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Gabby Petito’s family files claim police let her down

Nicole Schmidt vividly remembers the pain she felt watching body camera footage of her daughter Gabby Petito sobbing as Utah police officers questioned her about a fight with her boyfriend.

The video was released last summer after Petito went missing on a cross-country van trip with her boyfriend. Schmidt was desperately looking for her daughter and on the video she saw a young woman screaming for help.

Instead of responding to the cries, police in the resort town of Moab, Utah, allowed the couple to leave after asking them to spend the night separately.

Petito’s strangled body was discovered the following month on the edge of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, admitted to killing her in a notebook discovered near her body in a Florida swamp, where he committed suicide, authorities said.

The officers’ actions that day are at the center of a wrongful death lawsuit the Petito family announced Monday they plan to file against Moab, arguing that officers failed to acknowledge their daughter was in a predicament. life-threatening last year and needed help.

“I wanted to jump across the screen and save her,” Schmidt said, wiping away tears as she appeared via video at a press conference to announce a notice of claim filed on Monday.

After the notice of claim was filed, Moab city government spokeswoman Lisa Church declined to comment, saying the city does not comment on ongoing litigation.

Notices of claim are needed before people can sue government entities, and the family’s claim says the lawsuit will seek $50 million in damages. Moab officials have 60 days to respond before the family can take legal action based on the claim.

The family’s attorney, James McConkie, told reporters in Salt Lake City that “police failed to recognize the grave danger she was in and failed to conduct a full and proper investigation.”

He added: “They didn’t have the training they needed to recognize the clear signs that were evident that morning that Gabby was a victim and in serious need of immediate help.”

Public workers such as police officers generally enjoy immunity from prosecution in many states, including Utah. Debate over this legal doctrine, known as “qualified immunity,” emerged after police shootings in 2020 and reached both Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Attorneys for the Petito family said they plan to argue that the application of Utah’s governmental immunity law to wrongful death claims is unconstitutional and a bar to liability.

“The only effective way to correct these problems is to hold our institutions accountable for failures, including law enforcement,” said another Petito family lawyer, Brian Stewart.

Petito’s search has captured worldwide attention, prompting amateur sleuths to scour social media for clues. It has also drawn scrutiny from authorities and the news media, both of which have been criticized for giving more attention to missing white women than to women of color.

Earlier this year, an independent investigation found that Moab police made “several unintentional errors” in meeting with Petito and Laundrie. In the report, police said it was very likely that Petito “was a long-term victim of domestic violence, whether physically, mentally and/or emotionally.”

Petito and Laundrie were from Long Island, New York.

In addition to filing the Notice of Claim, Schmidt recently announced a $100,000 donation from the Gabby Petito Foundation to partner with the National Domestic Violence Hotline to help others survive turbulent and abusive relationships.

Schmidt told The Associated Press in an interview last week that she still had many unanswered questions about what was wrong.

“Looking back, I didn’t really see any signs. I think the only two people who will ever know what happened in that relationship were Gabby and Brian. And we can guess and we can guess, but we don’t really know what happened,” she added. “Most likely the storyline ended this way because something had been going on for a while.”