Moab officer was ‘biased’ against Gabby Petito because of his past, her parents claim in new lawsuit

The anticipated filing also blames the southern Utah police department for not understanding the warning signs of domestic abuse.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The parents of Gabby Petito discussed their lawsuit against the Moab Police Department at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. From left, attorney Brian Stewart, Jim and Nichole Schmidt and Tara and Joseph Petito.

One of the police officers who questioned Gabby Petito in Moab weeks before she was killed by her boyfriend was “fundamentally biased” against her — and because of that, he failed to accurately assess the dangers she faced, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday.

The attorneys representing Petito’s parents in the case are basing that new claim on an allegation from a woman who says the officer, Eric Pratt, had threatened to kill her after their relationship ended, while he was the police chief in another rural Utah town.

That alleged experience left Pratt more inclined to sympathize with Petito’s boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, when he spoke with the couple, the lawyers contend.

The woman who accuses Pratt of misconduct is not named in the lawsuit and never filed a formal complaint against him, saying she had nowhere to turn when he was the town’s chief. Two of her co-workers told The Salt Lake Tribune they concur with her recollection of events. But the mayor of Salina at the time, who knew about the relationship, defends Pratt, his character and his policing abilities.

The new allegation of bias comes as part of the anticipated civil lawsuit from Nichole Schmidt and Joseph Petito, filed in Utah’s 7th District Court, which argues Moab police should have intervened to protect their daughter and taken her concerns seriously in the case that has drawn international attention.

Petito, a 22-year-old popular Instagrammer, and her boyfriend were stopped by Moab officers last year on Aug. 12 after an initial witness reported seeing Laundrie hit Petito. But instead of pursuing charges for domestic violence — as Utah law requires — an outside investigation of the department confirms that, among other mistakes, officers chose to separate the couple for the night and let them go with a warning.

The attorneys representing Petito’s parents say the officers failed to understand the basic warning signs of domestic violence that showed Petito was at risk for escalating harm.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pictures of Gabby Petito are displayed at a vigil on Sept. 22, 2021.

And about a month later, Petito was killed by Laundrie at a Wyoming campground. Shortly after, he returned home to Florida alone; he later died by suicide.

Petito’s parents are now seeking $50 million in their suit against Moab police, naming the chief, assistant chief and both officers who responded, including Pratt, for the missed opportunities for intervention. They are claiming negligence by officers, failure to properly train staff on interpersonal violence and wrongful death.

They also argue that Pratt should have never been hired by the department because of his history and comments he’d previously made on a podcast about trying to find “loopholes” when enforcing the law. They say he did the same when responding to Petito.

If the officer understood the law and the risks, the parents say, they strongly believe Petito would be alive today.

“We feel like we need to bring justice because she could have been protected that day,” Schmidt said at a news conference Thursday announcing the lawsuit. “There are laws to protect victims and those weren’t followed.”

Schmidt cried as she spoke, wiping away tears with a crumpled tissue. Behind her on the wall was an image of her daughter, projected onto a screen. Petito is seen smiling in a yellow T-shirt.

“That’s who she was,” Schmidt said. “She was a light. She still is a light. She’s helping so many people.”

Those who are experiencing intimate partner violence, or know someone who is, are urged to call the Utah Domestic Violence Link Line, 1-800-897-LINK (5465), or the Utah Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis Line, 1-888-421-1100.

In a statement Thursday in response to the lawsuit, a spokesperson for Moab city called Petito’s death a “terrible tragedy.” But there was no way for officers to predict, the city’s statement said, what happened later on the couple’s trip.

“It is clear that Moab City Police Department officers are not responsible for Gabrielle Petito’s eventual murder,” the city said. “… Our officers acted with kindness, respect and empathy toward Ms. Petito.”

Pratt referred a request for comment from The Tribune to the city, which will represent him. The statement from Moab said it will “ardently defend against this lawsuit.”

The events in Moab

Petito and Laundrie stopped in Moab in August 2021 after passing through Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks on their trip across the country.

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, according to the department, that Laundrie was “slapping the girl.”

When officer Pratt went to the cooperative, though, he couldn’t locate the original caller. Another witness approached the officer and said he saw the couple fighting over Petito’s phone earlier that day, and it looked like Laundrie was trying to drive away from her. The witness reported seeing Petito punch Laundrie in the arm.

Officer Daniel Robbins 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. Through tears, Petito told the officers that Laundrie had taken her phone, and she was afraid he was going to leave her in Moab with no way to call for help.

(Moab Police Department) Brian Laundrie talks to a police officer after police pulled over the van he was traveling in with his girlfriend, Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito, near the entrance to Arches National Park on Aug. 12, 2021.

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, the parents’ lawsuit notes. When asked about the fight, Petito said she was to blame because she had hit Laundrie first.

