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Parents of Gabby Petito sue Moab police, alleging they should have intervened after domestic violence call

Petito, 22, was strangled to death by her fiancé two weeks after Moab police officers responded to a domestic violence call involving the couple.

(CN) — The parents of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old aspiring "van life" influencer who was strangled to death by her fiancé in 2021, filed a lawsuit against the Moab Police Department on Thursday for failing to adequately intervene following a domestic violence incident two weeks before the murder.

The civil complaint, filed in Utah state court, says the police officers who investigated the incident were "fundamentally biased" and behaved as if the fiancé Brian Laundrie was the victim and Petito as the abuser. It alleges that one of the responding officers, Eric Pratt, was "a domestic abuser himself, who has used authority and threats of physical violence to control and intimidate sexual partners," and therefore identified with Laundrie, and was "intentionally looking for loopholes to get around the requirements of Utah law and his duty to protect Gabby."

The suit, which charges the Moab police department with negligence and wrongful death, asks for more than $50 million.

"She could have been protected that day,” said Petito's mother, Nichole Schmidt, at a press conference on Thursday. “There are laws put in place to protect victims, and those laws were not followed, and we don’t want this to happen to anyone else.”

"Our officers acted with kindness, respect, and empathy toward Ms. Petito," a spokesperson for the city of Moab said, in a written statement. "The attorneys for the Petito family seem to suggest that somehow our officers could see into the future based on this single interaction. 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."

Petito and Laundrie were driving through the western United States, visiting national parks in a converted van and documenting their life on social media. On Aug. 12, they were working in a coffee shop in Moab. According to the Petito family's complaint, they argued for much of the day, and eventually, "Brian grabbed Gabby by the face so forcefully that he cut her cheek and drew blood." Two witnesses called 911 to report the fight. One described seeing a "gentleman slapping the girl”; another said Laundrie had hit Petito with a closed fist.

Two Moab police officers, Pratt and Daniel Robbins, pulled the van over and questioned the couple. The interviews were recorded on an officer's body camera, and later released to the public.

Both Petito and Laundrie appeared to downplay the incident. When Petito was asked if Brian had hit her, she responded, "I guess, but I hit him first.”

"Rather than probing Brian and Gabby’s vague story about how their fight led to physical violence, including asking for additional details about the facts Gabby had already explained, Officer Pratt appeared to simply accept Gabby’s claim that she hit Brian first, as if the violence reported by witnesses was an isolated incident, without any provocation," the complaint reads. "Instead, Officer Pratt steered the conversation by patronizingly questioning Gabby about whether she was okay, asking if she took medication for anxiety, and asking leading questions about Brian being 'pretty patient' with Gabby. Gabby responded by saying that Brian gets really frustrated with her, and also has a lot of anxiety."

The complaint adds: "The officers egregiously misinterpreted Gabby’s extreme emotional distress, seeing it as the cause of the domestic violence rather than its result."

According to Utah law, police officers investigating domestic violence incidents must determine who the "primary aggressor" was. They also must make sure the couple spends the night apart. The police officers determined that Petito had been the primary aggressor. They drove Laundrie to a motel, left Petito in the van, and instructed the two not to contact each other for the night.

Just over two weeks later, Laundrie strangled Petito to death in Wyoming, and hid her body in a campsite.

The suit charges that the police department does not adequately train its officer to respond to and investigate domestic violence calls. It also faults the department for hiring officers like Pratt who, according to the complaint, has a "history of pervasive professional and sexual misconduct, including sexual harassment and intimate partner violence,"

Less than two months after Petito's murder, Laundrie shot himself to death in a Florida nature preserve. In a notebook found near his body, Laudrie wrote what appears to be a confession and explanation of the killing, describing it as something akin to an act of mercy. He wrote that Petito had injured herself, was freezing, and was "begging for an end to her pain."

"I ended her life," he wrote. "I thought it was merciful, that it is what she wanted but I see now all the mistakes I made. I panicked, I was in shock. But from the moment I decided, took away her pain, I knew I couldn’t go on without her.”

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