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Gabby Petito’s parents to sue Utah police, claiming missed chance to save her life

A still from video provided by the Moab, Utah, Police Department shows Gabby Petito after police pulled over the van she was traveling in with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, near the entrance to Arches National Park on Aug. 12, 2021. (Moab Police Department/AP)

When Gabby Petito’s mother saw the video of her daughter telling police about a fight with her fiance, she “wanted to jump through the screen and rescue her.”

The footage, captured by body-worn cameras on Aug. 12 of last year, showed the 22-year-old aspiring video blogger crying as an officer in Moab, Utah, explained that a witness had reported seeing Brian Laundrie hit her. In a decision an independent review would later cast as flawed, police ultimately let the two go, telling them to spend a night apart.

Weeks later, Petito was dead. An autopsy determined she had been strangled. Laundrie, who vanished as police investigated the case, confessed to killing her in writings discovered after his death by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Petito’s parents announced during a Monday news conference that they plan to sue the Moab City Police Department over its handling of the domestic violence incident, saying officers failed to recognize their daughter was in danger and needed help. Had the officers responded properly, the family argues, the case could have ended differently.

“If the officers had been properly trained and followed the law, Gabby would still be alive today,” James McConkie, one of their attorneys, said in a prepared statement.

Lisa Church, a Moab spokeswoman, said the city does not comment on pending litigation.

The disappearance of Petito, a “van life” enthusiast who traversed the country with Laundrie, documenting their travels on social media, captivated the American public last year. On Sept. 11, her family reported her missing, 10 days after Laundrie had returned home to Florida without her. It was the start of a months-long mystery: What happened to Gabby?

Laundrie and his family refused to provide information, frustrating police. Then, in mid-September, he vanished, too. The saga fueled a national discourse about the attention generated by social media, the inequities in cases of missing people and the complexity of domestic violence.

In late September, Petito’s body was found near a camping area along the border of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Laundrie’s remains were discovered weeks later in a vast wilderness area in Sarasota County, Fla.

But questions remained — including whether police in Utah missed a chance to prevent the tragedy that befell Petito.

The couple came to the attention of law enforcement on Aug. 12 after a witness called police, saying he had seen what he called a “domestic dispute.” He said he saw a “gentleman slapping the girl,” adding that the two had run up and down the sidewalk and then got into a van and drove off. He took a picture of the license plate and gave the plate number to the dispatcher. Another witness reported seeing Petito hitting Laundrie.

Before Gabby Petito's body was found, she was pulled over with Brian Laundrie on Aug. 12 in Utah. A clinical psychologist analyzed the footage for The Post. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Moab officers Eric Pratt and Daniel Robbins tracked down the van near the entrance to Arches National Park and separated the couple. In body-camera footage, a distraught Petito told police she and Laundrie had been fighting over “some personal issues,” adding that she had obsessive compulsive disorder and became frustrated while straightening up the van. She said Laundrie had locked her out of the van, telling her to “take a breather,” and she had fought to get back in.

She said he had hit her, but she took the blame for what happened, saying she hit him first. The officer asked where Laundrie hit her, encouraging her to be honest.

“Well he, like, grabbed me with his nail, and I guess that’s why it looks… definitely I was cut right here,” Petito said, pointing to her cheek. “Because I can feel it. When I touch it, it burns.”

Laundrie told police that Petito thought he was trying to leave her in Moab without her phone and tried to slap him. He said he took her phone, claiming he did not have one and “if she goes off without me, I’m on my own.” Yet later in the interview, he took his phone out of his pocket and gave the officers the number.

The police determined Petito was the perpetrator and Laundrie the victim. They considered charging her with domestic violence and taking her to jail, a decision that would have also resulted in a no-contact order between the two. Both Petito and Laundrie pleaded for the incident to be handled differently, with Laundrie saying he was “not going to pursue anything, because she is my fiancee, and I love her.”

The officers wrote in a report that the situation did not escalate to domestic assault “as much as that of a mental health crisis.” They found a place where Laundrie could stay for the night, leaving Petito to stay in the van.

An independent investigation later concluded that the officers made “several unintentional mistakes.” The two failed to follow state law and department policy while handling the case, according to the 102-page report completed by Capt. Brandon Ratcliffe of the Price City Police Department, and erred by failing to interview one of the witnesses and by not citing Petito for domestic violence after determining an assault had occurred.

Ratcliffe noted that just because Petito was believed to be the aggressor in the one incident did not mean she was the predominant aggressor in the relationship. He wrote that oftentimes in domestic violence cases, the long-term victim reaches a point where they defend themselves or act out in a way that summons law enforcement. In fact, he added, Petito was likely to have been a long-term victim of domestic violence.

Despite the officers’ missteps, Ratcliffe said, it was not clear whether anything would have changed if the case was handled flawlessly.

“There are many ‘what-if’s’ that have presented itself as part of this investigation, the primary one being: Would Gabby be alive today if this case was handled differently? That is an impossible question to answer despite it being the answer many people want to know,” he wrote. “Nobody knows and nobody will ever know the answer to that question.”

Petito’s family, however, believes her life might have been saved. In a notice of claim, a first step toward filing a lawsuit, they name the two officers along with former chief Bret Edge and Assistant Chief Braydon Palmer. The notice filed Aug. 5 — by Petito’s mother, Nichole Schmidt, and stepfather, Jim Schmidt, along with her father, Joseph Petito, and stepmother, Tara Petito — lists possible claims including negligence and wrongful death. They plan to seek $50 million.

During their news conference Monday, they said their aim was to hold law enforcement accountable. They described the lawsuit as part of their effort to help domestic violence victims in their daughter’s name, along with launching a foundation and donating to groups that help find the missing and support victims.

“We just want to help people,” Nichole Schmidt said. “We’re going to do whatever we can. That’s why were here.”

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