A Lawman on Domestic Violence
Forgive Dave Thomas if he brings a private perspective on domestic violence to work with him. He lives with a small reminder of its devastation every day: his six-year-old niece.
As the district attorney for Jefferson County, Thomas says he was already "pretty involved" in the issue from a professional standpoint before things got personal.
In preparation for submitting an application for a federal Violence Against Women Act grant in 1995, his office surveyed municipal courts in the county--Wheat Ridge, Arvada, Lakewood and Golden--as well as the county court to get a handle on the extent of the problem.
"It was a surprise to learn there were nearly 3,000 cases a year, which rivals drunk driving as the number-one cause for arrest in this county," Thomas says. "The thing that struck me about domestic violence was there was always a victim, which was not necessarily so with drunk driving. And it ran the gamut, from a push or a shove to murder."
Still, to Thomas, those cases were mainly numbers. His deputies handled the nitty-gritty of trying the cases. He could sympathize with the victims, but from a distance.
Then, on April 28, 1995, 35-year-old Albert Petrosky donned camouflage fatigues, drove to the Albertsons supermarket at South Kipling Street and West Bowles Avenue and gunned down his estranged wife, Terry Petrosky, and her store manager, Dan Suazo. Petrosky then shot and killed Jefferson County sheriff's deputy Timothy Mossbrucker as he pulled into the parking lot in his police cruiser.
Although it's not his usual practice, Thomas went to the scene of the triple murder. "It was hard to reconcile with this bedroom community," he recalls. "In the daytime, at a grocery store, with a church across the street."
In another rare move, Thomas decided to head the team of prosecutors who sought the death penalty for Petrosky. "It wasn't a case of someone shooting a stranger, or during a robbery or a drive-by," he says. "At least that's not what started it. They were high-school sweethearts, grew up together back East. They'd been married for, like, twenty years, and he'd never had anything like this. A DUI and an assault, I believe. But then he just exploded in this hugely violent act."
During the trial, Petrosky's defense team portrayed their client as being distraught over the breakup of his marriage and the loss of custody of the couple's ten-year-old son. The act wasn't premeditated, they claimed, but a crime committed "in the heat of passion."
Maybe so. But there were also signs of the sort of escalation that victim advocates say is typical of domestic-violence cases.
Before the breakup, Petrosky and his wife were seeing a marriage counselor. In a videotaped statement the prosecution would later use during the penalty phase of the trial, Petrosky talked about trying to get his wife to take medication to deal with a herpes infection.
"I wanted her to get a handle on it. If somebody ain't getting a handle, then I'll make 'em get a handle," Petrosky said on the tape. "I am the motivator, even if I have to take a gun out and hold it to your head. Speaking facetiously, of course."
On the tape, Terry Petrosky laughed nervously and said, "I hope not."
Just a week before the murders, Petrosky beat his wife, breaking her nose. She didn't call the cops; instead she waited, filing a report several days later and requesting a temporary restraining order, which was granted. In the days before the murder, Petrosky, according to his lawyers, voluntarily sought help from a domestic-violence counselor. He had even gone to one or two classes.
Yet during the trial, Petrosky's attorneys evoked the memory of Clarence Burns--whose murder of Patricia Ann Burns in 1982 unified the domestic-violence movement in Colorado--when they argued that Petrosky had been provoked to violence by his "unfaithful" wife.
The argument angered Thomas. Then, two weeks into Petrosky's trial, the issue struck closer to home.
Thomas received a call in mid-March from the police in Janesville, Wisconsin. His wife's sister, Helen, was missing, and his brother-in-law, Art, was the prime suspect. Art had shown up unexpectedly to pick up their daughter, four-year-old Margaret, from daycare, according to the police. He told daycare workers his wife had left town.
"Helen would have never left that child. They were constant companions, which I conveyed to the Janesville police," Thomas says. "The only conclusion I could come to was that something terrible must have happened."
The case involving his in-laws, hundreds of miles away in Wisconsin, was frighteningly similar to the Petrosky case. Like the Petroskys, Helen and Art had been married about twenty years. They had one child. There had been marital discord.
Thomas says he doesn't know if Art ever physically abused Helen. "But we do know there was a history of verbal and emotional abuse."
The similarities continued right up to a tragic conclusion. The Janesville police did their jobs. They went through Art's trash and found bloody rags. They were getting close.
But Art beat them to the punch. He had reported his wife missing on a Tuesday. That Friday, he walked into the police department and said, 'Let's go for a ride,'" according to Thomas.
Art took the police to a state park where Helen's remains, cut into seven pieces and stuffed into garbage bags, were found. He confessed that he had shot his wife in their basement and then dismembered her to move her more easily.
"I don't know the reason," Thomas told the press. "I know that he was mad at her for some reason."
Little Margaret came to Colorado to live with Thomas and his wife, Shirley, about the same time Thomas finished the Petrosky trial. The jury found Petrosky guilty of first-degree murder for Mossbrucker's death, but only of second-degree murder for that of Suazo and Terry Petrosky.
