Did the Justice System She Worked for Fail Kate Petrocco?

Did the Justice System She Worked for Fail Kate Petrocco?
Courtesy of Moira Rafferty Sharkey

What you have to understand
about Kathleen Rafferty Petrocco, her friends and family say, is her indomitable spirit. She was a fighter, a dynamo, a relentless striver. She was not someone who graciously accepted defeat, whether she was negotiating a business deal or playing a friendly game of Scrabble.

“If Kate lost, she was going to figure out a way to get back and win,” says longtime friend Ty Gordon. “That’s who she was — just driven.”

On her worst days, when nothing was going her way, she would concede that, yes, it had all been perfectly horrible. “But I choose happiness,” she said.

“For Katie, tomorrow was always going to be better,” says her mother, Eileen Rafferty. “She never gave up. There was an answer for everything.”

Yet for those who knew her, answers have been in short supply since Petrocco’s inexplicable death at the age of 36, just over two months ago. On July 14, she was found unresponsive in her Brighton home, a 7,300-square-foot custom ranch that she and her husband bought for $915,000 in 2016. Officially, her death is still under investigation by the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, and the autopsy report has yet to be released. But family members say the ACSO has treated the death as a suicide from the outset, discounting other possibilities.

“She died in a very angry way,” says Moira Sharkey, Petrocco’s sister. “We believe someone did this to her. We don’t know who. But they haven’t questioned a single person that we know she had relationships with.”

The case is complicated by the fact that some of the people Petrocco knew carry considerable weight in political and business circles in Adams County. She had a romantic relationship over a period of several months with Adams County District Attorney Dave Young that ended last spring, not long after she disclosed the relationship in a public court document. Before that, she was in a tumultuous twelve-year marriage to David Petrocco Jr., vice president of Petrocco Farms, a multimillion-dollar family farm empire that supplies thousands of pounds of produce weekly to King Soopers and other grocery chains. Separated since David Petrocco’s arrest on domestic-violence charges in early 2018, the couple was in the process of finalizing their divorce at the time of Kate’s death.

“For Katie, tomorrow was always going to be better. She never gave up. There was an answer for everything.”

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In the final year of her life, Kate Petrocco worked in the victims’ advocate program in Young’s office, but she was not always her own best advocate. Like many women enmeshed in abusive relationships, she was good at keeping secrets — so good that her parents, her sister and her closest friends had little inkling of the dark side of her marriage until after her husband’s arrest. And, like some abuse survivors, she wavered in her efforts to end the relationship, at one point withdrawing the divorce petition and seeking to remove the restraining order that prevented her husband from contacting her.

Whatever she did or failed to do, her story raises questions about a larger failure in the system that’s supposed to protect people like Kate Petrocco. Colorado has some of the toughest domestic-violence laws in the country, including provisions for mandatory arrest and court-ordered treatment programs. But the actual steps taken in the Petrocco domestic-violence case — from Adams County officers initially deciding to take her husband to a hotel rather than jail, to prosecutors filing low-level charges while more serious allegations were never pursued, to the lenient plea deal that was readily offered and promptly accepted — suggest a tremendous gulf between what’s on the books and actual practice in this instance. And the entire experience seems to have sent a disturbing message to Kate Petrocco: Whatever justice she was going to get, it wasn’t to be found in the system she worked for.

“I tried to manage the situation on my own for years,” she wrote in an email to Sharkey a few weeks after her husband’s arrest. “The moment I tried to get help, it became worse in ways you cannot imagine.”

David Petrocco declined a Westword interview request, but his attorney, John Davis, provided written comments in response to questions, denying that his client was ever physically abusive to his wife. “Although some portray Kathleen’s death as related to domestic violence, in 13 years of marriage, no reports were ever made of domestic violence, no accusations until 2018,” the statement declares. Since her death, Davis adds, “Kathleen’s family has engaged in an ongoing social and public media crusade against not only Mr. Petrocco but his entire family.”

Davis also provided an email from an Adams County detective, declaring unequivocally that Petrocco is not considered a suspect in his wife’s death. The same detective recently told Sharkey that she was at “the highest level of denial” about what appears to be a clear case of suicide. But Sharkey says that her family isn’t eager to accept the judgment of police officers, given the kind of “officer discretion” that seemed to prevail in handling her sister’s domestic-violence complaint.

