Law Enforcement

Kate Petrocco's Death Ruled Suicide, "Big Questions" Remain

Kathleen Petrocco with her sister's child.
Kathleen Petrocco with her sister's child. Courtesy of Moira Sharkey
The official investigation into the death of Kathleen Rafferty Petrocco, who was found unresponsive in her Brighton home on July 14, is now closed. On October 1, the Adams County Coroner's Office released a long-awaited autopsy report that concludes Petrocco committed suicide, asphyxiating herself on a weight machine in her basement exercise room. But family members say they still have questions about the way Adams County officials handled the death investigation and a domestic-violence complaint that Petrocco made last year.

The case had attracted widespread attention, in part because of Petrocco's prominence in the community. The daughter of former district court judge Gerald Rafferty, she was married for twelve years to David Petrocco Jr., vice president of Petrocco Farms, a multimillion-dollar family farm empire. The couple had been separated since David Petrocco's arrest on domestic-violence charges in early 2018 and were in the process of finalizing their divorce at the time of Kate's death. In documents filed in the divorce case, she also disclosed a romantic relationship with Adams County District Attorney Dave Young that ended last spring.

In last week's Westword cover story on Kate Petrocco's life and death, family and longtime friends of the deceased described an ambitious, talented woman who was deeply impacted by the abuse endured during her marriage to a man who had prior domestic-violence arrests (but no convictions) in two previous marriages.

On January 25, 2018, Kate Petrocco called 911 to report that her husband was throwing things, making threats, and had ripped a phone out of her hands; responding Adams County deputies took David Petrocco to a hotel, an action the sheriff's office has declined to explain. David returned to the residence the next day and was arrested after smashing a television. He subsequently pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and received a deferred sentence; more serious allegations raised by Kate concerning past incidents of sexual and physical assault were never prosecuted. (Despite the guilty plea, David Petrocco's lawyer told Westword that his client denies ever assaulting his wife and only took the plea deal to avoid the risk of a permanent conviction on his record.)

Kate's parents refused to believe that she took her own life, noting that she and her husband had resolved financial issues in the divorce and custody arrangements for their two children and that her life seemed to be improving. "There's no way she would have abandoned those kids," Eileen Rafferty, her mother, told Westword. "They were her life."

But the coroner's report claims that Kate Petrocco had "mental health issues, substance abuse issues, financial issues, employment issues, and sexual addiction issues." She was reportedly facing an audit at the DA's office, where she managed the victim services unit, over financial "discrepancies" and had resigned by text three days before her body was found. Her online browsing history also showed recent searches for methods of self-harm. There was no evidence of defensive injuries, sedation or other signs that another party might be involved.

Possibly because of the high-profile nature of the case, coroner Monica Broncucia-Jordan brought in Denver's chief medical examiner, James Caruso, as a consultant to review the findings. Caruso's report concurs with the finding of suicide.

Hours before the autopsy findings were released, Kate Petrocco's father and sister, Moira Sharkey, addressed the Adams County commissioners, who had just issued a proclamation in support of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. "The Adams County police, the district attorney and the judiciary have enabled domestic violence to persist," Sharkey said. "A once-prominent, respected and beloved member of this community, Kate has been reduced to ashes because of the domestic violence she suffered for more than a decade right here in Adams County."

"We ignore domestic violence because we accept toxic masculinity," Gerald Rafferty told the commissioners. "Until men stand up and say, 'Believe the women,' this will continue, and there will be more dead women."

The Raffertys were provided a copy of the autopsy report only after some media outlets had already received it. They are still reviewing its findings but dispute several assertions — such as the "sexual addiction" reference — that they say are the result of investigators misinterpreting comments made by Kate's friends.

"We still have some big questions," Sharkey says. "We lack faith in the judgment and decision-making of the Adams County sheriff and the coroner." 
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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

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