Longform

A Lawman on Domestic Violence

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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.

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Steve Jackson