“In domestic-violence calls, you’re getting a different sort of justice depending on who shows up,” she says. “Now we’re at the mercy of the judgment of people we have never met.”

click to enlarge Kathleen Rafferty was 22 when she met David Petrocco Jr., vice president of Petrocco Farms. - COURTESY OF MOIRA RAFFERTY SHARKEY
Kathleen Rafferty was 22 when she met David Petrocco Jr., vice president of Petrocco Farms.
Courtesy of Moira Rafferty Sharkey
Eileen Rafferty remembers her oldest daughter as “an incredibly ambitious kid.” Katie, she says, had to be talked into going to college because she was already busy with various jobs and plans and eager to take on more.

She started working part-time when she was fourteen; by the time she was eighteen, she was managing a Victoria’s Secret store. She completed a bachelor’s degree at Metropolitan State University of Denver in three years and was soon hired to do event planning for the Rio Grande restaurant chain. A gifted writer, she also began a master’s program in English at Colorado State University.

In her spare time, she did volunteer work for nonprofits that aided people with disabilities. She had a brother with epilepsy, and one of her favorite causes was the Epilepsy Foundation of Colorado; she chaired several events and helped transform modest gatherings into major fundraising galas.

When she was 22, she went on a date with the brother of a woman she’d met at Metro. David Petrocco was sixteen years older than she was; he’d been married and divorced twice and had teenage children from his first marriage. He was also the scion of a family-owned business that employed hundreds of migrant workers and averaged $12 million in annual sales.

The wedding was in 2006 — barely a year after they’d met. Some members of the Rafferty family were skeptical, given the age difference between them. Petrocco could be a charming host, doing much of the holiday cooking and keeping everyone’s glass filled, but he also had a history of struggles with sobriety.

“David had a crappy past,” says Alison Dutcher, Kate’s confidante since preschool. (By Dutcher’s calculation, the two talked just about every day for more than thirty years.) “Katie was well aware of some of the behaviors prior to getting together with him. But they had only been together for a very short time when they got engaged.”

“I didn’t like the guy from day one,” Eileen Rafferty says. “The only thing that gives me any comfort is that I spent the hour before she walked down the aisle begging her not to marry him.”

Yet for several years, the marriage appeared to thrive. Petrocco persuaded his wife to join him at Petrocco Farms, where she took on increasing responsibilities in the front office. He also showered her with gifts. “Every time she turned around, she was getting another set of diamond earrings,” Eileen recalls.

“I thought they were great together for the first decade,” says Mo Sharkey. “I didn’t notice any cracks in the marriage at all.”

But Sharkey, who lived in Massachusetts during half of the marriage, found her brother-in-law’s possessiveness unsettling at times. She would be on the phone with Kate, only to be interrupted by an incoming call from David — even if he was standing right next to his wife. “He couldn’t bear to have her attention off him,” Sharkey says. “They shared an office, and he would still do that kind of thing.”

In 2009, Kate gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. A year or so later, during one of her regular visits to her parents’ home in Littleton, she asked her mother if she and the children could stay for a few days. Her mother asked what was wrong.

“She said, ‘He grabbed me,’” Eileen Rafferty says. “She had marks on her arm where David had grabbed her. Then the phone calls started — he was sorry, he didn’t mean it, he was going to rehab. We begged her not to go back, but she did.”

“Katie was a very secretive person,” says Dutcher. “She would tell me a bunch of stuff and not tell her family. Then she’d tell them stuff and not tell me.”

The stuff usually had something to do with her husband. But even when the news was distressing, Kate put a positive spin on it. “She said one time that he went downstairs and crashed a wall mirror,” Dutcher recalls. “I remember her being really, really afraid when she told that story. But she always softened it up: ‘Then he went to detox.’ She’d give you a little bit of a story, and then she’d smooth it over.”

"The moment I tried to get help, it became worse in ways you cannot imagine."

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Whatever was brewing at home may have been exacerbated by troubles at work. In 2016, Kate got into a virulent dispute with a Petrocco Farms employee whom she believed had improperly disclosed other workers’ health information. She also complained bitterly to her father-in-law, David Petrocco Sr., about being poorly paid despite a staggering workload: By that point, she was simultaneously directing the food safety program, managing sales accounts and overseeing transportation.

“I have saved the farm $1.5 million this season alone by managing our freight better…despite being paid 38% less than what you paid [her predecessor],” she wrote to the patriarch. “I presume that is because I am a woman, given that you told Junior the other day that all of these problems exist because you have to employ women now.”