During the penalty phase of the trial, Albert Petrosky's lawyers pointed out that their client had been abused as a child and suffered from mental illness that was exacerbated by the breakup of his marriage. Petrosky read a short statement, saying, "I am very sorry about all the pain and suffering I have caused. I have ruined my own family. I have hurt the family and friends of the people I hurt. I don't know why I did what I did. I wish it had never happened and all our lives could return to normal."
The jury spared Petrosky the death penalty, but a few weeks later, he hung himself in his jail cell.
"All that had happened--it re-energized my thinking about domestic violence," Thomas recalls. "I wanted this office to be supportive of positive change."
In 1996, Jefferson County received $645,000 in VAWA money--$576,000 from grants earmarked "to encourage arrest policies in domestic-violence cases," and $69,000 from a general fund--"Stop Violence Against Women Formula Grants"--which is given to each state to disburse at its discretion. Two other Colorado counties, La Plata ($133,000) and Pueblo ($242,000), as well as the City of Colorado Springs ($516,000) and a team put together by the state to train rural police, prosecutors and victim advocates ($666,000) received the VAWA money in its first year of funding. The money allowed Jefferson County to implement a "comprehensive community response" plan for domestic violence. The goal was to present a unified approach to the crime, from arrest to probation. It included money to hire two new deputy district attorneys, pay victim advocate salaries and provide training for law enforcement and prosecutors.
The new program, in place for the past year and a half, has given Jefferson County a reputation as being on the cutting edge of anti-domestic-violence programs. It's a reputation in which Thomas takes pride.
When he talks about domestic violence, he's up on the terminology like "cycle of violence" and the "hearts and flowers" period of remorse shown by many offenders. He defends mandatory counseling for offenders and lauds the county's efforts to get children and victims into counseling--to break the cycle before it reaches the Petrosky level.
"Albert Petrosky said he was abused as a child and what he did he had learned as a child," Thomas says. "He never learned how to deal with conflict except violently."
Thomas concedes that the way the system goes after misdemeanor domestic-violence offenders can seem out of proportion to the actual crime. "But there's no good way to say who's going to be dangerous and who isn't," he adds. "My philosophy is, sometimes you need a big stick to get some people's attention."
And what might appear to be minor offenses can make life miserable for victims when they are part of a pattern of abuse, notes Thomas. "Repeated messages on the telephone or a bullet left on the windshield of a car...why should anyone have to live with that?" he asks.
Thomas points to the latest statistics on drunk driving as an example of how special attention by the law enforcement system, as well as society as a whole, can bring about significant social change. Today there are fewer drunk-driving deaths, and there have been sharp drops in the blood-alcohol levels of people who are pulled over.
In part, Thomas says, such progress can be attributed to mandatory education and treatment programs required for convicted drunk drivers. In part, he adds, it has to do with society no longer tolerating drunk driving. "It's been the biggest behavioral change in our society in decades," he says.
But change doesn't come easy. Domestic violence remains a hidden crime. "In our culture, it's wrong to tattle," Thomas says. "Especially when it's family business.
"In court you often hear the victim say they didn't want the police to get involved. My response is, 'You picked up the phone and called 911. Or your family business got outside the walls of your house--and that made it our business.'"
Still, Thomas concedes, there are legitimate concerns about some of the state's new laws and policies. He says he understands why some observers believe that certain aspects of "no bond--a night in jail" policies for misdemeanor offenses may be unconstitutional. "District attorneys and prosecutors didn't write those laws," he says. "And that might be something the legislature wants to look at. But for now, we're obligated to enforce them."
And Thomas allows that sometimes the new, proactive system overreaches. "When the police get called out on a disturbance where the husband and wife are just screaming at each other--personally, I don't think it's a crime," he says. "It may be distasteful, but part of what's going on right now is a sort of feeling-out process to see what the community wants done."
It may be years, Thomas says, before the community will know if all of today's domestic-violence measures have accomplished anything. He remembers the disappointment he felt when he heard that after two years in operation, the Fast Track program had posted a record number of cases--23--in a single week this past April. "That's bad news, because we want it to be zero," says Thomas. "But you have to wonder how many there might be if we weren't doing all this.
"We're getting kids into treatment and perpetrators into treatment. We're doing all we can, but so many things are out of our control."
Thomas says he has concerns about the growth of the domestic-violence cottage industry of advocates and counselors, as well as the growing number of salaried positions within police departments and prosecutorial offices. "It's potentially a huge danger. People with a vested interest may be exaggerating the problem," he says. "But that's the reason these grants have a limited life.
"If you want to keep the programs, you have to eventually find a place for them in your budget. If they aren't worth it, they're not going to stay. I personally would like all the different things we do to put me out of a job."
Thomas only has to go home to be reminded why. Once a week, he and his wife take Margaret, now six, in for counseling.
"Her mom is dead, her dad is in jail, and she's terrified to connect the two things," Thomas says. "Frankly, there's been a lot of damage. Like many children, she doesn't necessarily show it.
"She seems to be a strong, independent, self-willed child. But inside, she's a terribly hurt and frightened little girl who has a lot to work through.
"My hope is my niece can grow up to be normal, which is a scary thing even to say. If she gets the proper perspective about life and relationships, I'll be happy."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.