SALT LAKE CITY – Nicole Schmidt vividly remembers the pain she felt watching body camera footage of her daughter Gabby Petito 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 the tourist town of 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 center 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 about 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 color.
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.
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 violent relationships.
Schmidt told The Associated Press in an interview last week that she still has many unanswered questions about what went wrong.
“Looking back, I didn’t really see any signs. I think the only two people that will ever know what happened in that relationship was Gabby and Brian. And we can guess and we can make assumptions but we don’t really know what happened,” she said. “Most likely the scenario ended that way because something was happening for a while.”