Last week, Gabby Petito’s parents filed a lawsuit against the Moab City Police Department, claiming that the department was negligent in hiring and training officers, and that individual officers were negligent in their handling of a domestic violence call involving Petito and her fiance and traveling companion, Brian Laundrie, in August of 2021.
Weeks after the incident in Moab, Laundrie murdered Petito outside Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming; he later took his own life, admitting to killing Petito in a suicide note.
The family’s suit follows a notice of claim for $50 million submitted in August of this year.
A statement from Moab City says it will “ardently defend against this lawsuit.”
The police stop
In the summer of 2021, Petito and Laundrie were driving their van on a cross-country trip and stopped to visit Moab. On Aug. 12, Moab police received a report from a witness who said he saw Laundrie hit Petito outside of the Moonflower Community Cooperative; they then drove away in the van. Moab City Police officers Eric Pratt and Daniel Robbins responded and caught up with the couple near the entrance to Arches National Park. Police body camera footage of the stop was later released and widely viewed: Petito is in tears, and both she and Laundrie report that each physically harmed the other. The officers determined Petito to be the dominant aggressor in the scenario. Utah law requires an arrest to be made in any domestic violence incident, but Pratt and Robbins instead classified the incident as “disorderly conduct” and separated the couple for the night. Laundrie was referred to a local social service organization to obtain lodging for the night, and Petito stayed in the van.
The lawsuit recounts that during the police stop, Petito called her parents and told them she and Laundrie were fighting; her parents urged her to separate herself from Laundrie and offered to pay for her to travel home. When they learned the police were involved, the lawsuit says, they trusted that appropriate protective actions would be taken, and stepped back from the situation.
“Gabby’s parents relied to their detriment on the police officers involved to evaluate the
situation and intervene as necessary to protect Gabby,” the suit says.
A third-party investigation of the incident conducted by Brandon Ratcliffe of the Price Police Department identified multiple mistakes and policy violations made by officers in the case. They failed to follow up with the initial reporting party for a witness statement, they failed to arrest anyone even though the case should have been classified as a domestic violence incident, they failed to photograph minor injuries Petito had, and their reports lacked detail.
Ratcliffe’s final report concluded that there appeared to be no intentional policy violations, and that the officers should receive more training; it also asserted that there’s no way to tell whether a different approach to the incident would have changed the chain of events that followed—no way to tell whether a different approach could have saved Petito’s life.
Petito’s parents, Joseph Petito and Nichole Schmidt, think that proper handling of the case would, indeed, have saved their daughter’s life.
“Gabby did not have to die,” the lawsuit says in its introduction. “Gabby would still be alive if Moab Police Department had not hired, retained and/or failed to train officers who were fundamentally unfit and safe to employ in the capacity of police officer … if the police officers had competently and properly investigated Brian’s reported abuse and enforced Utah’s laws that were designed to remove the officers’ discretion to disregard abuse … if Officer Pratt had not intentionally coached Gabby and manipulated the investigation to try to find loopholes that would allow him to disregard the mandates of Utah law and his duty to protect Gabby.”
The lawsuit seeks $50 million in damages, and also calls for “a reckoning about how the police
enforce the State’s domestic abuse laws.” The suit calls for ending claims of police immunity in wrongful death cases; more and better police training on evaluating and handling domestic abuse situations; and ending the hiring of officers with a history of professional misconduct, prior behavior issues, or personal biases.
The suit explicitly names the Moab Police Department, then-Police Chief Bret Edge, then-Assistant Chief Braydon Palmer, and the responding officers Eric Pratt and Daniel Robbins as defendants.
Allegations regarding Pratt’s past
The suit refers to Pratt’s previous employment as a police chief in Salina, Utah. Citing an unnamed witness, the suit alleges that while in that role, Pratt “carried on several extra-marital affairs,” “improperly used his position to use government buildings for sex,” and “used his position as police chief to improperly manipulate [the witness] and to sexually harass her,” including threatening to kill her. In a Nov. 3 article, Salt Lake Tribune reporter Courtney Tanner wrote that Tribune journalists have spoken with the unnamed witness as well as with acquaintances who have supported her account.
The suit also quotes from an interview Pratt gave in a podcast called “Books In Heinessight,” saying he looks for “loopholes” in his police work to avoid implementing fines or punishments he considers too burdensome. In the same podcast, Pratt said he didn’t like police work and was disillusioned with the career.
The lawsuit points to all these instances as reasons Pratt should never have been hired by the Moab City Police Department. Pratt is currently the department’s School Resource Officer, working in the elementary, middle and high schools. According to the suit, Robbins is still in the Grand County area; Palmer is now in the St. George area, and Edge is still in the Grand County area, though he has left the department.
A troubled department
The Moab City Police Department has faced public scrutiny and criticism over several other incidents and issues over the past year, aside from its handling of the Petito/Laundrie call. A local judge publicly admonished the department for frequent irregularities in officers’ use of body cameras; an investigation into officer conduct in an alleged child abuse case found policy violaions; a county resident publically accused the department and the city of ignoring her legitimate calls for help when she faced credible death threats; the department has been chronically short-staffed, meaning officers don’t have time to complete the trainings that investigation reports recommend. Former police chief Edge stepped down amid the turmoil, and after an extended period of Family and Medical Leave—during which media outlets pointed out his continued promotion of his photography business on social media.
This spring the city hired Jared Garcia as its new police chief. Garcia has prioritized increasing staffing and training at the department, as well as upgrading equipment. He says he hopes to establish more competitive salaries for Moab officers to help attract and retain quality officers, and that he will develop a culture of professionalism in the department.
City’s response to the lawsuit
In a Nov. 3 statement, Moab City said it feels profound sympathy for Petito’s family in the terrible tragedy of her death.
“At the same time,” the statement says, “it is clear that Moab City Police Department officers are not responsible for Gabrielle Petito’s eventual murder.”
The statement asserts that city police officers acted with kindness, empathy and respect towards Petito, and that no one could have predicted Petito’s murder. City Communications Manager Lisa Church said the city will not comment further at this time.