By BOBBY CAINA CALVAN
NEW YORK (AP) — Even in hindsight, Nichole Schmidt isn’t sure if anything could have been done to save her daughter Gabby Petito from a messy and abusive relationship that ended in murder nearly 10 years ago. a year in the western desert.
But there is work to be done, she said, to keep alive the memory of her daughter, who was found strangled last September in the outskirts of Grand Tetons, Wyoming, after a trip to across the country turned into a high-profile missing person case, and then into drama and heartbreak.
Thanks to a $100,000 donation from the Gabby Petito Foundation, Schmidt now partners with the National Domestic Violence Hotline to help others survive turbulent and abusive relationships.
“I think Gabby’s story touched a lot of people and she saves lives. I get people telling me all the time that they were inspired by her to get out of a relationship,” Schmidt said during from an interview with the Associated Press.
The Anti-Violence Hotline receives calls from thousands of people every year, most of them women seeking help to leave physically or emotionally abusive relationships.
So far this year, more than 440,000 callers have requested help from the hotline, about a third more than at the same time last year.
The surge in calls has resulted in a longer wait time for a counselor, from 7 minutes to more than 17 minutes, according to Katie Ray-Jones, the hotline’s general manager.
“It’s a substantial increase that really goes beyond our services,” Ray-Jones said. “We need to increase the number of defenders.”
The donation from the Petito Foundation, along with a $200,000 donation from another family, will be used to reduce wait times and expand the helpline’s “Hope Can’t Wait” initiative.
Investigators believe Petito’s boyfriend Brian Laundrie killed her in late August last year as the pair were traveling across the country in a van.
Petito’s disappearance sparked a massive search. Amateur sleuths scoured social media for clues. It also brought renewed scrutiny from authorities and the media, both of which were criticized for giving more attention to missing white women than to women of color.
“We saw a lot of media coverage about a young white woman who had gone missing,” Ray-Jones admitted in a joint interview with Schmidt. But she said the public response came from a variety of groups, including some families of color.
Laundrie killed himself in a Florida swamp, leaving behind a notebook that authorities said contained a confession.
Earlier this year, an independent investigation found police in Moab, Utah made “several unintentional mistakes” when they encountered Petito and Laundrie during a traffic stop last summer. Officers investigated a fight between the couple but ultimately let them spend the night apart.
In the report, police said it was very likely that Petito “was a long-term victim of domestic violence, whether physically, mentally and/or emotionally.”
Schmidt said she still had so many unanswered questions about what was wrong.
“Looking back, I didn’t really see any signs. I think the only two people who will ever know what happened in that relationship were Gabby and Brian. And we can guess and we can guess, but we don’t really know what happened,” she added. “Most likely the storyline ended this way because something had been going on for a while.”
For now, she says, work continues to help others survive domestic violence.
“I know I can use this tragedy to help save so many people,” Schmidt said. “It’s his legacy.”