that are currently open something Chambers said is, in a way, indicative of the problem.

Chambers said the state is acting on recommendations in the report. Those include raising community awareness about cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people and creating an Indigenous advocacy position to help families navigate the system when a loved one goes missing.

Another recommendation to develop consistent protocols and data systems for reporting missing and murdered Indigenous persons, according to Chambers, is still in progress.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

KSL Investigates

FILE: Back-to-school shopping (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)...
Matt Gephardt & Sloan Schrage

Gephardt Busts Inflation: Saving $ on back-to-school supplies with inflation

With inflation running amok this year, parents are tackling big price hikes on top of the stress. Fortunately, there are ways they can still save money.
2 days ago
Matt Gephardt & Sloan Schrage, KSL TV

KSL Investigators help bank customer regain access to his money after fraud incident

KSL Investigators help a fraud victim gain access to his bank account after nearly a year of being locked out.
5 days ago
Matt Gephardt & Sloan Schrage, KSL TV

What are the rules for airline travel credits?

After canceling a beach vacation to Hawaii, a Utah woman believes she has $1,400 in flight credits. Ongoing flight cancellations have plagued the summer travel season, and a lot of travelers are being made whole with flight credits rather than refunds.
6 days ago
FILE PHOTO - Shown are a smartphone and computer....
Matt Gephardt

Can a company pull the rebate runaround?

When a West Valley City woman took up Verizon on a rebate offer to upgrade but could not get the rebate, she contacted the KSL Investigators for help.
12 days ago
Daniella Rivera

KSL Investigates: How is Utah’s new self-defense law impacting justice?

Is a new Utah self-defense law improving our justice system or leading to unintended consequences? The KSL Investigators analyzed a full year of cases.
13 days ago
Matt Gephardt & Sloan Schrage

Utah home sellers drop asking prices as market slows from a frenzied pace

For years, Utah has been one of the nation's hottest real estate markets, but now it appears to be cooling as sellers are slashing prices.
13 days ago

Sponsored Articles

tips how to quit smoking...

7 Tips How to Quit Smoking | Quitting Smoking Might be One of the Hardest Things You Ever Do but Here’s Where You Can Start

Quitting smoking cigarettes can be incredibly difficult. Here are 7 tips how to quit smoking to help you on your quitting journey.
Photo: Storyblocks...
Blue Stakes of Utah 811

Blue Stakes of Utah 811: 5 Reasons To Call 811 Before You Dig When Working in Your Yard

Call before you dig. Even at home, you could end up with serious injuries or broken utilities just because you didn't call Blue Stakes of Utah 811.
Days of...
Days of '47 Rodeo

TRIVIA: How well do you know your rodeo? Take this quiz before you go to the Days of ’47!

The Utah Days of ’47 Rodeo presented by Zions Bank is a one-of-a-kind Gold Medal Rodeo being held July 20-23, 25 at 7:30 PM. The Days of ’47 Rodeo How well do you know your rodeo trivia? Take the quiz to test your know-all before heading out to the Days of ’47 Rodeo at the […]
cyber security through multi factor authentication setup...
Les Olson IT

How multi factor authentication setup helps companies stay safe

Multi factor authentication (MFA) setup is an important security measure that every company should implement for their workers. It’s also wise to install it for your personal and home accounts.
Lighting Design

Check out these stunning lamps with stained glass shades

Lamps with stained glass shades are statement pieces that are more than simply aesthetic. They also meet a functional requirement: to light up a room.
Address Bar of internet browser shows internet access...

Utah voters 50+ support increased access to Internet

The AARP surveyed Utah voters aged 50 plus about internet access and if they support the expansion of broadband, especially in rural areas currently lacking it.
Gabby Petito’s case highlights racial disparities in response to missing persons cases