Gabby Petito’s parents urge support for Utah domestic violence bill

Jan 30, 2023, 4:13 PM | Updated: 6:57 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Gabby Petito’s parents joined Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson at the state Capitol on Monday to advocate for stronger domestic violence responses from police officers.

Joe Petito and Nichole Schmidt, parents of the young woman from New York who was killed by her boyfriend shortly after the two traveled through Utah, appeared alongside Henderson and thanked lawmakers for passing a bill that would require lethality assessments in domestic violence cases, but said more needs to be done to protect victims.

“It is a proud moment to be here, and I thank everyone for the hard work that you did and the way that you voted today,” Petito said. “That was awesome. … But it’s not just about the bill, alright. These questions are only the first step in the way of helping these individuals that find themselves in a situation.”

SB117, sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, would require that law enforcement officers conduct an 11-question lethality assessment anytime they respond to reports of domestic violence between intimate partners. It would also create a statewide database of assessment data and would require data sharing between agencies so that officers have access to information about previous offenses by alleged aggressors.

A recent change to the bill would also allocate $1.7 million in ongoing funds for a domestic violence victim services grant program, and requires that officers ask the 11 questions in a “non-accusatory manner.”

Schmidt told reporters she has immersed herself in understanding lethality assessments recently and she believes SB117 will save lives in the future.

“I know, in Gabby’s case, if it had been used, I believe she would still be here today,” she said. “We are proud to be here. We know she’s not coming back, and we can’t save Gabby or Mandy. But … we represent them and we hope that they can save more lives, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Petito said policymakers should continue to work to provide more services to protect victims, and said he was shocked to learn that Utah has more than twice as many animal shelters than it does domestic violence shelters.

He also urged people to share the numbers for the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition domestic abuse hotline, 1-800-897-LINK (5465), and for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-7233.

“I hope in the coming years that we can correct that and keep moving forward to where (shelters) are no longer needed,” he said. “… And if you need help, please call those numbers, there are people (who can help). The world is better today because you’re in it. You should not fear the ones you love.”

Henderson — whose cousin, Amanda “Mandy” Mayne, was killed by her ex-husband last August — worked closely with Weiler to craft the bill, and spoke in support of the requirements during a committee hearing last week. Although police departments can voluntarily complete lethality assessments, no such report was completed in Mayne’s case.

Mayne’s ex-husband, Taylor Martin, had a long history of violent behavior — including threatening to kill former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, according to Henderson. She believes a lethality assessment may have made a difference in her cousin’s case.

“There is a long history here of things that were caught, things that were not caught, dots that were not connected,” she said.

Shortly before Monday’s news conference, the full Utah Senate voted unanimously to approve SB117. It now goes to the House for consideration.

The families of Gabby Petito and Mandy Mayne joined Weiler on the Senate floor for the bill’s presentation. After the bill won a vote of approval, the Senate bowed their heads and recognized both Gabby Petito and Mandy Mayne in a moment of silence.

“Although we can’t bring Gabby back and we can’t bring Mandy back, it seems like we’ve got a problem,” Weiler said on the Senate floor, adding there were “a lot of warning signs, a lot of red flags there that we didn’t catch.”

“I’m not here to blame anyone,” Weiler added, but state officials have been looking at the cases and asking, “what can we do” better as a state?

“Everyone seems to believe that the two things we’re addressing in SB117 would help,” Weiler said. “Again, it’s not going to help Mandy or Gabby, but we’re trying to help future victims. And hopefully, we won’t learn their names if they stay alive.”

Numerous times, as Weiler described Mandy Mayne’s murder at the hands of her abusive ex-husband, his voice strained with emotion.

Sen. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, noted threats leading up to Mandy Mayne’s murder spanned several Utah cities and “there was no communication.”

“We need to do whatever we can do in this state so our law enforcement agencies can do their job well and we can protect our citizens,” Kwan said.

Last year, Petito and Schmidt filed a $50 million wrongful death lawsuit against the Moab Police Department, alleging officers failed to notice red flags and take steps to protect Gabby Petito during an encounter with her and her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, in August 2021, shortly before Petito’s disappearance.

Petito’s remains were later found in Teton County, Wyoming, and Laundrie’s remains were found at a Florida nature reserve in October 2021.

The lawsuit against the Moab Police Department claims that one of the responding officers, Eric Pratt, is a “domestic abuser” who had “used authority and threats of physical violence to control and intimidate sexual partners.” The family’s lawyers argued Pratt was “fundamentally biased in his approach to the investigation, identifying with Gabby’s abuser, ignoring the victim and intentionally looking for loopholes to get around the requirements of Utah law and his duty to protect Gabby.”

Domestic violence resources

If you or someone you know is going through abuse, help is available.

  • Utah Domestic Violence Coalition operates a confidential statewide, 24-hour domestic abuse hotline at 1-800-897-LINK (5465).
  • Resources are also available online at the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition website.

There are several ways the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition can help people. Previous examples include providing financial assistance for funerals, for moving, for a variety of things, counseling that help people find a different path or stay healthy and safe and the relationship they’re in.

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Gabby Petito’s parents urge support for Utah domestic violence bill