Gabby Petito’s parents have filed a wrongful death claim against Moab, Utah, police, accusing officers of failing to recognize their daughter as a victim of domestic violence, which they said led to her death.
“We believe that these officers were negligent, and that their negligence contributed to the cause of Gabby’s death,” attorney Brian Stewart said at a press conference on Monday.
The family is seeking $50 million from the department, its assistant chief, and the officers who stopped Petito and her fiancé Brian Laundrie two weeks before Laundrie killed her. The claim, which is a precursor to a lawsuit, argues that the mistakes the officers made as well as the failure of the department to train its staff on domestic violence investigations amounted to negligence.
“While the full evidence has not been made public, when it is released, it will clearly show that if the officers had been properly trained and followed the law, Gabby would still be alive today,” attorney James McConkie said in a statement.
An independent investigation previously found that Moab officers Eric Pratt and Daniel Robbins made mistakes when they responded to a “domestic problem” on Aug. 12, 2021, between Petito and Laundrie. But, that investigation found, the mistakes weren’t intentional, and it would be impossible to say what impact they had on Petito’s death.
The 22-year-old aspiring social media influencer was traveling across the country by van with her fiancé, then disappeared in late August 2021, while he returned to his parents’ home in Florida alone. Petito’s body was found Sept. 19 near a Wyoming campground they had stayed at, and her cause of death was determined to be strangulation. As the investigation into her death was underway, Laundrie fled, prompting a massive search effort. His remains were later found in a nature reserve near his parents’ home, and his cause of death was determined to be suicide.
Though the independent investigation declined to say whether those events could have been prevented, attorneys for Petito’s parents said it was clear the Moab officers failed to recognize that she was in a life-threatening situation on Aug. 12.
Though a 911 caller had reported seeing Laundrie slap Petito, the officers never interviewed that person.
Instead, as documented in widely scrutinized body camera footage, they focused on Petito as the aggressor because she said she had hit Laundrie to get his attention during an argument, causing their van to swerve. Petito also told officers that Laundrie had grabbed her face, scratching her cheek, and that Laundrie had grabbed her arm, leaving marks on her skin.
According to the claim, a previously unreleased photo shows that the encounter left blood on Petito’s face and that her face was grabbed across her nose and mouth, potentially restricting her airway.
“When asked about her fight with Brian, Gabby displayed the classic hallmarks of an abused partner, attempting to take blame for the fight because she had hit Brian first and that she did not want to be separated from him,” the claim said. “Whether for lack of training or refusal to follow their training, the officers did not press further.”
The claim also questioned why officers didn’t investigate inconsistencies in Laundrie’s statements to them. The officers also misinterpreted a statute they could have used to arrest Petito, which would have separated the couple, the independent investigation found. Ultimately, the officers helped Laundrie find a place to stay for one night away from Petito and the van.
Attorneys for Petito’s parents said the officers’ handling of the incident is part of a chronic problem in the Moab City Police Department to protect victims of domestic violence. The goal of the claim, they said, is to hold officials accountable and prevent future tragedies.
In a statement, Petito’s mother, Nichole Schmidt, said she hopes the attention to what happened to her daughter makes a difference.
“I think Gabby’s story has touched a lot of people and she’s saving lives,” the statement says. “I get people messaging me all the time that they were inspired by her to get out of a relationship.”
“As parents we can never fully wrap our heads around our situation and what happened, but all we can hope is that Gabby's legacy and her memory will be a positive one,” James Schmidt, Petito’s stepfather, said at the press conference Monday.