On Thursday, Gabby Petito’s parents filed a lawsuit for wrongful death against the Moab, Utah, police department, specifically naming the two officers who pulled over Petito and her then-boyfriend Brian Laundrie on Aug. 12, 2021. The $50 million suit claims the officers should have recognized basic warning signs of intimate partner violence, which could have saved Petito’s life about a month before Laundrie killed Petito at a Wyoming campsite. The lawsuit also unearths a bombshell allegation that one of the officers, Eric Pratt, was “fundamentally biased” against Petito because while he was police chief in a different small town in Utah, a woman alleges he threatened to kill her while they were in a relationship in 2017.
Per the body camera footage of Petito’s encounter with Pratt, despite how the officers were called by a witness who claimed to have seen Laundrie slap Petito, Pratt and his partner, Daniel Robbins, deemed Petito the “predominant aggressor” and threatened to put her in jail. Pratt told her and Laundrie at the time that victims like Laundrie “end up getting worse and worse treatment, and then they end up getting killed.” Instead of jailing Petito, the cops issued the two a warning and separated the couple by paying to put Laundrie up in a hotel while Petito slept alone in the couple’s van, in the midst of a visible mental health crisis. At no point did Pratt or Robbins interview or check in with the witness who saw Laundrie hit Petito, or other witnesses who saw the couple fighting. A month later, Petito was found dead, and shortly thereafter, Laundrie wrote a note confessing to killing her and died by suicide.
Now, per the lawsuit filed by Petito’s parents, Nicole Schmidt and Joseph Petito, a woman says that while Pratt was police chief of Salina, Utah, in 2017, he threatened to kill her while they were dating. The Salt Lake Tribune interviewed the woman, who is unnamed in the lawsuit and the story, as well as her co-workers and friends who confirmed the relationship and that she told them of Pratt’s threats. When the woman learned Pratt was seeing other women, she threatened to expose their relationship; later, in a grocery store parking lot, she says Pratt pulled her over using the police siren attached to his personal truck. While her toddler was sitting in the back of the car, she claims Pratt threatened to kill her with a crowbar if she told anyone.
The woman said she eventually wrote about Pratt and his different relationships in a blog around that time, figuring it would be too suspicious for him to kill her if she publicly shared her claims about the other women, but she deleted the blog a year later. Pratt eventually resigned, telling the mayor of Salina he was burnt out, and took jobs in the police departments of Gunnison Valley, Utah, and then Moab. A year after Pratt threatened her, the woman says he reached out to “clear the air” between them; per the lawsuit, she recalled that he told her that if they met up a week earlier, he still would have been too angry to see her: “I would have been digging a grave, and you would have been in it.”
The mayor of Salina, Dustin Deaton, told the Tribune that the woman had spoken to him about Pratt’s conduct and threats to her. Deaton, who had personally appointed Pratt police chief, asked if Pratt had been in uniform or using a police vehicle while making any of the alleged threats. When the woman said no, Deaton told the paper that he determined her complaints were more of a personal issue that didn’t warrant intervention. Deaton further said that he continued to stand by Pratt and believes he “responded to the Petito case as best as any officer could.”
Petito’s parents’ suit further points to quotes from Pratt about being disillusioned by police work and hating his job.
When they announced the lawsuit in August, Nicole Schmidt, Petito’s mother, described watching the police body-cam footage of the fateful stop in Moab as “very painful” at a news conference. “If the officers had been properly trained and followed the law, Gabby would still be alive today,” James McConkie, an attorney representing the family, said in a statement at the time. At a press conference, McConkie said there were “clear signs that were evident that morning that Gabby was a victim and that she was in serious need of immediate help” and accused the Moab Police Department of having “chronic problems with protecting” domestic violence victims and failing to train officers to support them. The officers’ mishandling of Petito’s case, he said, stemmed from “an institutional failure plain and simple.”
To McConkie’s point, Petito’s story is especially heartbreaking, because it very much does represent “an institutional failure” and systemic problems with policing as a response or solution to gender-based violence. If the allegations against Pratt are true, he isn’t an anomaly—studies from the 1990s found at least 40% of police officers responded to a survey by self-reporting as domestic abusers. One 2020 survey found 24% of women who have called the police to report intimate partner violence or sexual assault say that police responded by threatening to or actually arresting them, falsely identifying them as the primary aggressor.
In addition to their lawsuit against Moab, Petito’s parents also started a charitable foundation in Petito’s name to help victims of interpersonal violence and missing persons and advocate for better law enforcement training and cultural change around intimate partner violence. Any money they receive from their lawsuit against Moab will go toward the foundation.