(CNN) — Gabby Petito’s parents filed a $50 million lawsuit Thursday against Moab police, alleging officers were negligent in their interactions with the 22-year-old and her fiance Brian Laundrie two weeks before his death last year.
“The purpose of this lawsuit is to honor Gabby’s legacy by demanding accountability and working toward systemic changes that protect victims of abuse and domestic violence and prevent similar tragedies in the future,” attorney James W. McConkie said in a statement.
The lawsuit accuses the department and its agents of breaking the law and failing to protect Petit during an investigation into a domestic incident in August, just weeks before Laundrie took his own life. The lawsuit alleges that the officers wrongly determined that Petito was the primary aggressor in the interaction and misapplied Utah’s domestic abuse laws. He also accuses the police department of not adequately educating its officers on these issues.
At a news conference Thursday, Petit’s parents said they filed the lawsuit to ensure police make these changes to help other abuse victims.
“There’s nobody here, none of the four of us, who wants to be here. We’d give them up in a second if he could come back,” said her father, Joseph Petito.
“We feel we have to get justice because she could have been protected that day,” said Nichole Schmidt, her mother. “There are laws that protect victims, but those laws were not enforced and we don’t want that to happen to anyone,” he added.
The city of Moab released a statement Thursday denying responsibility for Petit’s death and saying it would defend itself against the lawsuit.
“The death of Gabrielle Petito in Wyoming is a terrible tragedy and we deeply sympathize with the Petito and Schmidt families and the painful loss they have suffered. At the same time, it is clear that the officers of the Moab Police Department are not responsible for the eventual killing of Gabrielle Petito,” the city said.
The city said its agents “behaved with kindness, respect and empathy toward Ms. Petito” during their interactions.
“Lawyers for the Petito family seem to suggest that our agents could somehow predict the future based on this one interaction. In reality, on August 12th, no one could have predicted the tragedy that would occur weeks later and hundreds of miles away.” , and the city of Moab will vigorously defend itself against this lawsuit,” the city said.
Petito was 22 when she and her fiancé, Laundrie, 23, embarked on a road trip across the western US last summer, documenting their #VanLife experiences in idyllic online posts.
Despite what they showed on the networks, their relationship was unstable and sometimes violent. Petit was reported missing after Laundrie returned to her parents’ home in Florida on Sept. 1 and Petit’s family was unable to contact her, sparking a nationwide search that turned into a fascination for online sleuths.
His body was found a few weeks later in the Grand Teton National Forest, and the coroner concluded that he had died of strangulation. Laundrie later went missing in a Florida nature preserve, and her body was found in mid-October along with a notebook in which she confessed to killing her.
In August, Petit’s parents filed a notice of claim against the police department, the first step in bringing a lawsuit. Her parents also took legal action against Laundrie’s estate and filed a lawsuit against his parents, accusing them of causing emotional pain by failing to act during the search for Petit.
What happened in Moab?
The 35-page lawsuit filed Thursday is based on a traffic stop in August 2021 after officers received a report that a witness “saw Brian assaulting Gabby.”
Police stopped his vehicle, a white Ford van, after he exceeded the speed limit, swerved out of his lane and hit a curb, according to a police report.
Video from a police body camera shows Moab, Utah, officers talking to Petito and Laundrie, who admitted to an argument in which Petito said he hit her fiance first. Officers noted that Petito had cuts on her face and hand, and she “indicated that Brian violently grabbed her face during their argument,” telling police that Laundrie was “very frustrated with me.”
But Petito also “exhibited the classic characteristics of a battered couple,” the filing states, when he took the blame for the incident with Brian. Agents “did not press further,” the notice said.
According to a family source, a photograph taken at the time, which has not been made public, “shows a close-up of Gabby’s face with blood stains on her cheek and left eye, revealing the violent nature of Brian’s attack”.
The laundromat told police the couple was under increasing stress. He admitted that he pushed Petito when she tried to slap him and took his phone, claiming he didn’t have it and that he was afraid she would leave it. However, later during the interview, he pulled out his own phone and gave the agents his number, the lawsuit states.
Despite the cuts and Laundrie’s inconsistencies, one of the officers said Petito should be jailed because, under Utah’s domestic violence laws, she is considered the primary aggressor and Laundrie the victim.
Both Petito and Laundrie objected, and the officers eventually agreed not to press charges against Petito if she and Laundrie agreed to spend the night separately.
An independent investigator, a captain in the Price, Utah Police Department, about 115 miles away, reviewed the Moab Police Department’s handling of the incident and recommended that the two responding officers receive probation. Stating that they made “several inadvertent mistakes” , not specifically citing anyone for domestic violence, even though there just seemed to be enough evidence to charge Petito.
The investigative report, released in January, recommended new policies for the department, including additional domestic violence training and legal education for officers.
At the time, the city did not address any potential disciplinary action against the two officers, but said it “intends to implement the report’s recommendations” on new policies for the police department, including additional domestic violence training and legality training for agents.
— Hannah Sarisohn, Dakin Andone and Chuck Johnston contributed reporting.