She eventually received a modest raise — but at $68,000 a year, her pay was a fraction of her husband’s compensation. (In a later divorce hearing, her attorney claimed that David Petrocco’s paycheck, with bonuses, amounted to $37,000 a month; he insisted that his take-home pay was $11,000 a month.)

By early 2017, Kate’s parents were noticing that she seemed “hyper-nervous” and was drinking more than she had previously. That May they received a phone call from their granddaughter, asking them to come get her and her brother because their parents were fighting. Gerald Rafferty, Kate’s father, found the couple arguing in front of their house; David was slurring his words, he says, and seemed erratic. Rafferty took his granddaughter with him but not her brother, who insisted on staying at home.

“This was the first incident where we knew that something was really wrong,” Rafferty says.

The eight-year-old twins summoned the Raffertys to take them away twice more in the next few weeks; the second time, their granddaughter called from a bathroom to report that “Daddy is hurting Mommy.” They were bewildered to walk in on alcohol-fueled arguments in front of the children. On one occasion they removed not only the kids, but the family dog, after David allegedly threatened to kill the canine if the kids left; on another, Gerry Rafferty says, he intervened by phone after David had blocked Kate’s car in the driveway, refusing to let her leave for a conference in Colorado Springs.

Memories of those incidents haunt Rafferty, a former FBI agent, prosecutor and district court judge. “Katie would not talk to us about the situation,” he says. “Let me say something out of my personal guilt. Look at my background. I should have called the police the first time. The second night, the next day, I should have called the police. But I couldn’t. My adult daughter is saying, ‘I can handle this.’”

Attorney Davis says David Petrocco blocked his wife’s car the day of the conference because “she had taken multiple Xanax the night before” and “could barely get out of bed and dress herself and could not walk without falling.” She ended up taking an Uber.

As for Rafferty’s other allegations, Davis’s statement assigns blame to both parties: “Both Mr. Petrocco and Kathleen abused alcohol and drugs during their marriage, and both were intoxicated while around the kids. Both…made inappropriate comments and threats and verbally fought in the presence of the kids.”

On a family vacation in New Jersey that summer, Kate told her sister that “85 percent of my life is great. It’s just the other 15 percent.”

She repeated that remark a few months later, when the sisters met for coffee at a Starbucks in Denver. To Mo Sharkey, it seemed like a line that glossed over a lot of problems.

“Has he ever hit you?” Sharkey asked.

“He would never be that stupid,” her sister replied. She insisted that things were okay.

That conversation haunts Sharkey, too. “I called her on that months later,” she says. “She lied to me. She lied to my mom and dad. I was so mad at her, because she had every ounce of support around her, and if she had just reached out, we could have helped her.”

Scarcely a day after that conversation over coffee, Kate Petrocco called 911.

click to enlarge David and Kate Petrocco married in 2006. - COURTESY OF MOIRA RAFFERTY SHARKEY
David and Kate Petrocco married in 2006.
Courtesy of Moira Rafferty Sharkey
The rising tensions in the Petrocco household boiled over in January 2018. Kate and David Petrocco, along with Kate’s father, were involved in coaching the twins’ basketball teams; at practice on January 23, David showed up reeking of alcohol and acting strangely, Gerry Rafferty says. The unsettling behavior continued at a gathering for Rafferty’s birthday that evening.

“He was slurring; he was talking nonsensically,” Rafferty says. “It was crazy, and it ended very quickly. We all realized this was not going to be much of a celebration, and we left.”

Two days later, at another basketball practice, other parents complained to Kate about her husband’s drinking. “Some of the other parents expressed dismay that he was visibly intoxicated during the practice,” she wrote in a court document prepared the next day. The Petroccos went home, and after the children were put to bed, Kate decided to confront her husband.

“David became extremely agitated and started yelling,” her account continues. “He pulled the children out of bed and made them sit in our bedroom and told them they couldn’t go back to bed. He started yelling at them and me about how I ruined his life and broke his heart and was going to ruin the children’s [sic] because I was going to leave.”

The twins called Eileen and Gerry Rafferty, asking them to come quickly. A flurry of calls to the grandparents followed: the children sounding more panic-stricken, David Petrocco calling to tell them not to come. A few minutes before eleven, Kate called 911.

“My husband is being very belligerent,” she said.

The dispatcher asked her if her husband had been “physical” or if the belligerence was “just verbal.”

