Utah Cops Blew Chance to Save Gabby Petito’s Life, New Filing Claims

Moab City PD
Moab City PD

The family of slain “van lifer” Gabby Petito says her murder might have been prevented if Utah cops hadn’t blown a chance to intervene.

A notice of claim filed Monday against the Moab City Police Department, which alerts the agency of an intent to file a $50 million wrongful death lawsuit, blames the department’s chief, assistant chief, and two officers for their “negligent failure” to arrest Petito’s boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, on domestic violence charges after a fight last summer that turned physical.

“Roughly two weeks later, Brian brutally murdered Gabby, leaving her body in the woods of Grand Teton National Forest,” the notice states.

The young couple had been on a cross-country road trip in a converted camper van, visiting America’s national parks, when they reached Moab. On August 12, Petito and Laundrie visited a coffee shop in the city of 5,300, so Petito could update her social media accounts with new details of the couple’s adventures.

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A witness reported seeing the pair outside later, “talking aggressively,” according to a police report cited in the notice of claim. Laundrie had taken Petito’s phone, and tried to block her from getting into their van, the witness recounted, saying that “something seemed off.”

A second witness called 911 at the time, telling the dispatcher they had seen Laundrie “slapping” Petito, and said Laundrie “hit her” before getting into the van and driving away. A broadcast then went out over the police radio, alerting officers to reports of a possible assault.

Officer Daniel Robbins subsequently spotted the couple’s van on a highway out of town, and pulled it over for speeding and driving erratically. Officer Eric Pratt and two park rangers arrived on the scene a short time later, and the cops interviewed Petito and Laundrie separately.

In the report Robbins later turned in, he said Petito was “crying uncontrollably” throughout the encounter, and that she was upset to the point that she “didn’t seem fully coherent to the world,” notes the filing.

“Officer Robbins also saw cuts on Gabby’s cheek and arm,” it says. “Gabby demonstrated how Brian had violently grabbed her face during their altercation and explained that Brian ‘gets frustrated with me a lot.’”

But the filing claims Petito’s injuries were “much more serious” than what was visible in body-cam footage of the interaction.

“Another photo taken at the time, which has not yet been released publicly, shows a close-up view of Gabby’s face where blood is smeared on her cheek and left eye, revealing the violent nature of Brian’s attack,” the filing contends. “The photo shows that Gabby’s face was grabbed across her nose and mouth, potentially restricting her airway.”

The officers speaking to Petito also failed to recognize the “classic hallmarks of an abused partner,” such as “attempting to take blame for the fight.”

“Whether for lack of training or refusal to follow their training, the officers did not press further,” the filing alleges.

Laundrie, for his part, explained that he and Petito had been arguing more frequently because they were both “under increasing emotional strain,” the filing says. He said that Petito tried to slap him outside the coffee shop, and confessed to pushing her away in an effort to avoid being hit. Laundrie also admitted to taking Petito’s cell phone, but only because, he claimed, he didn’t have a phone of his own and was afraid of being stranded if Petito left.

However, the filing states, Laundrie later “pulled his own phone from his pocket and gave the officers his number.”

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The Petitos’ notice of claim says no one ever questioned Laundrie about “inconsistencies” in his story, deciding that Petito had instead perpetrated an act of domestic violence against Laundrie by slapping him.

“Based on that determination, Officer Pratt explained to Brian and Gabby that the officers lacked any discretion but were required to charge Gabby and take her to jail,” the filing alleges. “He also explained that Utah law automatically imposes a no-contact order to keep the parties to a domestic dispute separate, and that Brian would need to sign a waiver of that order in the morning if he wanted to reunite with Gabby. Both Brian and Gabby pleaded for some other way of resolving the problem.”

So Pratt, the senior officer, called Assistant Chief Braydon Palmer to ask for guidance. Palmer told him to “carefully read” Utah’s assault statute, which Pratt duly googled, according to the filing.

“After reading only the first half of the statute, Officer Pratt decided—incorrectly—that Utah law only recognizes assault if the perpetrator intended to cause bodily injury,” it says. “Based on that incomplete and incorrect understanding of the law, Officer Pratt questioned Gabby about whether she intended to cause Brian bodily injury when she hit him. Gabby said no.”

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Pratt told Robbins that it was up to him to decide what to do, and that he would support whatever he chose, according to the filing. Robbins allegedly said he didn’t believe Petito’s story, and that he would issue a citation without arresting anyone. The city attorney could decide later about whether to press charges or not, Robbins said, the filing states.

But Pratt warned that Robbins could find himself in hot water if he didn’t take any action and something bad were to happen later, the filing says. One of the park rangers who responded to the scene also told Robbins that she would prefer being “dinged for a decision I made than a decision I didn’t make,” according to the notice.

After some more back-and-forth amid further indecision by Robbins, Pratt suggested separating Petito and Laundrie for the night without any further action.

“Officer Pratt suggested that if Brian and Gabby later found each other it wouldn’t be the officers’ responsibility,” the filing states.

The police located a bed for Laundrie at a domestic violence shelter, where he spent the night. Petito slept in the van.

About two weeks later, Petito was dead. Laundrie, who went on the run and later shot himself in the head while fleeing from authorities, confessed to Petito’s murder in a notebook found near his body.

“In a subsequent review of the Moab police officers’ handling of the incident, an independent investigator concluded that the officers made several mistakes and could not rule out that Gabby’s murder might have been prevented if the officers had handled the situation properly,” the filing states.

Attorney Brian Stewart, who is representing Petito’s father, Joe, her mother, Nichole, and stepparents Tara Petito and Jim Schmidt, said in a statement, “The Petito family believes that it is important as a society to hold our government institutions to account for such failures and to work toward changes to protect victims of domestic abuse and violence and prevent such tragedies in the future.”

In her own statement, Tara Petito said, “I think Gabby’s story has touched a lot of people and is saving lives. I get people messaging me all the time that they were inspired by her to get out of a relationship.”

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