Gabby Petito's legacy - $159K gifted to domestic abuse hotline

Source: Associated Press

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

This police camera video provided by The Moab Police Department shows Gabrielle "Gabby" Petito talking to a police officer after police pulled over the van she was traveling in with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie.

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

Through a US$100,000 (NZ$159,000) donation from the Gabby Petito Foundation, Schmidt is now partnering with the National Domestic Violence Hotline to help others survive turbulent and violent relationships.

"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 during an interview with The Associated Press.

The anti-violence hotline takes calls from thousands of people each year, most of them women looking for help leaving physically or emotionally abusive relationships.

The big increase in calls has led to a longer wait time for a counsellor, going from seven minutes to more than 17 minutes, according to Katie Ray-Jones, the hotline's chief executive officer.

The Petito Foundation's donation, as well as a US$200,000 (NZ$318,000) 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 in late August last year while the couple were on a cross-country trip in a van.

Gabby Petito's mother, Nichole Schmidt.

Petito's disappearance launched a massive search. Amateur sleuths scoured social media for clues. It also again brought scrutiny to authorities and the news media, both of which have been criticised for focusing more attention on missing white women than on women of colour.

"We were seeing a lot of media coverage about a young white woman who had gone missing," Ray-Jones acknowledged during a joint interview with Schmidt. But she said public response came from diverse groups, including from some families of colour.

Laundrie 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 investigated a fight between the couple but ultimately let them go under the agreement they spend the night apart.

In the report, police 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 has so many unanswered 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 added. "Most likely the scenario ended that way because something was happening for a while."

For now, she said, the work goes on to help others survive domestic violence.

"I know that I can use this tragedy to help save so many," Schmidt said. "It's her legacy."