SALT LAKE CITY (KUTV) — The family of Gabby Petito is formally filing a lawsuit against the Moab City Police Department over a traffic stop they say was mishandled by officers and could have prevented the young woman’s eventual death.
At a news conference Thursday morning in Salt Lake City, Petito’s family and their attorneys announced the filing in Seventh District Court, saying that “Gabby would be alive today if the officers had done their job to protect her and followed the law.”
Meanwhile, a Moab city spokesperson said officers had no way to predict the tragedy that would befall Petito, and the city will "ardently defend against this lawsuit."
The family had previously filed a notice of intent to sue in August. The lawsuit seeks $50 million in damages.
"We’re pretty broken because of it. We miss her so much. But we saw it as an opportunity to help other families ," said Nichole Schmidt, Petito's mother, during the news conference. "We feel we need to bring justice because she could have been protected that day."
"The four of us don’t want to be here," said Joseph Petito, Gabby's father, motioning to Schmidt and both their spouses. "We’d give it up in a second if she’d come back."
James McConkie, one of the family's lawyers, called domestic and intimate partner violence a "silent killer" and "insidious problem."
“The purpose of this lawsuit is to honor Gabby’s legacy by demanding accountability and working toward systemic changes to protect victims of domestic abuse and violence and prevent such tragedies in the future," McConkie said.
To that end, the Petito family attorneys blasted the Moab Police Department for employing Officer Eric Pratt, one of two officers who responded to an altercation between Petito and her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, near Arches National Park on August 12, 2021. The couple had been on a cross-country road trip together, and a witness called 911 to report Laundrie had hit Petito.
The officers decided not to make an arrest – chalking the situation up to a “mental health crisis” – and separated the couple for the night. Approximately one month later, Petito went missing, and her body was later discovered in Grand Teton National Park. She was 22.
Laundrie disappeared and later died by suicide. The FBI announced in January that Laundrie admitted in a written note that he was responsible for Petito's death.
In the lawsuit, the Petito family alleges Officer Pratt a is a “domestic abuser” who “improperly used his police vehicles and government buildings for sex” while police chief in Salina. The lawsuit also claims he sexually harassed a woman and threatened to kill her when she told him she would report it.
“As a domestic abuser himself, who has used authority and threats of physical violence to control and intimidate sexual partners, it becomes clear why Officer Pratt was fundamentally biased in his approach to the investigation, identifying with Gabby’s abuser, ignoring the victim, and intentionally looking for loopholes to get around the requirements of Utah law and his duty to protect Gabby,” the lawsuit stated.
Pratt was recently promoted to detective and has been working as a school resource officer at an elementary school in Moab, KUTV 2News previously reported.
"The Moab City Police Department knew or should have known that Officer Pratt, who has a history of pervasive professional and sexual misconduct, including sexual harassment and intimate partner violence, was unfit and unsafe to be a police officer," said Brian Stewart, another of the Petito family's lawyers. "We hope they will do that investigation now and take appropriate action."
In response to the lawsuit, Moab City spokesperson Lisa Church issued the following statement:
The death of Gabrielle Petito in Wyoming is a terrible tragedy, and we feel profound sympathy for the Petito and Schmidt families and the painful loss they have endured. At the same time, it is clear that Moab City Police Department officers are not responsible for Gabrielle Petito’s eventual murder.
Ms. Petito is believed to have died in Wyoming in late August 2021, more than two weeks after she and Brian Laundrie visited Moab and interacted with Moab City Police. At that time, our officers acted with kindness, respect, and empathy toward Ms. Petito.
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.
The Moab Police Department declined to comment on the specific allegations against Pratt. KUTV 2News also reached out to the administration at Helen M. Knight Elementary School, where Pratt has been working as a school resource officer, but they did not immediately respond.
If you or someone you know are experiencing domestic or dating violence, resources are available to help. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.
The Utah Domestic Violence Coalition hotline can be reached 24/7 at 1-800-897-5465, or the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available at 1-800-799-7233.
The Utah-based Rape Recovery Center can be reached at 801-467-7273
A list of local domestic violence shelters can be found online here. Resources and shelter are also available through the YWCA of Utah.