“Right now it’s just verbal, but he’s threatening,” Kate reported. “The kids are crying. He’s ripping my phone off my hands. He’s taking the remote control off my hands and throwing it against the wall.”

The call was chaotic. The kids were shrieking in the background. Kate was slurring her words, possibly inebriated herself — and the dispatcher kept interrupting her to ask if anyone in the house had been drinking or doing drugs.

“I have officers on the way,” the dispatcher said. “Try to stay separated from him. Lock you and your kids in a room.”

“He’s standing right here, yelling at me,” Kate replied. “I can’t hear anything…[the kids] won’t go with me because he has told them that I am trying to get him in trouble.”

Two Adams County deputies arrived at the home nineteen minutes later, followed by Kate’s parents. The officers spoke with the Petroccos separately while the grandparents tried to calm the twins, who were frantic over the possibility that one of their parents might be going to jail.

After a few minutes, though, the officers announced that no one was going to jail. Instead, they would take David Petrocco to a hotel for the night, giving everybody a chance to cool down. It was an odd decision, given Colorado’s tough domestic-violence laws, which require mandatory arrest if a responding officer has probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed. The altercation in the Petrocco home may have been more verbal than physical, but it also involved claims of harassment and intimidation: threats, objects being thrown against the wall, preventing a spouse from using a phone to summon help, children being dragged into the midst of the fray, and so on.

“I am protecting my children the best way I can. I hope you can try to understand that some day.”

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It may have been that Kate didn’t want her husband arrested; just minutes before the police arrived, she’d phoned 911 a second time to declare that her husband was leaving and she didn’t need any help. But the mandatory-arrest provision is supposed to take away the discretion that officers and victims used to have to allow a domestic-violence perpetrator to “go sleep it off” without further consequences.

Lydia Waligorski, public-policy director for the abuse survivor advocacy group Violence Free Colorado, says that her organization doesn’t comment on individual cases. In general, though, taking someone to a hotel “is something the police would have done thirty years ago,” she observes. “Now it’s mandatory arrest if they have probable cause to believe an incident happened. But there is some discretion in how an officer makes that determination. It’s a string of decision points. It’s helpful to go back and have follow-up conversations, but that doesn’t happen in the majority of the cases.”

That night, the responding deputies apparently regarded the incident as so low-priority that they didn’t even write up a report. (The Adams County Sheriff’s Office declined to respond to questions about how the case was handled, claiming that the matter is part of the “ongoing investigation” into Kate Petrocco’s death — even though the two incidents are eighteen months apart.) Instead, one of them chauffeured David Petrocco to a Hampton Inn. Kate’s parents took the children home with them. Kate refused to leave the house.

Her husband didn’t stay away long. According to Kate’s account, he borrowed a car from a hotel clerk and was back in the residence when she woke up the next morning. She tried to ignore him and watch the news, but he threw a remote control at the television, smashing the screen.

“This morning, he threatened to kill himself and me,” she declared in a motion for a civil protection order prepared that afternoon in a meeting with a divorce attorney in downtown Denver. “He said that either he or I would die if I tried to divorce him.”

On her way back to Brighton, she called her father and reported that David was following her on I-76. Rafferty instructed her to call police and drive to his house. (Rafferty says he also received a boozy call from David, demanding his children.)

At the Rafferty house, Kate provided deputies with a more detailed account of what happened the night before. She said that she’d locked herself in the bathroom, but David forced his way in and grabbed her by the arm, causing her pain. She showed them a photo on her phone of the smashed TV.

She also described to the officers previous incidents of abuse by her husband, including allegations of sexual assault; brandishing a handgun “on more than one occasion” and threatening to kill her; and tracking her whereabouts and blocking doors so she couldn’t leave.

Rafferty listened to her recitation with astonishment. It was the first he’d heard of any of this. His daughter was trembling, frightened in a way he’d never seen her before. “She said the abuse started shortly after the twins were born,” he says. “I was dumbfounded.”

For reasons Rafferty can’t and Adams County officers won’t explain, few of her statements to the deputies about prior violence made it into the police report taken on January 26. But similar statements appear in the protective-order motion she completed that day.

“On January 12, 2018, I confronted David about some text messages with escort services that I saw on his phone,” she wrote. “He put his hands around my neck and started choking me. This went on for about 45 seconds to one minute. Later that night, I woke up to David having sexual intercourse with me without my consent.

