Gabby Petito's story shines a light on domestic violence

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In the late summer of 2021, the story of 22-year-old Gabby Petito's disappearance spread quickly across social media and throughout the media. Headlines put a spotlight on the missing 22-year-old “van life'” video blogger, and on her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, who had returned home to Florida without her. Gabby's body was eventually found near a Wyoming campground, and a month later, Brian's remains were discovered in a Florida nature reserve. In a notebook found near Brian, he claimed responsibility for Gabby's death.

Gabby Petito
Gabby Petito

Instagram


Now “48 Hours” investigates if Gabby's death could have been prevented in: “Gabby Petito: The Untold Story.” CBS News national correspondent Jericka Duncan, takes a deeper look into the life and death of Gabby Petito, and the steps that her parents have taken to seek justice on behalf of their daughter.

When Gabby was missing, police bodycam video was released of an interaction that the couple had with officers from the Moab City Police Department in Utah, just a few weeks earlier. The video shows Gabby crying and visibly upset after an altercation with Laundrie. The officers were responding to a 911 call about a potential domestic violence incident, where the caller reported seeing Brian slap Gabby, then hit her. 

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Gabby Petito is seen  talking to a Moab, Utah, police officer after police pulled over the van she was traveling in with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, near the entrance to Arches National Park on August 12, 2021. 

Moab Police Department


But when the Moab officers pulled over Gabby and Brian in their van minutes later, they separate them and both Gabby and Brian say that she had slapped him. When pressed if Brian hit her, Gabby said “I guess yeah but I hit him first.” An officer asks where Brian hit her, and she says that he grabbed her face. Without directly asking Brian if he hit Gabby, the officers determined that Gabby was the primary aggressor, but let her off without a citation or an arrest. The couple were left to continue their trip. 

Gabby's mother, Nichole Schmidt, says she last spoke with Gabby in late August on FaceTime, with Gabby telling her the couple was headed to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. After she stopped hearing from Gabby, and Gabby's phone stopped working, Nichole says she became worried and she, Gabby's stepfather Jim, father Joseph, and stepmother Tara reported her missing to authorities. On September 11, 2021, Gabby Petito officially became a missing person, and the search for her kicked off across the country.  Seeing posts on social media, another “van life'” couple realized they had seen Gabby's van back on August 27 and reported its location to authorities. Later that day, September 19, 2021, investigators located Gabby's remains in a national forest near the Tetons. Brian had returned alone to Florida, but by the time Gabby's remains were discovered, his parents said that he was missing too – that he had gone in a hike in a nature reserve near their Florida home days earlier and not returned. Weeks later, Brian's body was uncovered in that reserve. He had died from a gunshot to the head.

Petito's parents are in the process of filing a lawsuit against the Moab City Police Department, and the Moab officers involved in the stop that day, for negligence and wrongful death. In addition to claiming that the officers failed to enforce Utah State law that day by not issuing a citation or making an arrest, they also claim that the officers were not properly trained “to investigate domestic violence situations, and to properly assess the circumstances, including to identify Brian as the true primary aggressor.” 

On August 25, 2021, Gabby posted a series of photos on Instagram in front of a butterfly mural in Ogden, Utah. It would be her final post on Instagram.

Gabby Petito/Instagram


Petito's parents' Utah attorney, Brian Stewart, tells “48 Hours,” “The family believes that Gabby would still be alive today if the police officers had had the proper training and had followed the law in how they responded to Gabby's situation.” In late 2021, the Moab City Police Department commissioned another Utah police department to conduct an independent review of their officers' actions. The report noted that the Moab officers made several “unintentional mistakes” that day, including misinterpreting the law and not making an arrest. In a statement, the City of Moab wrote that it intends to implement the recommendations of the independent review, including more domestic violence investigation related training, and legal training to ensure officers understand Utah state laws.  In the statement, the City of Moab said it believed the officers showed kindness, respect and empathy in their handling of this incident. 

Gabby Petito's parents are also suing Brian's estate for wrongful death, and his parents for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Petito's parent's attorney, Patrick Reilly tells “48 Hours” that the family believes the Laundries were aware that “Brian had murdered Gabby,” and were “aware where her body was located” while her parents and investigators were searching for her. The Laundries' attorney issued a statement denying the allegations made in the lawsuit against them. Reilly also discloses details about a letter he says was shown to him by the FBI, allegedly addressed to Brian from his mother, which Reilly says contains the following: “If you go to prison, I'll bake a cake with a shiv in it.” Reilly also says the envelope containing the letter had the words “burn after reading” written on the front.

Gabby's parents have formed the Gabby Petito Foundation, which has partnered with the National Domestic Violence Hotline. The mission of the Gabby Petito Foundation is to “address the needs of organizations that support locating missing persons and to provide aid to organizations that assist victims of domestic violence situations, through education, awareness, and prevention strategies.”

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

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