The Court of Lost Souls

Open the doors of Courtroom 303-W and hear the everyday tales of violence, tragedy and heartbreak

"You keep de records," Carl replies, getting more agitated. "I pay de bills."

"How many times a week do you watch pornographic tapes?"
Carl almost stands up in the witness box; Judge Manzanares cautions him to sit. Carl spends the rest of the hearing glowering at his ex.

Citing her testimony about past domestic violence, Manzanares grants her a restraining order and tells Carl that he must not return to the house he once shared with her.

"How I supposed to work when all me tools are in de house and I got no place to put dem?" he demands. "How come you tell me to stay out de house I pay de bills for?"

Manzanares explains that he's making this decision not because Mallory has any more right to the house, but because he's awarding her care and control of Carl Jr., who should remain living in the home. As he explains the other terms of the restraining order, two extra deputies casually slide in the side door of the courtroom to join their comrade on duty. Only then does Manzanares tell Carl that he also has an existing warrant pending on an unrelated matter. The deputies converge and cuff Carl. He continues his tirade while being led away to the clerk's office next door.

When asked about the deputies' uncanny knack for showing up with reinforcements just when a situation is about to get out of hand, Judge Campbell smiles. "We have a panic button," he explains.

The emotional roller coaster of Courtroom 303-W causes the judges themselves to wobble.

"I was there for a year and a half," says Campbell, "and I want to go back. It's some of the most important work in the county court, but after a year or so, you need a break.

Campbell admits that his decision to take a break from the Protective Orders court came on the heels of his most haunting case.

In the spring of 1995, Campbell granted Terry Petrosky a temporary restraining order against her husband, Albert. Three days later, a heavily armed Albert, deranged about his failed marriage and the loss of custody of the couple's ten-year-old son, drove to the Albertsons supermarket where Terry worked and gunned her down. Two others at the scene, including sheriff's sergeant Timothy Mossbrucker, the father of six children, were also killed during the shooting spree. In a final twist to the tragedy, Albert Petrosky killed himself in jail after being convicted of murder.

"She was in here on Monday getting the order," Campbell recalls, "and she was dead on Friday."

Jacqueline St. Joan, now director of clinical programs for the University of Denver law school, says research shows that most people obey restraining orders. "There are some cases," she says, referring specifically to Petrosky, "when nothing is going to stop them. But restraining orders are effective in stopping the day-in and day-out wear and tear of emotionally abusive relationships."

Not that there isn't other wear and tear.
"Sometimes after I leave court, I don't think I'll ever get married," says Denise, a Project Safeguard volunteer. "I say to myself, 'I've got my dog, I'm fine.' The ones who really have it tough are the judges. They're in here dealing with it every day."

"I try not to take it out of the office," says Judge Manzanares. "But you end up doing so much of this that it becomes difficult not to have an emotional attachment. The frustration comes from seeing a woman finally do something to remedy an abusive situation by getting a TRO only to see her back two weeks later vacating the order when you know that time and time again, she's been abused. Sometimes the TRO doesn't even make it past the hall outside the court. I've seen people take less than thirty seconds to violate an order.

"You can't be paternalistic. People have the right to make their own decisions. Still, it's frustrating to see people deluding themselves by returning to what they feel will all of the sudden turn into a nonviolent relationship."

Lara White is living a stepmother's nightmare. Her seventeen-year-old stepdaughter, Carla, is trying to get her thrown out of the house. And even though White has three children with Carla's biological father, he sits at the plaintiff's table alongside his bleached-blond daughter.

Carla's dad has a marijuana leaf tattooed on his sinewy forearm, and the scabbard on his belt usually holds a knife. Before their hearing starts, Carla squirms in her chair while her dad quizzes her about her boyfriend.

"Dad," she whines, "I broke up with him months ago!"
Her dad laughs. "Well," he says, "that boyfriend's gone. Next!"
Lara tells him from the defendant's table to keep it down.

Carla's first witness is her best friend, Bobbi, who has the same bleached haircut as she does. Judge Manzanares swears her in (after helping her determine which right hand to raise) and asks his own questions.

"Can you tell me about the relationship between Carla and her stepmother?" he asks Bobbi.

Bobbi sits in the witness box gape-mouthed for a moment, as if she's trying to remember what she's doing in court. "Ahh," she finally manages, "they fight about food."

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