SALT LAKE CITY — Family members of a 22-year-old woman whose boyfriend admitted to killing her last year have filed a wrongful death suit against the Moab Police Department, claiming their negligence led to her death weeks later.
The lawsuit filed on Thursday is the latest development in the high-profile case around Gabby Petito’s death. What began as a missing person’s case last summer rode a wave of true crime obsession to become a social media sensation, drawing amateur online sleuths and the kind of worldwide attention that can help authorities locate missing people.
Petito and her boyfriend, 23-year-old Brian Laundrie, were stopped by police officers in Moab, Utah last summer but were ultimately not cited for domestic violence amid signs of distress and their own statements about physical conflict. Petito’s body was later found on the edge of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming after being strangled. Laundrie was the only person ever identified by law enforcement as a person of interest and was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after returning alone to his parents’ home in Florida.
The contrast between the cheerful façade on display on Petito’s widely followed Instagram account — where she chronicled her cross-country trip in a van to tens of thousands of followers — and the darker reality of domestic violence she was experiencing in the lead-up to her death captivated millions and sparked unprecedented national conversation about dating violence. It also brought criticism of authorities and the news media for focusing more attention on missing white women like Petito than on missing and murdered indigenous women and women of color.
Petito’s mother, father and other family members have sought to keep her name in the news, hoping to honor her legacy and help make sure signs of abuse are recognized by authorities in a position to intervene, they said.
“There are laws put in place to protect victims. And those laws were not followed. And we don’t want this to happen to anybody else,” said Nicole Schmidt, Petito’s mother, her voice quivering.
Schmidt, other family members and their team of lawyers stood in front of a picture of Petito smiling in a slot canyon at a Thursday press conference in Salt Lake City.
The wrongful death lawsuit seeks $50 million in damages from the police department in Moab, a rural Utah city known for being an entryway to national parks full of red rock canyons and mesas.
It lays blame for Petito’s death on the city’s police officers, who did not issue a domestic violence citation after a bystander called to report conflict between Petito and Laundrie. In doing so, the lawsuit claims officers disregarded signs of violence they should have been trained to notice.
The suit also claims police officers “coached Gabby to provide answers that the officers used to justify their decision not to enforce Utah law,” which requires action be taken in response to domestic violence incidents.
Moab Police Officer Eric Pratt “was fundamentally biased in his approach to the investigation, choosing to believe Gabby’s abuser, ignoring evidence that Gabby was the victim and intentionally looking for loopholes to get around the requirements of Utah law and his duty to protect Gabby.”
The complaint bases that bias claim off of an unnamed woman referred to as “Witness 1,” who alleges Pratt threatened to kill her after their relationship ended while he was serving as police chief in Salina, Utah, another rural town.
After the lawsuit was filed, the city of Moab said the death was tragic yet not the fault of their police department. Pratt did not respond to a phone call requesting comment and the city of Moab said no employee of the city or police department would be commenting further at this time.
“Our officers acted with kindness, respect, and empathy toward Ms. Petito,” city spokesperson Lisa Church said in a statement. “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 lawsuit follows a notice of claim filed in August, notifying Moab that Petito’s family intended to file for damages due to wrongful death. An independent investigation in January faulted police for making “several unintentional mistakes” including not issuing a domestic violence citation after Petito told police she had hit her boyfriend.
This story corrects the name of Moab spokesperson Lisa Church.