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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) — The family of murdered Florida YouTube creator Gabby Petito has filed a $50 million wrongful death suit against the Moab Police Department Thursday morning, according to the family’s attorneys.

The family and their attorneys held a press conference, and the entire event can be seen in the video player above.

The family is suing the Moab Police over a domestic abuse investigation involving Petito and her boyfriend Brian Laundrie dating back to Aug. 12, 2021. The couple was driving through Utah on the way to Wyoming when extended arguments between them erupted into violence near a Moab grocery store. The suit claims that because police did not apprehend Laundrie for the fight in Moab, it led “to further and escalating domestic violence, leaving her to eventually be strangled to death by [Laundrie].”

Her death came roughly two weeks after the Moab incident. Her body would not be found until Sept. 19, 2021.

Petito family explains why they’re filing the suit

During the press conference, the Petito family took questions about why they’re filing the lawsuit, explaining that while a suit won’t bring their daughter back, it could help other victims of domestic violence.

“Gabby’s story resonated with people around the world,” said Petito’s step-father, Jim Schmidt. “People saw themselves in her.”

The family has created a foundation to help victims of domestic abuse. The family said that foundation, in conjunction with other similar organizations, has already changed and possibly saved lives. The lawsuit, they said, would help shine a light on the issues of domestic violence, and they said they felt it might be the only way to force things to change.

“Something needs to change,” said father Joe Petito. “And I guess there’s been some things in the past that I’ve read and changes didn’t happen. They need to come. Unfortunately, that’s the best way to have those changes made. It’s that simple.”

Attorney Brian Stewart said the $50 million damages being sought would ultimately be decided by a jury, but he noted that whatever monies are obtained in a successful suit could go toward the foundation and helping domestic violence victims.

Mother Nichole Schmidt said her late daughter has inspired many people.

“She was a light,” she said. “She’s still a light.”

What’s in the family’s lawsuit?

Parker & McConkie trial attorneys also shared a copy lawsuit, which can be viewed in its entirety below. The family is asking for a jury trial. Specifically, they are suing former Moab Police Chief Bret Edge, Asst. Chief Braydon Palmer, Officer Eric Pratt, Officer Daniel Robbins, and 10 other unidentified Moab Police employees and agents, in addition to the department as an entity.

Edge took federal Family Medical Leave Act time during the investigation and eventually left the department.

A lawsuit only represents one side of a story. The Moab Police released a statement and an independent report on the incident in January, both of which are publicly available. In response to today’s events, the City of Moab released the following statement on Nov. 2:

— City of Moab, Nov. 2, 2022

Pratt and Robbins were the responding officers on the day of the domestic dispute. They caught up with the couple in their van, pulling them over for speeding and swerving near the entrance to Arches National Park. They found Petito crying “uncontrollably,” according to the police report, and both Petito and Laundrie said they had been arguing throughout the day.

Petito admitted to striking Laundrie first, which led to a struggle between the two, which ended with Laundrie grabbing Petito by the face, leading to cuts. Laundrie also sustained scratches on his arm. Police eventually determined the incident not to be domestic assault. An independent investigation by Capt. Brandon Ratcliffe of the Price City Police Department from January, however, noted that just because Petito may have struck Laundrie first doesn’t mean she was the “predominant aggressor in [their] relationship,” and noted that Petito was likely a long-term victim of domestic violence.

“Would Gabby be alive today if this case was handled differently?” wrote Ratcliffe. “That is an impossible question to answer despite it being the answer many people want to know. Nobody knows and nobody will ever know the answer to that question.”

According to the suit, Petito contacted her family after the incident, showing them pictures of the scratches she sustained during the fight. The family then began arranging to fly Petito home in an attempt to separate her from Laundrie. However, the suit states the family “stepped back” from those arrangements upon learning police were investigating the matter.

The suit also states investigating officers “never directly questioned [Laundrie] about whether he hit Gabby or how she ended up with scratches on her face.” The family is claiming the police investigation was “deeply flawed” and treated Laundrie “as if he were the victim of domestic abuse rather than the perpetrator.”

“You know why the domestic assault code is there? It’s there to protect people,” Pratt said at the scene, according to body camera footage. “The reason why they don’t give us discretion on these things is because too many times women at risk want to go back to their abuser, they just wanted him to stop, they don’t want to have to be separated, they don’t want him to be charged, they don’t want him to go to jail — and then they end up getting worse and worse treatment and end up getting killed.”  

In Utah, the legislature has removed the ability for officers to use their own discretion in investigating domestic abuse cases. The suit claims Pratt, instead “coached [Petito] to provide answers that the officers used to justify their decision not to enforce Utah law.” The suit also alleges that officers were trained by Asst. Chief Braydon Palmer to provide that coaching to people like Petito.

Petito family at today’s press conference. From left, stepfather Jim Schmidt, mother Nichole Schmidt, stepmother Terra Petito, and father Joseph Petito

The suit also specifically calls out Pratt for “choosing to believe [Laundrie] … assuming [Petito’s] responsibility for the fight…” Pratt is also accused of turning off his body camera during his preliminary investigation, and the suit calls his very employment in Moab into question due to previous allegations of sexual misconduct and domestic abuse while he served as police chief in Salina, Utah. ABC4 is not aware of any charges or convictions on Pratt’s record.

Pratt remains with the department and has since been promoted to detective. He serves as a school resource officer in the Grand County School District. Lawyers said in the press conference today there would be more evidence against Pratt coming out during the discovery portion of the upcoming trial, but they declined to share that evidence this morning.

The lawsuit states that its aim, beyond suing for wrongful death, is to be a “vehicle for systemic change and a reckoning about how the police enforce the State’s domestic abuse laws.”

“The officers egregiously misinterpreted [Petito’s] extreme emotional distress, seeing it as the cause of the domestic violence rather than its result,” states the lawsuit. “Officer Pratt, in particular, was fundamentally biased in his approach to the investigation, choosing to believe [Petito’s] abuser, ignoring evidence that [Petito] was the victim and intentionally looking for loopholes to get around the requirements of Utah law and his duty to protect [Petito].”

The Petito family also has an outstanding lawsuit against the parents of Laundrie on the grounds of “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” claiming the Laundries were aware Brian had murdered their daughter and chose not to act.

The following are 24-hour Crises Lines:

  • Domestic Violence LINK 1-800-897-LINK (5465)
  • Rape Recovery Center 801-467-7273
  • Nat’l DV Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
  • Nat’l Sexual Assault 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
  • Hotline Adult Protective Services 1-800-371-7897
  • Child Protective Services 1-855-323-3237
  • Suicide Prevention 1-800-273-TALK (8255)