VENICE, Fla. (WFLA) — The civil trial between the families of Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie won’t be happening anytime soon.
On Wednesday, Judge Danielle Brewer rescheduled the trial for a two-week window starting May 13, 2024 in Sarasota County Circuit Court.
The trial had originally been scheduled for August 2023. However, both sides agreed with Brewer’s assessment that a postponement was necessary due to a growing list of pre-trial hearings.
A year ago this week, Gabby’s parents — Joe Petito and Nichole Schmidt — filed a civil lawsuit against Brian’s parents — Chris and Roberta Laundrie — for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Gabby’s parents claim the Laundries were aware 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.
Here’s what News 2’s sister station, WFLA, learned during Brewer’s last-minute hearing on Wednesday.
All parties agreed to postpone trial
Brewer called a case management conference Wednesday as it became increasingly apparent that the original trial window in August was unrealistic.
“I recognize the media attention on this case and I want to make sure that others that are litigating their case this year at the South County Courthouse are able to not necessarily have the media involved in their cases as well,” Brewer said.
Pat Reilly, the attorney for Gabby’s parents, suggested a four-month postponement to December 2023. Charles Meltz, the recently-hired attorney for Bertolino, countered with a suggestion of fall 2024 after only recently being brought into the case.
Matthew Luka, representing the Laundries, recommended “somewhere in the middle.” Brewer, upon checking the court’s schedule, found a two-week window from May 13-24, 2024 that all parties agreed on.
The trial’s delay to 2024 was considered necessary since multiple pre-trial hearings are yet to be conducted, including Bertolino’s motion to dismiss and Luka’s motion for a protective order to prevent Roberta’s letter to Brian from being admissible in the trial.
When to expect decision on Roberta’s letter
While the trial itself won’t happen until May 2024, Brewer scheduled a double hearing on May 24 this year, which could have a significant impact on the case.
The first hearing on that date will be on Bertolino’s motion to dismiss the second amended complaint that added him as a co-defendant to the lawsuit. Earlier this year, Brewer ruled in favor of Reilly’s argument to add Bertolino as a co-defendant alongside Chris and Roberta.
The second hearing will be on Luka’s motion for a protective order against including Roberta’s letter to Brian as evidence in the civil trial.
Roberta’s “burn after reading” letter allegedly contains references to a shovel, burying a body, and helping get Brian out of prison. While Reilly argues the letter demonstrates Roberta’s knowledge of Brian murdering Gabby, lawyers for the Laundries say the letter isn’t dated and has no connection to Gabby’s case.
Earlier this month, Roberta penned an explanation to the court on why she wrote the letter, why the envelope had “burn after reading” written on it, and why it has nothing to do with Gabby’s case.
“We would just prefer that the letter not be shared with anybody,” said Luka outside the courthouse Wednesday 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.”
Luka confirmed that his clients continue to maintain Roberta’s letter was written to Brian before their son’s cross-country road trip with Gabby.
Brewer is expected to rule on whether the letter will be granted to Gabby’s parents in the pre-trial discovery process during the hearing on May 24. She is also expected to rule on Bertolino’s motion to dismiss.
FBI’s evidence in Petito-Laundrie investigation nearing release?
At the end of Wednesday’s hearing, Brewer asked Reilly for an update on his FOIA request for the FBI’s evidence gathered during the investigations into Gabby’s murder in 2021.
Reilly, who is seeking to use the FBI’s evidence at trial, says he has received a very small amount of evidence back thus far.
“It’s incredibly minimal,” said Reilly, who noted two of his five FOIA requests have yielded results. “With respect to specifically the request for [evidence connected to] Brian Laundrie and Gabby Petito, we have not yet received anything.”
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While a portion of the FOIA request has been responded to, Reilly says there is no timetable for the plethora of evidence gathered by the FBI before the agency closed its investigation in January 2022.
Reilly has postponed depositions with the Laundries until the FOIA requests come back. The depositions will mark the first time Gabby’s parents and Brian’s parents come face-to-face since the death of their children.