Kate Petrocco

Kate Petrocco (right) with her sister Moira Sharkey. Petrocco died in July 2019, her death ruled a suicide. But her sister and parents do not believe the investigations were thorough and unbiased.

Three years after the death of an Adams County woman under what her family says were suspicious circumstances, public officials are taking notice of her family’s request for an independent investigation.

But her sister says they still have more questions than answers.

Kate Petrocco died in 2019, found in the basement of her Brighton home by a real-estate agent on July 14. An autopsy ruled her death a suicide.

But Petrocco’s family doesn’t believe she took her own life. And since she died, her father, sister and mother have tried to draw attention to what they say are problems with the investigations by the Adams coroner, sheriff and district attorney’s office. They believe the power structures and relationships between the agencies prevented thorough and unbiased probes.

Petrocco was divorcing her husband, part of a wealthy and powerful family in Adams County, who her family says abused her for much of their marriage that lasted more than a decade. They say she looked forward to a new life with her children after her divorce.

While the family doesn’t accuse any particular person in Petrocco’s death, her sister Moira Sharkey told The Denver Gazette her family’s goal in drawing attention to Petrocco’s death and pushing for a new investigation is to bring systemic change that strengthens protections for survivors and victims of domestic violence.

“We acknowledge our privilege as being a financially stable, white family who is familiar with the legal system. And if this can happen to us, who else is it happening to?”

Sharkey described her sister as a stunning person and wonderful mother whose two kids were her life.

Petrocco’s father, former 18th Judicial District Court Judge Gerald Rafferty, sent a letter to Attorney General Phil Weiser and 17th Judicial District Attorney Brian Mason on July 20 laying out the family’s request for a new investigation, according to copies of emails provided to The Denver Gazette.

Now three years later, Mason — elected to his position in 2020 — and a state legislator have indicated they would support an independent investigation into Petrocco’s death.

“Kathleen was a colleague and, although our interactions with one another were few, I was saddened by her death. I acknowledge that you and your family have gone through hell since she died and I express my sincere condolences to you and your entire family on her loss,” Mason wrote in a letter dated Oct. 28.

He said he would recuse himself from any additional investigation because of Petrocco’s employment in the district attorney’s office and his predecessor’s relationship with her.

Mason’s office declined further comment to The Denver Gazette.

Petrocco’s family says Mason’s predecessor, Dave Young, wasn’t truthful to Petrocco’s family or the sheriff’s office about the extent of an intimate relationship he had with her. Petrocco worked as a victim services program manager in the DA’s office until she resigned a few days before her death.

She disclosed her relationship with Young in a sworn affidavit she submitted to the court in her divorce case in February 2019. Her family says they learned the extent of the relationship through Petrocco’s phone records after receiving them more than a year following her death.

Young was hired as a senior deputy district attorney in the 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office, covering El Paso and Teller counties, after he left office in 2021. He did not return an email seeking comment.

Petrocco’s parents and sister also take issue with the investigation by the Adams County Coroner’s Office. They believe Petrocco’s autopsy report included inappropriate information about her personal life and mental health, and mischaracterized a check processing issue she had at her job as a victim services program manager in the Adams County District Attorney's Office to suggest she was under investigation for financial irregularities.

They also say the coroner’s office did not attempt to interview them during its investigation, which coroner Monica Broncucia-Jordan denied in an email to The Denver Gazette. Broncucia-Jordan said a senior death investigator interviewed Petrocco’s parents on July 15, 2019.

“It is not uncommon for bereaved families to forget speaking to us given the traumatic nature of what they are going through,” she said in the statement.

She requested a review of Petrocco’s death by several experts after the autopsy by Dr. Stephen Cina because of the family’s concern that Young’s relationship with Petrocco prevented an unbiased investigation, and would support a new investigation as well, she wrote.

The Denver Gazette has requested the coroner’s office release the portion of its investigative file related to interviews with Petrocco’s parents. The autopsy report references her family’s belief she did not die by suicide and that they denied she had ever previously attempted to take her own life.

Petrocco's psychiatrist sent a letter to the coroner's office saying she did not believe Petrocco would have killed herself.

The coroner’s office previously declined to release its investigative files related to Petrocco’s death to her family after a records request they made, saying it would be contrary to the public interest. Sharkey said her family wants to know who the office spoke to and details of those conversations.

Petrocco’s family also says they believe the Adams County Sheriff’s Office didn’t do a thorough investigation, including failing to collect some evidence in Petrocco's home and allowing an attorney for Petrocco's husband access to a cell phone she owned. A spokesperson for the sheriff’s department declined to comment specifically on the allegation.

“The questions regarding the case have been addressed in the past. We are confident that our investigation was done thoroughly,” wrote Sgt. Adam Sherman. “We have communicated to the family in the past that we are open to an outside, independent investigation or case review.”

Sen. Pete Lee, a Democrat from El Paso County, sent an email to Mason on Oct. 25 urging him to support an investigation by Attorney General Phil Weiser.

“I know you are aware of some of the shortcomings of prior investigations in Adams County, so this request is for fresh eyes on this case,” Lee wrote.

“The family testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee when we considered the renewal of the Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board and have been thoughtful and vigorous advocates to improve the system for all victims of DV.”

Lee chairs the Judiciary Committee. Petrocco’s family gave testimony when the state’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board went before the committee for renewal, and among other requests asked for mandatory reporting of domestic violence data to judges to educate them about their role in protecting victims.

Lee told The Denver Gazette that investigations play a key role in reducing domestic violence, and details about the probes into Petrocco’s death gave him pause that there may have been conflicts of interest.

"I think the attorney general is particularly capable and competent to be able to do that sort of thing,” he said, referring to Weiser’s probe into Elijah McClain’s death after the 17th Judicial District attorney didn’t find probable cause for criminal charges against the police officers and paramedics involved.

But Sharkey said the family has struggled to understand reasoning behind the 2020 report of the Colorado Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board, which is chaired by Weiser, including Petrocco in its list of 2019 victims who died as a result of domestic violence or in the context of domestic violence. Sharkey believes including names without specific explanation renders the annual report toothless in preventing domestic violence deaths.

A spokesperson for Weiser, Lawrence Pacheco, said in an email that deaths included in the annual report “are approved by the full Board for inclusion based on the facts and circumstances surrounding their death.”

Deaths in the context of domestic violence can include homicide or suicide, Pacheco wrote, and each list doesn’t imply guilt or innocence.

He said Weiser would support an independent investigation to give Petrocco’s family closure.

Sharkey is grateful for public officials’ support of a new investigation. But she said she doesn’t feel she’s gotten a clear answer about the reasons for the seeming change in tone.

“Our family has been screaming about this for three years. Why is now the time to pursue some type of justice for Katie?” Sharkey said.

“The answer can’t be because we’ve been really loud. If that’s the answer, then what hope is there for the justice system?”

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