“In April 2017, David got angry when I came home late from a dinner with friends. He pulled my boots off my feet and threw them off of the second story balcony…

“On approximately April 24, 2017, I woke up to David having sexual intercourse with me without my consent.

“In the past, David has thrown pots and pans at me. He has smashed glasses…He has told me that if I leave him, he will kill himself or drink himself to death and leave suicide notes for the children telling them it is my fault for leaving him. He has told me that if I divorce him and pursue a relationship with anyone else, he will kill me and whoever I am in a relationship with. He has told me that he knows people who can make me disappear.”

In the statement prepared by his lawyer, David Petrocco admits to breaking the TV but maintains that he didn’t assault his wife or stalk her the next day. As for the allegations of prior abuse — choking, non-consensual sex, waving a gun around and the rest — “Mr. Petrocco denies that these things occurred,” the statement declares. “It would be highly unusual for the prosecution to offer Mr. Petrocco a deferred judgment if they believed he had committed such serious offenses.”

Waligorski says it’s not unusual for domestic-violence survivors to make fragmentary, incomplete complaints at first and then elaborate at a later date. “People don’t necessarily call law enforcement after the most serious incident,” she says. “They call when they’ve had enough. That’s when people start to talk about what happened.”

"It would be highly unusual for the prosecution to offer Mr. Petrocco a deferred judgment if they believed he had committed such serious offenses."

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David Petrocco was arrested at the couple’s home that evening. The arresting officer noted that the subject “appeared to be intoxicated.” He was charged with third-degree assault, harassment, two counts of child abuse, and criminal mischief. All of the charges except for criminal mischief (the damage to the TV) stemmed from his actions the night before, which puzzled Mo Sharkey.

“If they had the ability to arrest him for that on January 26, why didn’t they arrest him on the night it happened?” she asks.

Waligorski notes that abuse survivors sometimes seek prosecution on only minor charges, in the hope it will provide some measure of accountability. In some cases, more serious allegations may be too difficult to prove, too traumatic to pursue, or have consequences that the survivor doesn’t want the family to endure. “People find justice in different ways,” she says. “Is it difficult to prove spousal sex abuse? Absolutely. Is it difficult to prove someone broke a cell phone? Not so much.”

Three days after her husband’s arrest, Kate filed for divorce. She soon received a letter from David Petrocco Sr., complaining that she’d sent copies of company emails to her father and her divorce attorney. “I don’t have trust in your motives or your ability to perform your job properly, and I have decided that I must terminate your employment with Petrocco Farms immediately,” he wrote.

Two weeks later, Kate shocked her family by withdrawing the divorce petition and asking that the civil-protection order issued in the case be removed. Her parents and her sister pleaded with her to reconsider, but she maintained that reconciling with her husband was the best course of action available to her.

“Life will be worse for my children if I leave,” she wrote in a terse email to her sister. “You cannot help us, mom and dad cannot help us, the police cannot help us, lawyers cannot help us. I am protecting my children the best way I can. I hope you can try to understand that some day.”

click to enlarge The Petroccos in 2009; after David's arrest on domestic-violence charges last year, Kate told family members that "the abuse started shortly after the twins were born." - COURTESY OF MOIRA RAFFERTY SHARKEY
The Petroccos in 2009; after David's arrest on domestic-violence charges last year, Kate told family members that "the abuse started shortly after the twins were born."
Courtesy of Moira Rafferty Sharkey
On April 19, 2018, David Petrocco pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors, third-degree assault and criminal mischief. All other charges stemming from the January complaint were dropped, and he received a two-year deferred sentence: If he completed the requirements of a diversion program, including sobriety monitoring and attending domestic-violence classes, the case would be dismissed, without any conviction reflected on his record.

The plea deal struck Gerry Rafferty as an extremely generous one, given that Petrocco had two prior arrests for domestic violence — a fact that Rafferty had only recently discovered himself, by running a criminal-record check on his son-in-law.

In 1995 Petrocco had been charged with harassment and third-degree assault in an incident involving his first wife. The harassment charge had been dismissed, and he’d been found not guilty by a jury of the assault charge.

In 2003, Brighton police officers, responding to a 911 hang-up call, took a report from Petrocco’s second wife, stating that he’d punched the wall, spit at her, broken her phone and locked her in the bedroom with him. He then allegedly pushed her up against the wall while yelling at her. She recalled him saying, “You can’t leave,” “I’m the boss,” and “I don’t have to answer to anybody.” The victim stated that she didn’t want to pursue prosecution, and the charges filed in the case — false imprisonment and harassment — were later dismissed by a judge.

