Gabby Petito’s parents believe she might still be alive today if Moab Police had acted differently during a domestic violence stop just weeks before her death and are suing the department for $50 million in a wrongful death lawsuit.
Petito’s parents, Joseph Petito and Nichole Schmidt, announced the lawsuit, which accuses police of failing to follow the law and failing to protect the 22-year-old Petito during an altercation with fiancé Brian Laundrie, during a press conference Thursday.
“The purpose of this lawsuit is to honor Gabby’s legacy by demanding accountability and working toward systemic changes to protect victims of domestic abuse and violence and prevent such tragedies in the future,” attorney James W. McConkie said in a statement obtained by CNN.
Attorney Dick Baldwin said the lawsuit accuses police of “misidentifying Brian as the victim in this case, when he clearly was not,” according to People.
Petito’s parents believe the police department “intentionally sought out loopholes of Utah law to be able to avoid enforcing non-discretionary law in the state of Utah,” after stopping the couple just outside Arches National Park on Aug. 12, 2021, according to the suit.
“We feel we need to bring justice because she could have been protected that day,” Petito’s mother Nichole Schmidt, said Thursday. “There are laws put in place to protect victims, and those laws were not followed, and we don’t want this to happen to anyone else.”
It alleges that officers “coached Gabby” to provide answers that officers later used to “justify their decision” not to file charges against Petito or Laundrie and instead separate them for the night, according to The Associated Press.
It also takes aim specifically at Moab Police Officer Eric Pratt, accusing him of being “fundamentally biased in his approach” by “choosing to believe Gabby’s abuser, ignoring evidence that Gabby was the victim and intentionally looking for loopholes” to get around state law.
To support the allegation, they referenced an unnamed woman, referred to only as “Witness 1” who alleges that Pratt had a violent past of his own and once threatened to kill her after their relationship ended.
Petito’s parents believe that Petito’s life could have been saved if officers properly enforced the law and argued that officers should have been trained to recognize signs of domestic abuse.
The couple was stopped Aug. 12, 2021 just outside Arches National Park after a witness called 911 to report that he had seen a “gentleman slapping the girl” outside the Moonflower Community Cooperative in Moab, Utah.
Photo: Moab Police Department
The caller told the dispatcher that the couple had gotten into a white van and took off, but he was able to provide police with a license plate number.
Police pulled the Ford Transit van over just minutes later, with Laundrie behind the wheel.
After separating the couple, Petito told police that she had hit Laundrie first.
She also admitted that he had grabbed her by the face and pushed her, according to body cam footage previously obtained by Oxygen.com.
Petito told police that the violence had stemmed from an argument between the pair about her efforts to become a successful travel blogger.
“He doesn’t really believe I can do any of it,” she said.
Petito was deemed the “primary aggressor” in the incident but rather than arrest her they concluded that she hadn’t meant to harm Laundrie and opted to separate the couple for the night instead.
Weeks later, Petito was strangled to death inside the Grand Teton National Park. Laundrie—the only suspect identified by investigators—returned home to Florida on Sept. 1, 2021 without his girlfriend.
He then went missing himself and his remains were later found inside a Florida nature preserve, next to a notebook in which he claimed responsibility for her death. Authorities have said he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
An independent investigator who later evaluated Moab Police actions the day of the domestic violence stop concluded that police made “several unintentional mistakes” but could not have anticipated Petito’s death weeks later, according to previous reporting from Oxygen.com.
On Thursday, the City of Moab responded to the Petito family’s lawsuit against police and denied responsibility for her death in a statement to Oxygen.com.
“The death of Gabrielle Petito in Wyoming is a terrible tragedy, and we feel profound sympathy for the Petito and Schmidt families and the painful loss they have endured,” they said. “At the same time, it is clear that Moab City Police Department officers are not responsible for Gabrielle Petito’s eventual murder.”
They went on to add that police had responded with “kindness, respect and empathy” while talking to 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,” the city said.