Her family and domestic violence experts say that’s one of the hallmark signs of an abused partner, taking responsibility for the other’s actions.

The outside review of how the case was handled 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, the report said; additionally, Laundrie taking Petito’s phone was a likely sign of him trying to control her.

But the Moab officers did not press further. They did, though, take extensive photos of Laundrie’s scratches, which are included in their report. And the officers determined Petito was the predominant aggressor in the case.

They then debated how to proceed. Pratt first said they should charge Petito and put her in jail, as the law requires for a primary aggressor in an interpersonal violence assault. Officers don’t have discretion in those cases, he openly acknowledged on the body camera footage, because the victims “end up getting worse and worse treatment, and then they end up getting killed.”

Both Petito and Laundrie pleaded with the officers not to do that.

After trying to get advice from the assistant chief, Pratt then instructed Robbins to decide what to do because he was training Robbins at the time. “I don’t care if we use the actual letter of the law to not charge,” Pratt said, according to the video footage.

Robbins said he was not going to impose charges but planned to prepare a crime report for the city attorney to screen. Pratt questioned whether that was the correct action, according to the video footage. The lawsuit suggests that Pratt was trying to find a way to work around the law and not cite or charge Petito or Laundrie; it says he misinterpreted statute and “coached her” to say she wasn’t trying to hurt Laundrie.

The two officers ultimately decided to categorize the case as disorderly conduct instead of domestic violence and separated Petito and Laundrie for the night. Laundrie stayed in town. And Petito stayed in the van.

Petito’s parents tried to get her a flight home, but she declined. They say in the lawsuit that they trusted the police to do what was needed. Now, the parents say, they feel that hope in the system and in the responding officers was misplaced.

Source: National Coalition Against Domestic Violence | The Salt Lake Tribune

Allegations of threats

The lawsuit focuses specifically on officer Pratt as allegedly “unfit and unsafe” to be in law enforcement.

The attorneys for Petito’s parents say that Pratt’s previous relationship with the woman who has accused him of making threats left him unable to respond appropriately to the domestic violence call, where he misread the situation.

The Tribune spoke with the woman who said Pratt threatened to kill her; as she is not named in the lawsuit, The Tribune agreed not to publish her name.

Her identity and her relationship with Pratt were verified by several individuals in Salina who say they knew about the conduct she alleged by Pratt. The Tribune also reviewed several images and files she provided to show she had been in a relationship with Pratt, who was then the police chief of Salina in central Utah.

The woman said she had moved back to Salina in March 2017 after years away and soon began dating Pratt. But by June, she said, she learned he was allegedly seeing other women, too.

The woman said she ended her relationship with Pratt at that time and told him that she was going to inform the other women. Before she did so, she said, she ran into Pratt at a grocery store in town. She said, and the lawsuit alleges, that as she was driving away from the store, he pulled her over using a police siren attached to his personal truck.

With her toddler in the backseat, she said and the lawsuit alleges, Pratt threatened to kill her with a crow bar if she told anyone about his relationships.

The woman said she decided to put the information up on a blog anyway, feeling that if she did, everyone in town would know and he wouldn’t be able to harm her without people suspecting him. (She deleted the post about a year later, after getting a new job; she said she did not keep a copy of what she posted.)

Shortly after the post went up at the start of July 2017, Pratt submitted a letter of resignation to then-Salina Mayor Dustin Deaton. He said in that notice that he wanted to pursue a life outside of law enforcement after 12 years on the job. He would wrap up his work in Salina by that December, he said.

After that, the woman said, Pratt left the town. It’s not clear when, but Pratt did later take a job with Gunnison Valley’s police department. And then he moved to working as a Moab police officer.

The woman said she heard from Pratt once more after he left, a year after he first threatened her. She said he reached out to her, saying he wanted to clear the air. At that meeting, she said, Pratt told her that if they’d met a week earlier, he would have still been angry from how she treated him.

The lawsuit recounts that she recalled him saying: “I would have been digging a grave, and you would have been in it.” She said Pratt never physically harmed her, though.

Two co-workers of hers confirmed to The Tribune that they frequently saw the woman and Pratt together when they were in a relationship; they also said that the woman told them about the threats. The Tribune agreed not to identify the two co-workers due to their fears about retribution. Their identities and past employment were confirmed through online records.

The woman also alleged to Salina Mayor Deaton that Pratt was harassing her online — though she said she did not tell him about the threats.

Deaton told The Tribune that he asked the woman if Pratt was on duty when he was messaging her on Facebook, if he was in uniform or using a police vehicle. He said the woman answered “no” to the three questions. Deaton said because of that, he felt it was more of a personal issue and not something that warranted his intervention.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jim and Nichole Schmidt discussed their lawsuit against the Moab Police Department at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. Nichole is the mother of Gabby Petito.

