Gabby Petito's legacy: $100,000 for domestic violence hotline

·3 min read
Gabby Petito's mother Nichole Schmidt speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022, in New York. The Gabby Petito Foundation is donating $100,000 to the Hotline. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)
Gabby Petito's mother, Nichole Schmidt, said her daughter's death, apparently at the hand of an abusive boyfriend, "touched a lot of people and she's saving lives. I get people messaging me all the time that they were inspired by her to get out of a relationship." (Julia Nikhinson / Associated Press)

Even in hindsight, Nichole Schmidt can’t be sure whether anything could have been done to save her daughter Gabby Petito from the messy and violent relationship that ended in her death nearly a year ago in the western wilderness.

But there is work to do, she said, to keep alive the memory of her daughter, who was found strangled last September in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park after a cross-country trip turned into a high-profile missing person’s case — then into tragedy and grief.

Schmidt is now partnering with the National Domestic Violence Hotline to help others survive turbulent and violent relationships, and the Gabby Petito Foundation has donated $100,000 to the effort.

“I think Gabby’s story touched a lot of people, and she’s saving lives. I get people messaging me all the time that they were inspired by her to get out of a relationship,” Schmidt said in an interview with the Associated Press.

The anti-violence hotline reports that it takes calls from hundreds of thousands of people each year, most of them women looking for help to leave physically or emotionally abusive relationships.

To date this year, more than 440,000 callers have sought help from the hotline — up about a third from the same period last year. The increase in calls has led to a longer wait time to speak with a counselor, going from seven minutes to more than 17 minutes, according to Katie Ray-Jones, the hotline’s chief executive officer.

“That is a substantial increase really overwhelming our services,” Ray-Jones said. “We need to increase the number of advocates.”

The Petito Foundation’s donation and a $200,000 gift from another family will go toward reducing wait times and expanding the hotline’s “Hope Can’t Wait” initiative.

Investigators believe Petito’s boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, killed her late last August while the couple were on a cross-country trip in a van.

As Petito’s disappearance launched a massive search, amateur sleuths scoured social media for clues. The case renewed scrutiny of law enforcement and the news media, which

have been criticized for focusing more attention on missing white women than on women of color.

“We were seeing a lot of media coverage about a young white woman who had gone missing,” Ray-Jones acknowledged as she was interviewed alongside Schmidt. But she said public response came from diverse groups, including some families of color.

Laundrie later killed himself in a Florida swamp, leaving behind a notebook that authorities said contained a confession.

Earlier this year, an independent investigation found that police in Moab, Utah, made “several unintentional mistakes” when they came across Petito and Laundrie during a traffic stop last summer. Officers briefly investigated reports of a fight between the two, but let them go after they agreed to spend the night apart.

In the independent investigation, police officials said it was very likely that Petito “was a long-term victim of domestic violence, whether that be physically, mentally, and/or emotionally.”

Schmidt said she still had many 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.”

For now, Schmidt said, the work goes on to help others survive such violence.

“I can use this tragedy to help save so many,” she said. “It’s her legacy.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.