The parents of Gabby Petito have filed a US$50-million wrongful death lawsuit against the Moab City Police Department.
They claim the officers who questioned Petito only weeks before she was killed by her fiancé Brian Laundrie were “fundamentally biased” and negligent in investigating claims of domestic violence.
The lawsuit was filed on Thursday.
In the filing, Petito’s father Joseph Petito and her mother, Nichole Schmidt, claim the legal action is to honour “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.”
The lawsuit alleges Moab police officer Eric Pratt did not follow Utah state law during an investigation into a domestic disturbance between Petito and Laundrie last summer. A witness told police she had seen Laundrie, 23, hit Petito, 22.
The claim by the Petito parents is based on a domestic violence allegation against Pratt, the investigating officer. An unnamed woman, identified only as “Witness 1” in the lawsuit, claims Pratt threatened to kill her after ending their relationship. At the time, Pratt was police chief of the rural Utah town of Salina.
The Petito family lawyers claim the allegation against Pratt made him more inclined to sympathize with Laundrie.
Moab police maintain that Petito’s death was not the fault of local authorities.
“Our officers acted with kindness, respect, and empathy toward Ms. Petito,” city spokesperson Lisa Adams 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.”
In the lawsuit, lawyers also claim Moab police misapplied Utah’s laws related to domestic abuse, which require action be taken in response to domestic violence incidents. They also claim police were improperly trained to handle such incidences.
The suit claims police officers “coached Gabby to provide answers that the officers used to justify their decision not to enforce Utah law.”
After a short investigation, police did not issue a domestic violence citation. The lawsuit claims police determined Petito was the instigator of violence.
“No one here, the four of us… don’t want to be here. We’d give it up in a second if she was back,” said Joseph Petito during a press conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday.
“We feel we need to bring justice because she could have been protected that day,” Schmidt 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 anyone else.”
Petito was killed by Laundrie in September 2021.
Her 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.
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 an 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 colour.
The Petito parents are also suing the parents of Laundrie for emotional distress in a separate lawsuit, claiming they had knowledge that Petito was dead, but did not tell anyone.
— With files from The Associated Press