Gabby Petito’s family announced Monday that they’re suing the Moab, Utah, police department for $50 million, accusing officers of contributing to their daughter’s death last year by acting negligently during a 911 call involving her and her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, before he killed her.
In a notice of claim announcing the impending lawsuit, Petito’s parents and stepparents say the Moab City Police Department missed or ignored clear signs that their daughter was a victim of domestic violence when they responded to 911 calls about the couple, who were driving through the eastern Utah town during a months-long road trip last August.
“The officers failed to recognize the serious danger that she was in and failed to investigate fully and properly,” Brian Stewart, a lawyer for the family, said at a press conference Monday. “They did not have the training that they needed to recognize the clear signs that were evident that morning that Gabby was a victim, and that she was in serious need of immediate help.”
Moab Police did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the impending lawsuit.
Two witnesses in Moab made 911 calls about the couple last August: one who reported seeing Laundrie slap and hit Petito and chase her up and down the sidewalk, and another who reported the couple “talking aggressively” before Laundrie took Petito’s phone and attempted to drive off with it in her van.
When officers tracked down the couple and asked Petito about the fight, she “displayed the classic hallmarks of an abused partner, attempting to take blame for the fight because she had hit Brian first and that she did not want to be separated from him,” the notice of claim lays out, noting that Petito had a serious scratch across her face and a bloodied cheek and eye during her conversation with the officers. “Whether for lack of training or refusal to follow their training, the officers did not press further.”
Instead of helping Petito, the claim notice says, officers accepted Laundrie’s version of events that Petito was the main perpetrator of abuse ― despite inconsistencies in his story ― and merely separated them for the night.
About two weeks later, Laundrie strangled Petito to death in Wyoming ― which he confessed to in writing shortly before taking his own life in Florida, where the couple had been living before embarking on their road trip.
Police body camera footage of the couples’ interaction with officers was released last year and came under immense scrutiny.
“Watching it is very painful, and I wanted to jump to the screen and rescue her,” Petito’s mother, Nicole Schmidt, said during Monday’s press conference.
An independent police investigation into the 911 response found earlier this year that the officers made several errors and that the department should expand its training on domestic violence investigations.
Stewart clarified that Petito’s family is not filing the lawsuit to punish individual officers, but rather to demand changes be made within the department.
“We believe that the only effective way to correct these problems is to hold our institutions accountable for their failures, including in law enforcement,” he said.
Petito’s ordeal has been folded into the broader national conversation about problems with policing over the past year, especially in situations of domestic violence. An investigation by the The Center for Investigative Reporting published last week found that “most law enforcement agencies provide little or no training in how to recognize red flags or how to use them to protect victims and their families.”
Instead, domestic violence experts told the outlet, “police often become frustrated by the dynamics between a victim and her abuser ... dismissing warning signs as part of a dysfunctional pattern that can’t be changed.”