VENICE, Fla. - A Sarasota County judge has decided to move forward with the lawsuit against Brian Laundrie's parents, which claims they knew their son murdered Gabby Petito as authorities were searching for her.
Thursday, Judge Hunter Carroll denied a motion to dismiss the case, filed by the Laundries' attorney. The decision comes one week after the first hearing in the civil lawsuit filed by Petito's parents, Nichole Schmidt and Joseph Petito. Both were in attendance that day. Chris and Roberta Laundrie were not.
The Laundrie family's attorney, Steven Bertolino, issued a statement after the judge announced his decision, saying, "Chris and Roberta Laundrie, and myself, are disappointed with Judge Carroll’s decision to deny the motion and allow this lawsuit to proceed. Judge Carroll points out that the September 14, 2021 statement, standing alone, does not suggest outrage, but within the context of the other allegations in the case, the plaintiffs have met the threshold to go forward to the next phase. The Laundries will continue to use all available legal means to preserve their rights."
The Petito family's lawsuit claims that while a cross-country search was underway for Gabby last fall, Laundrie's parents already knew what happened to the 22-year-old who embarked on a long-term road trip with Brian, but would never return home.
Instead of telling authorities what they knew about Gabby's whereabouts, and her death, the lawsuit claims the Laundries hid behind their own legal council, Steven Bertolino, while they tried to shield their son from suspicion and even allow him to flee.
Reilly said that Bertolino, who is no longer representing the Laundries, released a false and misleading statement during the time when Gabby's parents still hoped she would be found alive.
"When they spoke up, they made that very callous, very terrible statement, giving hope to Joe and Nichole that perhaps Gabby was still alive, with full knowledge that she was not alive," said Patrick Reilly, the lawyer representing Gabby's family.
Bertolino is not a defendant in the civil lawsuit because he is not a resident of Florida and operated out of his office in New York during the time of the search for Gabby, Reilly stated.
The Laundries' new lawyer, Matthew Luka, filed a motion to have the civil case dismissed, saying his clients did not have a duty or obligation to speak, citing the first and fifth amendments.
A trial date will be set sometime in 2023. The Petito and Schmidt families are seeking over $100,000 in damages.
Read the complaint: Click here to read the PDF version of the judge's order
Search for Gabby Petito
Brian and Gabby set off on a cross-country road trip in July 2021. The couple had met years earlier on Long Island, New York, where they grew up and later moved into Brian’s parents' North Port, Florida, home.
By September 1, 2021, Laundrie arrived at his parents' North Port home driving Petito's van. By then, she was dead, and it took 10 days before police arrived at the home looking for her.
In that time, Brian went camping with his family at Fort DeSoto Park and made no public comments about Petito's disappearance. He invoked his right to remain silent and declined to cooperate with police.
He and his parents did not share any information with law enforcement at the time and referred officials to their attorney.
The FBI found Gabby's remains at a dispersed campground area within the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming on Sept. 19. Dr. Brent Blue, Wyoming’s Teton County Coroner, ruled her death a homicide as a result of manual strangulation and blunt-force trauma to the head and neck.
Brian was subsequently listed as a person of interest in Gabby's killing. The FBI, additionally, issued a warrant for him on debit card fraud charges.
Search for Brian Laundrie
Brian set out for the Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park on Sept. 13, just 10 minutes from his parents' home in North Port, and never returned. North Port police thought they had a close eye on Brian, but later said they realized they had a case of mistaken identity as they were surveilling him. Police said they mistook Brian's mom for him the week he went missing, which is why they say he was able to disappear without detection.
According to a North Port police spokesman, detectives had set up cameras around the Laundries' home in North Port to monitor Brian's movement after Gabby's family reported her missing. On Sept. 13, detectives saw Brian leave home in his Mustang. Then, they saw the car return two days later.
The driver was wearing a hat, officials noted.
"I believe it was his mom who was wearing a baseball cap," Josh Taylor, the police spokesperson, explained to WINK at the time. "They had returned from the park with that Mustang. So, who does that? Right? Like, if you think your son’s missing since Tuesday, you’re going to bring his car back to the home."
"So, it didn’t make sense that anyone would do that if he wasn’t there," Taylor added. "The individual getting out with a baseball cap, we thought, was Brian."
On Oct. 20, after a weeks-long search delayed by flooding, police and the Laundries found his belongings in a clearing that had been underwater for roughly five weeks.
That's when investigators found remains nearby that they later determined was Laundrie.
The FBI did confirm he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and materials recovered suggested he took responsibility for Petito's death, according to investigators.
"It is believed that on August 27, 2021, Brian Laundrie murdered Gabrielle Petito," the civil complaint reads.
Laundrie then sent phony text messages between his cell and Petito’s "in an effort to hide the fact" that she was dead, according to court documents and the FBI.
Brian Laundrie's notebook
The FBI discovered Laundrie's remains and a note in Myakkahatchee Creek park in October. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound and admitted to killing Petito in the note, the agency announced months later.
Laundrie framed his strangulation of Gabby Petito as an act of mercy and an "unexpected tragedy" in a handwritten confession discovered near his remains in October. Laundrie claimed that he and Petito were "trying to cross" a stream when he heard "a splash and a scream." He framed Petito's murder as "merciful."
"I couldn’t find her for a moment, shouted her name," Laundrie wrote. "I found her breathing heavily gasping my name, she was freezing cold. When I pulled Gabby out of the water she couldn’t tell me what hurt. She had a small bump on her forehead that eventually got larger. Her feet hurt, her wrist hurt but she was freezing, shaking violently, while carrying her she continually made sounds of pain, laying next to her she said little lapsing between violent shakes, gasping in pain, begging for an end to her pain."
Laundrie added: "I don’t know the extent of Gabby’s injurys (sic). Only that she was in extreme pain."
After the contents of the notebook were released, Gabby's mother shared on Twitter:
"Narcissists rewrite history to escape accountability," read text on an image she included with the tweet. "You are not crazy."
Separately, Schmidt filed a wrongful death lawsuit. The lawsuit, which seeks wrongful death damages of $30,000, states that Laundrie intentionally killed Petito, and as a direct result of his conduct, Schmdit and Joseph Petito, Gabby Petito's father, "incurred funeral and burial expenses, and they have suffered a loss of care and comfort, and suffered a loss of probable future companionship, society and comfort."