The 2018 domestic-violence case was handled by a special prosecutor from Jefferson County because Kate Petrocco was on the board of the local Victim Assistance and Law Enforcement (VALE) program that served the 17th Judicial District, creating a possible conflict for Adams County prosecutors. When Rafferty questioned the prosecutor about the plea arrangement, which he would later describe as “a sweetheart deal to a serial wife abuser,” he was told that his daughter had approved it.

Jefferson County District Attorney Pete Weir says that his office learned of the more serious allegations the victim made, such as sexual assault, only secondhand — and that his team was hampered in their efforts by a lack of cooperation from Kate Petrocco. “She would not speak to us about these incidents,” Weir explains.
“That’s not unusual, given the domestic-violence dynamic. We will prosecute cases where a domestic-violence victim flat-out recants, if we have enough corroborating evidence. But it’s very difficult to do if it’s not reported relatively contemporaneously with the event itself.”

Because David Petrocco’s prior arrests hadn’t led to convictions and the case that could be proven involved minor offenses, Weir defends the outcome as reasonable — and tough. Two years in Jeffco’s diversion program, he points out, is twice the sentence many offenders receive.

Despite an admission in his guilty plea that “the prosecution can prove the elements of the crime,” David Petrocco claims that he never committed assault on his wife — and took the deal only to avoid having a conviction on his permanent record. “Given that he would be almost certain of a conviction for the TV breakage if he went to trial, this was an offer that could not realistically be declined,” Davis notes.

“Whatever happened to her, over that decade of abuse, her brain was altered by all of this.”

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Kate’s participation in the process was minimal. She fled the courtroom during one hearing and didn’t bother to attend others. But that didn’t mean the efforts to reconcile with her husband had succeeded. Three days before he entered his guilty plea, she once again filed for divorce.

The breakup was costly and contentious, marked by protracted disputes in family court over marital assets, parenting time and other issues. At one hearing, Kate’s lawyer complained that, despite the protective order, David was still engaging in “stalking behaviors,” including reviewing Kate’s cell-phone usage and “having the children report to him what she is doing.” (At one point, Gerry Rafferty also obtained a temporary protection order against David, complaining of stalking after encountering him at the Brighton Recreation Center three times in the same week.) His insistence on paying all the bills, rather than dispensing a fixed amount each month for maintenance, also gave David an opportunity to exert further control and harass Kate by quizzing her about individual expenditures, her lawyer added.

For his part, David pressed to be allowed to spend more time with his children, pointing to his months of monitored sobriety since his plea deal. “He will admit today that he is an alcoholic, that he has abused cocaine in the past, but that he is working on his sobriety every single day,” his attorney said.

click to enlarge In 2018, Kate Petrocco was hired as manager of the victims' advocate program in the office of Adams County District Attorney Dave Young. - TWITTER
In 2018, Kate Petrocco was hired as manager of the victims' advocate program in the office of Adams County District Attorney Dave Young.
As the case lurched forward, Kate headed in a new direction in her career. Six months after being dismissed from Petrocco Farms, she was hired to manage the Victim Witness Services program at the Adams County District Attorney’s Office. The DA, Dave Young, knew her from her work on the VALE board. After several months working together in the DA’s office, the two became romantically involved, according to an affidavit Kate Petrocco later filed in the divorce case, seeking to have a judge recuse himself.

Mo Sharkey says she argued with her sister about the wisdom of getting involved with her married boss, especially when she was still extracting herself from a troubled relationship with another older man. “My sister is not a sentimental person, but she gave me this bullshit line — ‘The heart wants what the heart wants,’” Sharkey says. “Right then I knew, that’s not my sister. Whatever happened to her over that decade of abuse — her brain was altered by all of this.”

Yet by last spring, it seemed to her family that many of her problems were behind her. She and Young had ended their involvement but remained on good terms, she said. And after a lengthy mediation session, she and David had finally agreed on a fifty-fifty split of marital assets and custody, with David paying a fixed amount of child support over the next few years. “She was elated that she was at the end and she was free,” Eileen Rafferty says. “She was so happy to be done with him.”

Dutcher remembers seeing Kate on the Fourth of July; she was dating again and introduced Dutcher to her new boyfriend. “She seemed better than she had been for a long time, frankly,” she says. “She wasn’t shaking. She wasn’t consumed with fear.”

