Moab police officers should have recognized the warning signs of domestic violence that put Gabby Petito at risk for escalating harm.
They should have given more weight to the original 911 caller, and tried to track down that person, who reported seeing Petito’s boyfriend hit her outside a co-op in the southern Utah town.
And they should have taken seriously — and included in their police report — that Petito had cuts on her cheek and that she told officers her boyfriend had violently grabbed her face during a fight.
They did not do any of that, though, according to an outside investigation of the department. But where that review concluded it was impossible to know if Petito would still be alive today if they had, her parents strongly believe that she would.
They argue in a new legal notice provided to The Salt Lake Tribune that had Moab police properly responded to the case last year on Aug. 12, officers could have saved their daughter’s life. Instead, the popular Instagrammer was killed by her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, about a month later, on their van trip across the country that had started from their homes in Florida.
They’re seeking $50 million.
“We think she would be here with us today,” said Nichole Schmidt, Petito’s mom, in a Zoom call with The Tribune. “We really do.”
Petito’s dad, Joseph Petito, added: “We saw a lot of the errors that were made. We don’t want someone to fall victim to the same errors.”
Their notice of claim was submitted Monday — coming a few days before the one-year anniversary of when Moab police received the first call about Petito. The filing is the first step toward a lawsuit or reaching a settlement with a government agency.
The family has been considering the legal claim for months. The decisive point, they noted, was when the outside investigation was released in January, showing the many missteps made by police in the case. There were even more issues exposed in that, they said, than they were originally aware of.
“We saw all the mistakes on paper,” Schmidt said. “That really pushed us over the edge.”
During a news conference on Monday on Zoom, Schmidt wiped away tears.
“We’re going to do whatever we can. That’s why we’re here,” she said.
Petito’s parents and stepparents — including Schmidt’s husband, Jim, and Joseph Petito’s wife, Tara — are now gearing up for a legal fight against the Utah department and several named employees, focusing on the missed opportunities for intervention by police in the case that has drawn international attention. They’ve laid out possible claims for both negligence by officers and wrongful death.
A spokesperson for Moab declined to comment Monday, saying the city doesn’t speak on pending litigation.
The family is being represented by the law firm of Parker & McConkie. That firm represented the parents of slain student-athlete Lauren McCluskey against the University of Utah for similar failures by campus officers to protect their daughter, as well as a current case with slain international student Zhifan Dong.
The Petito family, like the McCluskeys, intends for any damages awarded in the case to go toward domestic violence prevention programs. Their own organization, The Gabby Petito Foundation, has already donated more than $200,000 to that cause, including a $100,000 donation last week to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
“Here we are again,” Joseph Petito said last week. “Another woman killed. Another failure to act and listen to her. We have to change.”
Family claims officers missed signs of violence
Petito and Laundrie had been driving across the country in their van in the summer of 2021 while Petito, 22, documented the trip on social media. They stopped in Moab in August after passing through Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks.
Moab police first became aware of concerns between them when a caller reported witnessing the couple fighting outside the town’s Moonflower Community Cooperative. The individual said that Laundrie was “slapping the girl,” and that the couple “ran up and down the sidewalk,” where Laundrie “proceeded to hit her.”
When Moab officer Eric Pratt went to the Moonflower cooperative, though, he could not locate the caller who originally reported the fight. Another witness approached the officer and was interviewed. That person said he saw the couple fighting over Petito’s phone earlier that day.
Laundrie had Petito’s phone and appeared to be driving away from her, the witness said. He reported that Petito punched Laundrie in the arm and climbed over him through the driver’s side door to get into the van. He heard Petito say, “Why do you have to be so mean?” according to a written statement.
Officer Daniel Robbins then located the couple in their van near the front gate to Arches National Park. Pratt joined them and for more than an hour, the two officers spoke separately with Laundrie and Petito. Both officers are named in the legal notice, as well as Assistant Chief Braydon Palmer.
Petito was captured crying on body camera footage that has been released to the public. The notice of claim from her family says she was “visibly in crisis,” but it didn’t seem to prompt an intervention.
Through tears, she told the officers that Laundrie had taken her phone, like the witness said, and she was afraid he was going to leave her in Moab with no way to call for help.
The officers acknowledged in the body camera footage that she had a cut below her eye, and Petito demonstrated how Laundrie violently grabbed her face earlier. She said he “gets frustrated with me a lot.”
But police never marked the injury on their report or photographed the cut. When asked about the fight, Petito said she was to blame because she had hit Laundrie first.
Her family claims in the notice that’s one of the “hallmarks of an abused partner,” taking the fall for the other’s actions. “We know victims take the blame,” said Nichole Schmidt. Experts, including those at the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, have said the same.
The outside review, conducted by Price police Capt. Brandon Ratcliffe, similarly noted that Laundrie reportedly grabbing Petito’s face was “an extremely personal, violent, and controlling” act. Even though it didn’t cause significant injury, it could be have been an indication that Laundrie was the long-term predominant aggressor in the relationship, Ratcliffe wrote.
But the legal notice states: “Whether for lack of training or refusal to follow their training, the officers did not press further.” They did not see Petito as a victim of interpersonal violence, the notice claims.
