Jenny Rozelle, Host of Legal Tea
Current Trends - Estates of Gabby Petito & Brian Laundrie - Episode 76
Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners –This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. Welcome back for another episode of Legal Tea! I’m not sure how in the world I’m on episode #76 – but here we are. Time flies! Anyway, today’s topic is a current trend … something going on in the current time, that is pertinent to my little estate and elder law world. This week’s episode is about how the Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie case has intersected with my little estate world – and oh my goodnesss, it really has. But before we dive in, in case you have no idea who these people are, let me give you a brief synopsis/background of what happened.
According to Wikipedia, back in July 2021, Gabby and her fiance’ (side note: I think at the end of our last episode, where I give a sneak peak at the following episode, I referenced Brian as Gabby’s boyfriend – well, they were engaged. Apologies on that slight mistake!) … anyway, Gabby and her fiance’, Brian, went on a trip across the country. About a month or so into the trip, Gabby went missing – and next thing we know, Brian shows up at his parents’ house in Florida refusing to talk. A week or so goes by, Brian leaves his parents’ house and then he’s reporting missing. In mid-September, Gabby’s remains were located in Wyoming and according to the autopsy, she was killed by “manual strangulation.” She was 22 years old at the time. Then in late October, Brian’s remains were located in a wooded park in Florida and according to his autopsy, he died by a self-inflicted gunshot. He was 23 years old at the time. A notebook was found near his remains, and in it, Brian admitted to killing Gabby.
Many, many people heard about this story. It was all over the news, especially when Gabby was missing, but her remains were not yet found; and again, when Brian went missing and when his remains were found. But it’s even STILL all over the news – actually, we’ll talk about some of the latest legal happenings going on with this case, but this case even got some air time on Jeopardy, albeit it turned out to be quite controversial. On the Jeopardy episode on November 14, 2022, the clue referenced Brian “ending his days” in the park … and neither family, the Petito family and Laundrie family, were too thrilled by this clue. I could see why – this whole story and case is just so sad for a thousand different reasons.
So, since the discovery of Gabby and Brian in the Fall of 2021, things sure have not slowed down. We’re sitting here at the end of 2022, over a year later, and things are still going on – which is why we’re talking about it here under a “current events/current trends” episode because I happened to catch a headline where Gabby’s family, through Gabby’s Estate, is “going after” Brian’s Estate, as well as Brian’s parents, Brian’s family attorney, and even the police department that was involved, the Moab (Mow-ab) Police Department. The original lawsuit, which was a wrongful death lawsuit, was filed in May, and it was filed against Brian’s Estate. In a separate civil lawsuit, Gabby’s family, through Gabby’s estate, also brought a lawsuit against Brian’s parents claiming that Brian’s parents knew Brian killed Gabby. Finally, Gabby’s family, through Gabby’s Estate, brought a lawsuit against the Moab Police Department due to their response to a situation that involved Gabby and Brian.
The “situation” they are referring to was something else that was plastered all over the news. If you followed this case, remember when the news shared body camera footage from when law enforcement stopped Gabby and Brian? *That* is the situation. So, if you don’t know, Gabby and Brian were stopped by law enforcement after they were speeding and serving all over the road. When law enforcement approached the vehicle, they found Gabby crying, what they described as, uncontrollably. Further down in the footage, both Gabby and Brian confirmed they had been arguing through the day – including at a grocery store in Moab, Utah. The lawsuit claims that because the law enforcement officers did not “apprehend [Brian] for the fight, it led to further and escalating domestic violence, leaving her to eventually be strangled to death by Brian.” They are trying to seek $50 Million Dollars in this lawsuit. These details, including drafts of the Court documents, may be found in the source links from WFLA, a Tampa-based news station.
So far, that lawsuit appears to very much still be pending – I couldn’t’ find any resolution, settlement or anything for it; though, somewhat recently, we did see a settlement come through on the case against Brian’s Estate. In mid-November 2022, a Yahoo news article shared that Brian’s Estate and Gabby’s family, through Gabby’s Estate, settled, and that Brian’s Estate is ordered to pay Gabby’s Estate/family $3 Million Dollars. Though, as I expected, there’s what the settlement says – and there’s what Brian actually has in his Estate, right? So, even though that’s what the settlement amount was, Brian’s assets are believe to be in the “five figures” (whatever that means – but that’s what in the Yahoo news article). That means, that Gabby’s Estate will likely not get anywhere close to the $3 Million – but whatever they can recover from Brian’s “five figure” Estate.
