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.