VENICE, Fla. (WFLA) — As the civil trial between the parents of Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie looms, perhaps no pre-trial decision will be more consequential than whether the “burn after reading” letter will be permissible as evidence.
The letter, written to Brian by his mother Roberta Laundrie, has become the focus of a civil lawsuit filed against the Laundries by Gabby’s parents, Joe Petito and Nichole Schmidt.
Petito and Schmidt are suing the Laundries for allegedly knowing their son had murdered Petito and doing nothing but have their attorney issue a statement expressing hope that Petito would be found.
Here is everything we know about the letter:
Petito attorney: Letter makes mention of a shovel, burying a body
The letter’s existence first came to light in June 2022 when NewsNation affiliate WFLA Now’s JB Biunno spoke to Petito attorney Pat Reilly after the release of Brian Laundrie’s notebook confession.
“There’s some pretty extreme things she said in [the letter] that, without having the letter here to quote it I don’t want to say, but I will simply tell you that there’s some pretty extreme things that were contained within that letter,” Reilly told WFLA.com on June 24, 2022.
In December, Reilly filed court documents seeking the letter in the discovery process ahead of trial. Reilly says the letter makes references to a shovel, burying a body, and helping Brian get out of prison.
“The request certainly would also include the note that Roberta Laundrie wrote to Brian Laundrie in which she offered to bring a shovel to help bury the body,” Reilly said in a letter to Laundrie attorney Matthew Luka, which was filed in a Sarasota County court.
The letter was released by the FBI and still exists
The letter was gathered by the FBI in their investigation into Petito’s death and Laundrie’s suicide. Reilly says Roberta’s letter was received by Brian and was found in his backpack.
Laundrie attorney Steven Bertolino, who has been added as a co-defendant to the lawsuit, has confirmed the existence of the letter. Bertolino told WFLA.com on December 30 that the letter remains in his possession.
“The FBI gave it to me and I still have it,” Bertolino said in a text message. “Don’t get caught up in the hype. Context is everything.”
The letter isn’t dated and Laundries claim it pre-dates everything
Both sides have confirmed Roberta’s letter doesn’t have a date on it, and the Laundries claim it has nothing to do with Gabby Petito.
“I have the letter in question but its contents are personal between a mother and a son. The letter has nothing to do with this case,” said Bertolino.
Bertolino has not denied that the letter makes reference to a shovel or burying a body. He claims the letter is being used by Reilly to sensationalize his case.
“Think it through. Do you really think such a sentiment would be casually let go by the FBI if what Pat Reilly wants you to think were true? It’s sensationalism to bolster his case,” Bertolino said via text in December.
Luka, the Florida attorney for the Laundries, has argued the letter pre-dates Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie’s cross-country road trip and should not be given to Reilly through the discovery process.
Unknown if Gabby Petito’s name is mentioned
While Reilly claims the letter makes disturbing references such as burying a body, it is unknown whether the letter mentions Gabby Petito at all.
Petito had a relationship with Roberta Laundrie as her future daughter-in-law and had lived with the Laundries in their North Port, Florida home for a time.
Petito was the focus of the FBI’s five-month investigation into the 22-year-old’s disappearance and death in 2021. As the manhunt for Laundrie was conducted by the FBI, investigators had routine contact with Chris and Roberta Laundrie, although their cooperation at the time was called into question by the North Port Police Department after it was revealed investigators mistook Roberta for Brian in September 2021.
“[The mix-up] was a direct result of a lack of cooperation from the family early on in this investigation,” North Port Police spokesman Josh Taylor said in October 2021.
Petito was found dead of blunt-force injuries to the head and neck and manual strangulation in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park in September 2021.
Laundrie’s remains were found in Florida’s Carlton Reserve in October 2021. His cause of death was later revealed as a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Envelope read “burn after reading,” but letter was not incriminating to the FBI
In June 2022, Reilly and Bertolino met with the FBI in Tampa to receive belongings gathered over the course of the investigation. The evidence, reviewed by both attorneys before being returned to the respective families, included Roberta’s letter to Brian, which was given to Bertolino.
Reilly says the letter was found in an envelope labeled, “burn after reading,” but was found intact. He says the letter and envelope were found in the backpack collected by the FBI near Brian Laundrie’s remains in the Carlton Reserve in October 2021.
Although the letter was in the FBI’s possession for months, the Petito and Laundrie investigation ended in January 2022 without any charges being filed against Chris or Roberta Laundrie.
Three ways the letter could be released
There are three ways Roberta’s letter could be released, even though Bertolino claims its contents are not connected to the Petito case and are personal between a mother and son.
The first way would be through the discovery process in the civil lawsuit against the Laundries. Reilly’s initial request for the letter was denied by Judge Danielle Brewer last week due to a technicality in the filing and the letter being undated.
“[Judge Brewer] decided that based on attorney Luka’s representation that the letter was written outside of the dates that I requested the documents, she was not going to order that it be provided, but she said I should submit a new request specifically for the letter,” said Reilly.
Reilly has said he will be following a second request for the letter, but it will likely have to be heard in a separate court hearing at a later date.
The second way the letter could be released is by the federal government. Reilly, as well as WFLA.com and other media outlets, have submitted FOIA requests for evidence gathered by the FBI during their investigation. Reilly could release the letter if a copy of it is provided to him ahead of trial.
The third and most unlikely means of the letter being released is the Laundries deciding to release it themselves. Chris and Roberta Laundrie have not spoken outside of statements issued by their attorneys since Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie’s deaths, making it extremely unlikely they would release the letter on their own.
Why the letter may never be released
If Judge Brewer rules against the letter being given to Petito and Schmidt as part of the discovery process and that ruling is upheld in court, the letter’s contents may not be permissible in any form during the civil trial.
The Laundries, through their attorneys, have taken action to ensure the letter’s exact contents remain private. Reilly says he has received correspondence from the Laundries’ attorneys containing threats of suing him for defamation should he further request a copy of the letter.
Additionally, the results of the FOIA requests are not guaranteed to include a copy of the letter. FOIA results often contain redactions, per federal law, of evidence that is not meant for public view.
What’s next in the Petito-Schmidt v. Laundrie lawsuit
Reilly says he is filing a new motion with Judge Brewer to request a copy of the letter be given to him through the discovery process. A hearing on that motion has not yet been scheduled.
Court documents show Bertolino has been served with the lawsuit after Judge Brewer ruled in favor of adding the longtime Laundrie family attorney to the lawsuit as a co-defendant. It is unknown whether he will attempt to appeal Judge Brewer’s ruling.
The civil trial, which will be heard in front of a jury, is scheduled to begin in August 2023 in Sarasota County.