In that article, Brian’s parents’ attorney, Steven Bertolino, shared, “Hopefully, this brings some closure to this one chapter of this tragedy and I look forward to working with Pat Reilly to resolve the litigation pending against Chris and Roberta.” For reference, Pat Reilly is Gabby’s parents’ attorney, and Chris and Roberta are Brian’s parents. So Brian’s parents’ attorney, Steven, confirmed that the case against Brian’s parents is still active, too. With that, that means that the case against Brian’s Estate is settled, but the cases against Brian’s parents AND the Moab Police Department are not yet settled or done. Those are still actively being worked on. But there’s a party I’m leaving out … Brian’s parents’ attorney, Mr. Bertolino. I’m not sure if you caught me saying that earlier, but I said much earlier in the episode that “Gabby’s family, through Gabby’s Estate, is “going after” Brian’s Estate, as well as Brian’s parents, Brian’s family attorney, and even the police department.”
So the whole thing against Steven Bertolino, Brian’s parents’ attorney, is the NEWEST update in this case; well, as of the time I’m writing this episode at least (which I’m writing this in early December) … the newest update, thanks to a Fox News article, is that it was just announced that Gabby’s parents are now adding Steven, to the civil lawsuit that was originally brought against Brian’s parents. Their reasoning? Well, as you may recall, the lawsuit against Brian’s parents alleged that that Brian’s parents knew Brian killed Gabby, so they added Steven on to this lawsuit alleging that it was “insensitive, cold-hearted and outrageous for Steven Bertolino to express the Laundrie’s family’s ‘hope’ that the search for [Gabby was] successful and that Gabby [would be] reunited with her family.” So, in their argument, they allege that Brian’s parents and their attorney knew that Gabby was, actually, deceased when they made those remarks. As of writing this episode, Steve Bertolino had not provided a comment – but this all broke a few days before I sat down to write this episode, so I’m sure by the time this episode airs, we’ll have a comment from Steven.
So yeah, needless to say, there’s a lot going on, even estate-wise, following the deaths of Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie. Like I said at the beginning of the episode, this case and story was just tragic all-around, right? Gabby’s family is grieving; Brian’s family is grieving; there’s just a lot of emotions going around … even though it’s been more than a year. Something I think we can all learn (and it’s sure not earth-shattering news here) is that life is precious … and life is short already, but it also can be cut even shorter. Which is sad, awful, scary. And here, lives were shorter unexpectedly. If you’re a faithful Legal Tea Listener, you know I talk about quite often how I’m a firm believe in everyone over the age of 18 having an estate plan. When I say that, I don’t think people take me really seriously – actually, someone I was talking to just a couple hours ago (from when I was writing this episode) said to me, “Jenny, I just don’t understand why I need an estate plan, if my net worth is in the negatives.” She was saying it jokingly about her negative net worth, but I know she was being serious at the same time.
Like I told her, and like I’ve shared on here before, an estate plan does MORE than just deal with who-gets-what when you die. Estate planning is also about putting people in charge of decision-making – like health care decision-making and who is going to make health care decisions for you, if something happens? And I’m not just talking about cognitive impairment like dementia; I’m talking about … say, a car accident, or you trip down a flight of stairs, or whatever. You need to have a document appointing XYZ as your health care decision-maker – and don’t assume it’s just going to naturally be who you want it to be… And the same for financial decision-making through a Power of Attorney document. Again, NOT talking about who-gets-what when you die. I’m talking about, again if you get in a car accident, fall down a flight of stairs, whatever – who is going to keep up with paying your bills, filing taxes, etc. THAT and health-care decision making is still estate planning, generally-speaking, and JUST as important as who-gets-what when you die through a Will or Trust.
I think the case is a timely reminder for all of us that life can bring really tough times – like, it’s documented that Brian and Gabby were struggling within their relationship. They are not alone. There a lot of people out there that are struggling within a relationship and there are so many resources out there to help. Counseling, therapy, hotlines, leaning on family/friends, etc. etc. Brian and Gabby were in an interesting situation given they were traveling when things really hit head-on, and that’s when the whole thing happened with them getting stopped by law enforcement. Should the law enforcement officers done more than they did? (That’s what the Petito family is arguing.) But then where’s the balance, too? Law enforcement officers are not counselors – and they don’t have the ability (time-wise and financial-wise) to thoroughly look into every single domestic dispute. It’s just a lot to analyze – but nonetheless to name drop a few resources, there are: American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, The Gottman Institute, American Counseling Association, and several online-based organizations like Talkspace.
Okay, let’s wrap this episode up -- next week’s topic is on estate planning of the rich and the famous – on that episode, we’re going to dive into what’s happened estate-wise following the way too-soon (he was only 27 when he passed) passing of very famous musician, Jimi Hendrix. So, tune on in next Tuesday, Legal Tea Listeners, to join as I dive into Jimi Hendrix’s estate – it’s a juicy one. Talk to you then and stay well!