Officers did, though, take extensive photos of Laundrie’s scratches. And while they asked him about Petito assaulting him, they never asked if he hit her.
Laundrie told officers that he took Petito’s phone, according to their reports, saying he didn’t have a phone and he was afraid “if she goes off without me, I’m on my own.” But later in the interview with officers, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and gave the police his number.
The notice claims: “The officers did not question Brian about the inconsistencies in his version of events.”
Instead, after conducting interviews and factoring in the statement from the second witness — police still hadn’t talked to the person who originally called 911 at the time of the outside review, five months later — the officers determined Petito was the predominant aggressor in the case.
The family says that shows a deliberate indifference to Petito, dismissing her while believing Laundrie, and not understanding the complexity with domestic violence that was at play.
The Utah Domestic Violence Coalition has previously said that victims sometimes take on the violent behaviors of perpetrators as self-defense and should not be seen as the primary instigator because of that.
Deciding to separate Petito and Laundrie
For a while after talking to Petito and Laundrie, the officers debated how to proceed. Pratt first said he should charge Petito and put her in jail. Laundrie would have to sign a waiver on a no-contact order to reunite.
Both pleaded with the officers not to do that.
Pratt then called Assistant Chief Palmer for assistance. The assistant chief told him to read the state’s assault statute and decide from there. Pratt searched for it using Google, according to the notice of claim and the outside investigation.
“Police officers shouldn’t have to Google statutes,” said Jim Schmidt, Petito’s stepdad.
Pratt read the first half and “decided incorrectly,” according to the notice, that Utah law only recognizes assault if the perpetrator intended to cause bodily harm. That is not the case.
Pratt, who was a senior officer to Robbins and had 16 years of experience in law enforcement, then instructed Robbins to decide what to do because he was training Robbins at the time. Robbins said he was not going to impose charges but planned to prepare a crime report. Pratt questioned Robbins whether that was the correct action, according to the outside review.
The investigative report said the arrest of Petito was the proper response, according to the law. Robbins later said he did not make an arrest because he considered the situation to be more of a mental health crisis.
The internal investigator then asked why he did not get Petito and Laundrie in touch with mental health professionals. Robbins said it was a busy day and “calls were stacking up left and right and mistakes were made.”
Neither officer provided the couple with domestic violence informational handouts or connected them with a victim advocate, as they also should have done, the review said.
The two officers ultimately decided to categorize the case as disorderly conduct and separate Petito and Laundrie for the night, even though they had no legal authority to do that, according to the notice. Laundrie stayed in town. And Petito stayed in the van.
Petito’s parents tried to get her a flight home, but she declined.
Brian Stewart, the family’s attorney, said: “The officers did not have the training they needed to recognize that morning, that Gabby was a victim and that she was in need of immediate help.”
She was later found dead near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming on Sept. 19. According to an autopsy, she had been strangled.
Laundrie, who was considered a person of interest in Petito’s disappearance, returned to Florida alone in September — 10 days before Petito was reported missing. He later disappeared himself into a Florida nature reserve. He died by suicide and his partial remains were found on Oct. 21.
The notice of claim states: “He murdered her shortly after the Moab Police Department failed to adequately respond to reports and evidence of domestic violence between Brian and Gabby.”
Attorney says police mistakes ‘costs lives’
Petito’s parents and stepparents say they want the notice of claim to prompt change both in the Moab Police Department and others across the country in how officers respond to domestic violence.
“More training is definitely needed,” said Tara Petito, Petito’s stepmom.
Joseph Petito agreed, saying he doesn’t feel officers are prepared. With Moab police, he added, “there were so many glaring things with how they responded to Gabby.”
“It’s changes that should have been made awhile ago and haven’t,” he said. “It’s paramount to helping the victim. Everybody gets helps when you’re more prepared.”
Petito cried for the entire hour that officers talked to her; he thinks that should have caused more concern. And he believes officers should be trained on the nuance of determining who is the primary aggressor in a domestic violence situation — signs he said Moab officers failed to see.
As they spoke to The Tribune, Stewart, their attorney, noted that the Moab Police Department had been running an ad for the past few months looking for a police detective with expertise in handling domestic violence.
“They should have already had that,” said Nichole Schmidt. “I just want the system to be completely overhauled.”
On Monday, she said watching the case unfold and watching the body camera video of her daughter interacting with police has been “very painful.”
“I wanted to jump through the screen and rescue her,” the mom said.
It’s unclear whether the officers in the case ever faced discipline. Even though the outside investigator said their mistakes didn’t seem intentional, he recommended they both be put on probation. But a spokesperson for the department has declined to disclose if that has happened.
Petito’s parents are also currently in the middle of suing Laundrie’s parents for emotional distress, for allegedly knowing Petito was dead when Laundrie returned home in September but not saying anything.
Stewart said the family is considering pursuing the case in Utah, too, because “the cost of not doing it is higher. It costs lives.”
He expects the lawsuit to be filed in the next few months.
Stewart added: “We believe the only effective way to correct these problems is to hold institutions accountable for their errors.”