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VENICE, Fla. – The family of Gabby Petito, the young woman who is suspected of having been murdered last year by her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, appeared before a Florida judge on Wednesday afternoon over whether their lawsuit against Laundrie’s family should go to a jury trial.
Petito’s family has alleged that Laundrie’s parents, Chris and Roberta, were aware that their son killed their daughter and attempted to help him flee justice.
Nichole Schmidt and Jim Schmidt, Petito’s mother and stepfather, and Joseph and Tara Petito, her father and stepmother, appeared before Judge Hunter W. Carroll in Sarasota County Circuit Court for the 1:30 pm hearing. One of the couple’s attorneys, Steven Bertolino, appeared virtually, while co-counsel Matthew Luka appeared in person. Chris and Roberta Laundrie did not attend.
The purpose of Wednesday’s hearing was for both sides to discuss whether the case would go to jury trial amid the Laundries’ motion to dismiss. Carroll said he would provide a written decision in response to the arguments within the next two weeks. Reilly and the judge discussed scheduling the trial for possibly the end of 2022 or the beginning of next year, though an official date was not set.
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Petito’s parents filed a civil lawsuit earlier this year accusing Chris and Roberta Laundrie of knowing that their son killed Gabby and attempting to help him flee.
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“Christopher Laundrie and Roberta Laundrie exhibited extreme and outrageous conduct which constitutes behavior, under the circumstances, which goes beyond all possible bounds of decency and is regarded as shocking, atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community,” the lawsuit alleges. “As a direct and proximate result of the willfulness and maliciousness of Christopher Laundrie and Roberta Laundrie, Joseph Petito and Nichole Schmidt had been caused to suffer pain and suffering, mental anguish, inconvenience, loss of capacity for enjoyment of life experienced in the past and to be experienced in the future.”
READ THE LAWSUIT HERE:
The complaint further describes how Brian Laundrie is “believed” to have “murdered Gabrielle Petito” on Aug. 27, 2021.
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.
The complaint alleges that Laundrie confessed to his parents on Aug. 28 and that the Laundries hired lawyer Steve Bertolino, a longtime friend, on Sept. 2.
Bertolino and co-counsel Luka filed a motion to dismiss the suit prior to Wednesday’s hearing. Luka argued in court on Wednesday that there was “no legal footing” for the cause of action against the Laundries.
The Petito-Schmidt families “argue that the Laundries had an obligation, a duty to speak,” Luka told the court. “In our society, under our laws, people are free not to speak.”
The judge asked several questions throughout Luka’s arguments in favor of dismissing the suit, meanwhile Nichole Schmidt and Joseph Petito, who were seated next to their attorney, stayed quiet.
Carroll referenced the recent trial involving actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard during his questioning over whether an early statement from Bertolino counts as a statement made by the Laundries because it was released on their behalf. He noted that Depp was recently found to have committed defamation for a statement made by his attorney.
READ THE LAUNDRIES’ MOTION TO DISMISS:
The jurist then asked if a crime needed to be present in order for someone to invoke Fifth Amendment, which addresses a person’s constitutional right to remain silent.
Luka responded by arguing that the crime alleged in the civil complaint would be helping Brian Laundrie flee the country.
“They can withhold all information until it’s compelled to them,” Luka argued about his clients.
Reilly, the attorney for Petito’s family, then began arguing against the motion to dismiss.
“Your Honor, this case is not simply about the silence of Christopher and Roberta Laundry, who knew that their son had brutally murdered Gabby Petito,” Reilly argued. “It’s not simply about their callous refusal, despite pleas from the Petito family, to speak up about whether or not Gabby was alive and if she wasn’t where her body was located. It’s about a course of conduct that they committed from the moment they learned on August 28th of 2021 that their son had brutally murdered Gabby Petito up until the time that her body was found.”
He added that the case was about what the Laundries “did with the information that they had, not just not disclosing what they knew.
“They could have made an anonymous phone call and said where the body was located. And that would have helped the situation tremendously,” Reilly argued. “Brian Laundrie came home in Gabby Petito’s van by himself to his family’s home.”
He added: “A family knowing that Gabby was dead. Knowing their son had murdered her. Knowing where the body was. And in particular, knowing that Joseph Petito and Nicole Schmidt were desperate to learn where their daughter was located. They went on vacation .”
When asked why Bertolino’s early statement to media about how the Laundries hoped Petito would be found alive should be considered “outrageous,” Reilly responded: “It’s a lie.”
He added that Bertolino would have been named as a defendant in the case if he had been a Florida resident.
Evidence is circumstantial, Reilly argued: Brian called his parents, who hired a lawyer and then Brian returned home alone.
Laundrie and 22-year-old Petito left for a trip in mid-June 2021 with the plan to visit national parks in a white converted Ford Transit. 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.
Laundrie arrived back in North Port on Sept. 1 with the van, but without Petito.
After his disappearance, state, local, county and federal law enforcement extensively searched the reserve and the Myakkahatchee, where Laundrie was said to have parked his car at the time.
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His family did not announce until Sept. 17 – four days after he allegedly left – that he had not returned.
Petito’s mother, Nichole Schmidt, reported her missing to Suffolk County Police in New York on Sept. 11. Search teams discovered Petito’s body near Wyoming’s Grant Teton National Park on Sept. 19 and announced shortly thereafter that she had been the victim of a homicide.
Laundrie’s remains were found on Oct. 20, 2021, in the Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park, located in the 23-year-old’s hometown of North Port. His parents found Brian’s bag and other items while hiking with law enforcement in the area, where they had told authorities their son was known to frequent. Fox News Digital captured photos and exclusive video of the parents searching the swamp, where law enforcement officers ultimately made the grim discovery.
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Laundrie was considered a fugitive and was a person of interest in Gabby Petito’s disappearance and death. The FBI had issued a warrant for his arrest on charges related to his unauthorized use of a bank card.