9th August, 2022
Nicole Schmidt, mother of slain Gabby Petito has filed a lawsuit against the Utah police in the tourist town of Moab, blaming them for the wrongful death of her daughter.
Schmidt vividly remembers the pain she felt watching body camera footage of her daughter sobbing while Utah police officers questioned her about a fight with her boyfriend.
The video was released last summer after Petito had gone missing during a cross-country van trip with her boyfriend. Schmidt was desperately looking for her daughter and on the video she saw a young woman crying for help.
Instead of answering those cries, police in Moab allowed the couple to leave after requiring them to spend one night apart.
Petito’s strangled body was discovered the next month on the edge of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, admitted killing her in a notebook discovered near his body in a Florida swamp, where he took his own life, authorities have said.
The officers’ actions that day are the centre of a wrongful death lawsuit the Petito family announced Monday they plan to file against Moab, arguing the officers’ failed to recognize their daughter was in a life-threatening situation last year and in need of help.
“I wanted to jump through the screen and rescue her,” said Schmidt, wiping away tears as she appeared by video at a news conference to announce a notice of claim filed Monday.
After the notice of claim was filed, Moab city government spokesperson Lisa Church declined to comment, saying the city does not comment on pending litigation.
Notices of claims are required before people can sue government entities and the family’s claim said that the lawsuit will seek $50 million in damages.
Moab officials have 60 days to respond before the family can file a lawsuit based on the claim.
The family’s lawyer, James McConkie, told reporters in Salt Lake City that “the officers fail to recognize the serious danger that she was in, and failed to investigate fully and properly.”
He added: “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.”
Public workers such as police officers typically have immunity from lawsuits in many states, including Utah. Debate over that legal doctrine, known as “qualified immunity,” emerged after police shootings in 2020 and has reached both Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Petito family’s attorneys said they planned to argue that applying Utah’s governmental immunity law to wrongful death claims is unconstitutional and a roadblock to accountability.
“The only effective way to correct these problems is to hold our institutions accountable for failures, including law enforcement,” said another Petito family attorney, Brian Stewart.
The search for Petito drew worldwide attention, spurring amateur sleuths to scour social media for clues. It also brought scrutiny of authorities and the news media, both of which have been criticized for focusing more attention on missing white women than on women of colour.
Earlier this year, an independent investigation found that police in Moab made “several unintentional mistakes” when they came across Petito and Laundrie.
In the report, police said it was very likely that Petito “was a long-term victim of domestic violence, whether that be physically, mentally, and/or emotionally.”
Petito and Laundrie were originally from Long Island, New York.