Deaton had appointed Pratt as police chief of Salina in 2014 when he also took office.

“He was the most suitable among the officers we had at the time,” Deaton said. “He did a very good job. He had a very good rapport with the community.”

When Pratt came to him to resign, the mayor said, the chief told him he was burnt out. Because Salina is a small town, the chief is under a lot of pressure, Deaton said, and it’s similar to an 80-hour-a-week job.

He continues to stand by Pratt now, too, saying that he feels he responded to the Petito case as best as any officer could. Deaton said there were domestic violence cases in Salina, too, where officers would try to separate a victim and an aggressor and they’d often end up back together — regardless of police interventions.

Deaton said he doesn’t believe Pratt was compromised in his response to Petito’s concerns.

The officer’s previous comments about policing

The lawsuit also suggests that Pratt should not have been hired by Moab police because of previous statements he made about law enforcement.

Speaking in 2019 on a podcast called Books In Heinessight, Pratt talked about being “disillusioned” by police work and hating the job.

“When the curtain got lifted, and I got to see how everything’s going, why things are the way they are, I started to realize nobody really has the answers,” he said. “We’re all kind of clueless.”

Pratt said in the interview that he didn’t like certain laws or understand why lawmakers had put them in place. He often tried to find “my own loopholes, perfectly legal,” he said. One example, he said, was if he pulled someone over for not having car insurance. He’d advise the person to quickly go online and purchase some so he wouldn’t write need to write them a ticket.

In the lawsuit from Petito’s parents, the attorneys argue that Moab police should have investigated Pratt and found the podcast — as well as the previous allegation of threats; it’s not clear how those would have been uncovered, as the woman never filed a formal report.

They say his feeling about “loopholes,” in particular, played out when Pratt didn’t carry out the law on domestic violence in responding to Petito.

The lawsuit claims that Pratt has also been involved in misconduct on the job while in Moab — outside of the Petito case — and is currently being investigation internally for that.

Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST, the office that certifies officers and investigates allegations of misconduct, told The Tribune that it has no past cases involving Pratt and no currently open cases, either. In response to a public records request, Gunnison Valley’s police department said Pratt was never disciplined there for misconduct.

The Tribune has also requested any discipline records for the officer from Salina and Moab; it has not received responses.

It’s unclear whether Pratt or the other officer who responded to Petito ever faced discipline for mishandling that case. Even though the outside investigator said their mistakes didn’t seem intentional, it was recommended they both be put on probation. But a spokesperson for the department has declined to disclose if that has happened.

Pratt was promoted, though, after the Petito case. Earlier this year, he moved up in rank to detective. Photos of him posted online from the department show the change on his badge.

What Petito’s parents are asking for

The Petito family is being represented by the law firm of Parker & McConkie. That firm also represented the parents of slain student-athlete Lauren McCluskey against the University of Utah for failures by campus officers to protect their daughter, as well as a current case with slain international student Zhifan Dong.

The parents are asking for a jury trial and damages to be awarded to compensate for their daughter’s funeral, their pain and suffering and lost wages while dealing with her death.

The lawsuit states: “Gabby’s parents have been deprived of Gabby’s companionship, love and affection, and the fulfillment of the hopes that all parents cherish for their children’s futures.”

Brian Stewart, the family’s attorney, said the $50 million request is “a symbol of the severity of this problem in our country” with domestic violence.

“They did not take this decision to file a lawsuit lightly,” he said. “Their desire has never been to blame police for their loss.”

But, Stewart added, when the family continued to learn about mistakes made in the case, they felt they had to do so to “to demand accountability.”

Joseph Petito, Petito’s dad, said Thursday during the news conference that the family would have preferred not to sue — but they didn’t feel like necessary reforms would happen if they didn’t.

Petito’s stepparents were also at the announcement Thursday, with Schmidt’s husband, Jim, and Joseph Petito’s wife, Tara, all sitting together at a table. They are not named in the lawsuit, though, because Utah law only allows the parents to sue for wrongful death.

“The four of us don’t want to be here,” Joseph Petito said. “We’d give it up in a second if she was back. ... Unfortunately, this is the best way to have those changes made. It’s that simple.”

He encouraged anyone experiencing partner violence to reach out for help.

The family members said any money they receive from the lawsuit will go toward their charitable foundation, set up in Gabby’s name, to help victims of interpersonal violence and missing persons.

Nichole Schmidt said they intend to continue pushing for better law enforcement training and cultural changes so that what happened to Petito doesn’t happen to another person.

The parents are also currently suing Laundrie’s parents for emotional distress, for allegedly knowing Petito was dead when Laundrie returned home but not saying anything.

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