VENICE, Fla. (WFLA) — A Sarasota County Circuit Court judge made rulings on two of four motions Wednesday that could have a significant effect on the civil lawsuit filed by the family of Gabby Petito against the parents of Brian Laundrie.
In a pivotal pre-trial hearing, Judge Danielle Brewer heard arguments on motions made by attorneys for both families. Most notably, Brewer made a ruling on Roberta Laundrie’s “burn after reading” letter, saying it can be considered as potential evidence for Petito’s parents, Joe Petito and Nichole Schmidt.
Last year, Petito and Schmidt filed a civil lawsuit against Laundrie’s parents, Chris and Roberta Laundrie, accusing them of intentional infliction of emotional distress. Petito’s parents claim the Laundries found out Brian had murdered Gabby and did nothing other than release a statement through their attorney Steven Bertolino, who has been added as a co-defendant in the lawsuit.
Due to a number of pre-trial hearings on various motions, the jury trial has been pushed back to May 13, 2024.
The Wednesday hearing lasted about three and a half hours. It started on schedule at 1:30pm ET, Here is what Judge Brewer heard arguments on Wednesday:
Roberta Laundrie’s ‘burn after reading’ letter
In March, attorney Matthew Lukda filed a motion for a protective order to block attempts by Petito’s parent to make Roberta’s “burn after reading” letter to her son admissible as evidence.
Petito attorney Pat Reilly, who saw the letter when the FBI returned evidence to both families last year, says it contains references to a shovel, burying a body, and helping get Brian out of prison. While Reilly argues the letter shows Roberta Laundrie knew Brian murdered Gabby, Luka says the letter isn’t dated and has no connection to the Petito case.
In support of their motion against the letter’s release, Roberta Laundrie wrote a letter to the court explaining why she wrote the letter, why the envelope had “burn after reading” written on it and why it had nothing to do with the Petito case.
“We would just prefer that the letter not be shared with anybody,” said Luka outside the courthouse after the hearing. “We expect that if the letter is produced in discovery, it would become public and some of the words that are in the letter could be construed certain ways and we would just prefer that it not be disclosed at all.”
Despite lengthy arguments in court Wednesday, Judge Brewer granted the Petito family’s attorney access to that letter and handed it over to them before clearing the courtroom late in the afternoon.
“In my mind, that clearly shows that she knew that Gabby Petito was deceased, and it is up to the jury to decide when that letter was written. Just because Mrs. Laundrie says it was written before the trip, doesn’t mean it was written before the trip,” said Reilly.
Bertolino’s motion to dismiss
Earlier this year, Judge Brewer ruled in favor of Reilly’s argument to add Bertolino as a co-defendant alongside Chris and Roberta Laundrie.
Bertolino advised Brian Laundrie and served as the family attorney during Gabby Petito’s initial disappearance in 2021. He spoke to the media on the family’s behalf and issued a statement expressing hope Petito would be found—a statement that has been a focal point of the lawsuit.
Bertolino, as expected, has filed a motion to dismiss the second amended complaint that added him as a co-defendant to the lawsuit.
Judge Brewer didn’t make a ruling on Bertolino’s motion to dismiss on Wednesday. After hours of arguments on both sides, she said she would make a ruling at a later date.
Laundrie’s financial records
In April, Reilly filed a request for production to receive the Laundrie’s financial records around the time of Petito’s disappearance and death.
The court filing sought records of either Chris or Roberta making bank withdrawals of $10,000 or more.
Reilly has stated he is seeking any evidence to prove to a jury whether or not Chris and Roberta attempted to aid their son in the aftermath of Petito’s death.
Judge Brewer denied the Petito and Schmidt family access to the records after reviewing them page by page in the courtroom Wednesday. She said the records didn’t ‘comply’ with their request.
“The whole intent of this is to get answers. There are still many questions that the Petito family has about what the Laundrie family knew, what they did with the knowledge that they knew and really why they didn’t come forward and say anything . I don’t know if that question will ever get answered. The court has found they have the right not to say anything, but there are a lot of questions the family would like to have answered before they can they can get closure at all in a situation like this,” said Reilly after Wednesday’s hearing.