On July 9, Sharkey talked with her sister for twenty minutes on the phone. Kate was in the process of selling the big house in Brighton, figuring out when she could bring the twins to Boston (where her parents now lived as well) to visit before school started. There was no indication of trouble at work or at home, Sharkey says: “It was normal. It was hopeful.”

The next day, Sharkey received a text from Kate. Her daughter had reported a rough night at volleyball camp. Kate had gone to Greeley to see her. Problem solved.

“That was the last communication I had with my sister,” Sharkey says.

click to enlarge The Petroccos'  house, which they moved into in 2016, was recently listed for sale for $999,000. - REMAX.COM
The Petroccos' house, which they moved into in 2016, was recently listed for sale for $999,000.
The house was on the market, and a showing had been requested for Sunday, July 14. No one had spoken to Kate directly that day, but the showing was on the schedule, and the prospective buyers arrived as expected. They emerged from the house a few minutes later, deeply distressed.

They had found the body of a woman lying on the floor of the exercise room. Although details have not been released, sources close to the investigation say the body was attached by a noose of some kind to a piece of weight-lifting equipment.

A phone call from Adams County investigators notified Mo Sharkey of her sister’s death. She asked Kate’s friends, Dutcher and Ty Gordon, to go to the house while she made arrangements to fly out from Massachusetts. Gordon and Dutcher both say the comments and questions from the investigators indicated that they believed they were dealing with a suicide.

“The female detective said at first she thought it was something else, but the others steered her away from that,” Gordon recalls.

Dutcher didn’t think her friend’s death made any sense at all. If she was determined to commit suicide, she had access to other means, a less complicated and strenuous death than trying to asphyxiate herself on a weight machine. “Kate’s not that strong, and she didn’t work out,” Dutcher says. “It’s hard to see how she did this on her own.”

Yet the investigators could point to other factors. Four days before her body was found, Kate had abruptly quit her job at the DA’s office, without explanation or warning. A forensic review of her Internet use showed Google searches for different methods of suicide, searches that had been deleted from her browsing history.

John Davis says there’s nothing mysterious or suspicious about the death of Kate Petrocco, who “had a substantial drug and alcohol problem.” It’s his understanding that the investigation into the death is all but closed. “The only thing they’re waiting on is the toxicology report,” he says. “That’s the only part of this that’s open.”

David Petrocco’s response to the news of his wife’s death, Davis says, was “a combination of shock, sadness, and concern for the kids.”

Eileen Rafferty flatly rejects the notion that her daughter took her own life, noting how much the entire family suffered at the loss of her brother, Daniel, to complications of epilepsy in 2017. “She knew how devastating it was for all of us to lose Dan,” she says. “There’s no way on earth she would have done that to us. And there’s no way she would have abandoned those kids. They were her life.”

"In domestic violence calls, you're getting a different sort of justice depending on who shows up."

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Sharkey was in her sister’s house two days after her death. She observed signs of a recent male presence in the house, including a stash of beverages her sister didn’t drink and a pair of men’s camo fleece sweatpants on the floor of the master bathroom; a detective told her such items “hold no evidentiary value.” She doesn’t know what to think about Kate’s death, but she believes that the confident big sister she’d admired had been damaged for some time.

“Whether she took her own life or someone killed her, domestic violence broke her,” she says.

Her death came weeks before the divorce settlement was to take effect. As a result, the judge soon dismissed the case, and all marital assets, as well as sole custody of the children, went to David Petrocco. The Raffertys say they have been cut off from contact with their grandchildren, setting up a possible court battle over visitation rights.

Trying to make sense of it all, Gerry Rafferty has written an analysis of his daughter’s dealings with law enforcement and the courts, drawing on his own insights into the system’s flaws from having served as a judge in Arapahoe County for seventeen years. In a section titled “Kate’s Epitaph,” he points out that, at the time of her death, “Kate was still married to her abuser; she had no pension or other security for her children after working for 10 years at Petrocco Farms; she had no marital property after enduring 10 years of marital abuse; and after using every means at her disposal to protect her children, the abuser obtained sole custody of her children.”

Kate Petrocco left no epitaph of her own. The lack of a note, of any valediction, leaves a silence greater than her family can bear.

“My sister had the last word on everything,” Sharkey says. “She wouldn’t have left this world without having the last word.”

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. To reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline, call (800) 799-SAFE (7233); contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255. 
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast