By: Melanie Porter
MOAB, Utah (KSTU) — As the family of Gabby Petito filed a $50 million lawsuit against the Moab Police Department, city officials say they will “ardently defend” against it.
In a statement obtained by KSTU, the City of Moab stated that while the death of Gabby Petito was a “terrible tragedy,” Moab City Police Department officers are not responsible for her murder.
“The attorneys for the Petito family seem to suggest that somehow our officers could see into the future based on this single interaction,” the statement reads in part. “In truth, on Aug. 12, 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.”
The lawsuit was officially filed Thursday morning in Utah. In light of the filing, attorneys and the parents of Gabby Petito traveled to Salt Lake City to give their thoughts.
Attorneys for the Petito family claimed that if officers had followed the law, Gabby Petito would still be alive. Attorneys said they also believe the officers’ negligence contributed to Petito’s death.
“The purpose of this lawsuit is to honor Gabby’s legacy,” explained James McConkie, lawyer for the Petito family. “By demanding accountability and working for change in the system to protect victims of domestic abuse and violence and to prevent such tragedies in the future.”
Petito and her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, had a run-in with Moab police officers in August when a witness said they saw a man, identified as Laundrie, hitting a woman.
After officers pulled over the couple’s van, they determined Petito was the aggressor and separated the couple for the night.
In police bodycam video of the interaction, Petito can be seen crying while in the front seat of the couples’ van.
“Watching it is very painful. I wanted to jump through the screen and rescue her,” said Nichole Schmidt, Petito’s mother, at the press conference announcing the lawsuit.
Officers believed the incident was “more accurately a mental/emotional health ‘break’ than a domestic assault,” a police report reads.
“At that time, our officers acted with kindness, respect, and empathy toward Ms. Petito,” a statement from the City of Moab reads.
An investigation into the interaction revealed the two Moab Police officers made “several unintentional mistakes” and recommendations were given to the department for software upgrades and additional training.
More than a month later, Petito’s body was found in the Bridger-Teton National Forest and her cause of death was determined to be strangulation.
Laundrie claimed responsibility for Petito’s death before he returned to Florida and died by suicide.
“We believe that these officers were negligent and their negligence contributed to the cause of Gabby’s death,” said attorney Brian Stewart.
On top of the bodycam video, the family’s attorneys said more proof of police negligence exists. They said the officers failed to recognize the danger Petito was in and refused to investigate, which led to the decision to file the lawsuit.
“This is not to punish individual officers but is to honor the efforts of dedicated police officers. And while it is tough to do by demanding that changes needed to help them do their job better will be accomplished. We believe that the only effective way to correct these problems is to hold our institutions accountable for their failures, including law enforcement,” Stewart said.
The notice of claim precedes the filing of a lawsuit in Utah, and is typically done within a year of the particular loss. A date not lost on the Petito family nearing the year anniversary of their daughter’s death.
The Petito family has also filed a lawsuit against the parents of Brian Laundrie, claiming his parents knew their son murdered Gabby and helped him leave the country.
This story was originally published Nov. 3 by KSTU in Salt Lake City, an E.W. Scripps Company.