Petito family files wrongful death suit against police in Utah

Gabby Petito Case

(NewsNation) — The family of slain Florida woman Gabby Petito filed a $50 million wrongful death lawsuit Thursday, alleging that police in Utah failed to recognize and act on “telltale signs of domestic violence.”

The claims against the Moab City Police Department stem from an Aug. 12, 2021, domestic abuse investigation concerning Petito and her boyfriend Brian Laundrie.

“The signs and symptoms were there when the police interviewed Gabby, but they were not acted upon, even when Utah law required it,” attorney Jim McConkie said during a news conference Thursday.

The lawsuit names Moab Police Chief Bret Edge, Assistant Chief Braydon Palmer, Officer Eric Pratt, Officer Daniel Robbins, and 10 other unidentified Moab Police employees and agents, in addition to the department as an entity, according to NewsNation’s Utah affiliate KTVX.

The lawsuit alleges that officers were negligent in their response to those signs and that the police department failed to properly train officers to recognize the aggressor in a domestic violence situation.

The city released the following statement Wednesday, according to a report by KTVX.

Ms. Petito is believed to have died in Wyoming in late August 2021, more than two weeks after she and Brian Laundrie visited Moab and interacted with Moab City Police. At that time, our officers acted with kindness, respect, and empathy toward Ms. Petito.

The attorneys for the Petito family seem to suggest that somehow our officers could see into the future based on this single interaction. In truth, on Aug. 12, no one could have predicted the tragedy that would occur weeks later and hundreds of miles away, and the City of Moab will ardently defend against this lawsuit.

City of Moab statement to KTVX on Nov. 2 , 2022

Police body camera footage captured the Aug. 12 conversation between Petito and a Moab officer. Petito and Laundrie were on a cross-country road trip to national parks in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming at the time.

In the recording, Petito said Laundrie grabbed her during an argument, but she claimed that she started the physical altercation.

The footage was from the same day as a previous video that showed Petito was nearly cited for domestic violence, but police allowed her and Laundrie to leave separately. The fights happened just weeks before Petito was last heard from, and more than a month before her body was found on Sept. 19, 2021 in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming.

Brian Stewart, the Petito family’s lawyer, appeared on “CUOMO” to discuss the new lawsuit.

“The family believes that these officers knew what the law was. They knew that it required an arrest and separation at the scene. But that these officers looked for loopholes in order to not follow the law,” Stewart said.

“They ignored Gabby’s injuries. They ignored witnesses, the 911 call. It said that Brian was the primary aggressor, and that he had injured her. When she indicated to officers that he had grabbed her face, cut her on her cheek, they ignored that as well and just kept right on coaching her to say what they needed her to say so they wouldn’t have to do anything,” he continued.

Stewart said victims often will take blame for a situation just to de-escalate it, and that officers should have recognized that.

“Often the victim will take blame, will do and say what they can to diffuse the situation, and make law enforcement go away. But their duty is to investigate, investigate the facts, and if they had done that they would have learned from witnesses and the 911 caller that Brian was the primary aggressor. They would have documented Gabby’s injuries and asked her about whether or not Brian had hit her before. If they followed their protocol, they would have known that Brian was the primary aggressor. But they didn’t do that investigation. They were looking for a way out of the situation,” Stewart said.

Laundrie was a person of interest in the case and refused to talk with authorities after GabbyPetito was reported missing on Sept. 11, 2021. He disappeared two days later.

Laundrie’s body would later be discovered near the Carlton Reserve on Oct. 20, and identified the next day.

In January, the FBI confirmed that Laundrie claimed responsibility for Petito’s death through written statements discovered in a notebook that investigators found near his remains.

Petito’s mother, Nichole Schmidt, cried at the news conference Thursday as she looked up at a photo of her daughter smiling ear-to-ear. That’s who Petito was and how she is remembered, Schmidt said, calling the 22-year-old “a light.”

“We feel a need to bring justice because she could have been protected that day,” Schmidt said. “There are laws put into place to protect victims and those laws were not followed and we don’t want it to happen to anybody else. And it keeps happening.”

The family started the nonprofit Gabby Petito Foundation in October 2021. Its mission is to help address the needs of organizations that support locating missing persons. It also aims to help organizations that assist victims of domestic violence.

Anyone experiencing domestic violence can contact the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 800-799-SAFE (7233) or by texting “START” to 88788. Additional resources, including a live chat option, are available on the hotline’s website, which features an emergency exit button. To explore the site safely, it’s recommended that users regularly clear their browsing histories.

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