For nearly seven months Andrea Berry had been trying to get police to take seriously her fears that her ex-husband was sexually abusing their 3-year-old daughter, Sophia, and using her in child pornography, but she was running out of options.
A police commander in the town of Elizabeth, where the father lived, had bluntly told Berry the case was closed and to stop pestering the police, according to recorded conversations at the time. She feared she risked losing custody for making what police deemed unsubstantiated allegations, the recording shows.
Then, a small breadcrumb of hope came three days before Christmas. An Elbert County child protective worker had left a message on Berry’s cell phone stating that she was filing a dependency and neglect motion against the father that would get the matter before a judge.
But the dependency and neglect filing never came, leaving the single mother in Parker, then 41, on her own to air her concerns in Douglas County’s family court.
Within two years, Sophia, the little blonde-haired girl who once proudly showed off to the child protective worker her homemade Wonder Woman costume and declared that Wonder Woman was safe, would be dead.
She became one of at least four children murdered in Colorado in the months of December and January by a parent embroiled in a high-conflict court custody battle. Police have classified all four deaths as murder-suicides in which fathers killed their own children and then themselves.
In all those cases, the mothers raised concerns in family court filings that the fathers posed threats to the children, but those filings were either rejected by judges or, as in the case of Sophia, never ruled on.
“The courts say they act in the best interest of the child, but really, it’s what is easiest for the judge, at best,” Berry said. “Best case scenario is it’s: ‘How can I do less work?’ Worst case is way worse.”
Court reform advocates say such deaths are an extreme example of problems that persist in what they call a dysfunctional family court system in Colorado. Critics contend that judges and the parental evaluators they appoint to help them make contentious custody decisions too often ignore allegations of abuse, sexual assault and violence and place children in peril by returning them to abusive or unfit parents while penalizing parents who raise concerns.
“The judges are not trained,” said Maralee McLean, who became executive director of the non-profit Moms Fight Back after her own bitter custody battle 30 years ago in Arapahoe County. “It’s so obvious. If they understood domestic violence at all, they wouldn’t be handing these children over. They’re not listening. Nobody is listening.”
In McLean’s case, a judge discounted McLean’s allegations of child sex abuse, including testimony from 25 witnesses and medical experts, and granted the father full custody. For eight years, McLean could only see her daughter two hours a week, and only then with supervision.
Reform advocates want new mandates for domestic violence training for family court judges and tighter regulations on parenting evaluators, who may charge divorcing parents tens of thousands of dollars when judges appoint them to make recommendations when parents can’t agree on a parent custody plan.
Legislation under consideration at the General Assembly ranges from creation of a task force that would study such issues to new requirements for the judiciary to undergo domestic violence training along with new prohibitions barring removal of a child from the home of a fit parent solely to repair a child’s relationship with a deficient parent.
The Gazette reviewed dozens of recent cases involving aggrieved parents.
In one, a Colorado Springs mother could be on the hook for more than $622,000 of the father’s legal fees for “vexatious conduct” after she raised concerns in 2018 to a parental evaluator, including that she found it disturbing that the father had a habit of having their 3-year-old daughter hold his penis when he urinated.
The mother in that case also had warned the daughter was vulnerable during the father’s parenting time because the father had allowed a man with a violent arrest record to move in with him and left marijuana-infused edible candy out in his home she feared her daughter might accidentally ingest.
Another Jefferson County mother said she had to spend $75,000 in additional legal fees fighting a 2021 report from a “parenting expert” in her custody case. The expert witness in that case dismissed as unimportant for custody determinations the ex-husband’s arrest on felony assault charges for allegedly brutalizing his wife in front of their 1-year-old daughter so severely that he fractured her skull and broke her nose, court records show.
The expert witness deemed the domestic violence likely a one-time event and said restricting and supervising the father’s parenting time would be too traumatic for the child. The mother reported that the expert did not adequately review the criminal case and had not even interviewed her. She said it would have shown that the father had been arrested for only the latest of a string of violent attacks against her. He pleaded guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge.
That same evaluator in a recent case also dismissed concerns from a Douglas County mother who said she refused to leave her ex-husband alone with their daughter because the child’s aunt reported during a family cross country trip that she had encountered the father nude with an erection, beckoning his daughter, then 7 years old, to get into his hotel bed with him.
The evaluator reportedly told the mother she could not substantiate the account, and that even if it occurred, she believed that since the daughter was now 10, she was old enough to fend off any inappropriate behavior by the father, according to the mother’s filings in court. Based in part on the evaluator’s recommendation, the judge in that case lifted the requirement that the father’s parenting time be supervised.
In Sophia’s case, Berry, the mother, quickly found herself on the defense in Douglas County family court, where she and her ex-husband had filed a 50/50 custody plan that they negotiated shortly after Sophia’s birth.
Police in the town of Elizabeth had closed their sexual abuse investigation after the father, Dan Hollins, then 52, gave inconsistent answers that he had done nothing more than use a suppository or enema to relieve the toddler’s constipation.
Still, a team at Elbert County’s child protective agency remained concerned and had recommended a filing of dependency and neglect against the father that would cite concerns the father was being evasive and blocking the team’s efforts to get the toddler into play therapy.
The child protective team believed therapy was crucial to further explore reports from the mother and her family that the child was making bizarre, sexualized poses when she returned home from her father, a man so controlling that Berry said he demanded during their brief two months of marriage that she keep the door open when she had to use the bathroom.
The child had allegedly reported to her mother that she had to wash her Daddy during bath time to be a good girl, along with other troubling disclosures.
But nearly two weeks after promising the dependency and neglect filing, Jodie Sherrier, the child protective worker, backtracked and told Berry a supervisor had blocked the team’s recommendation. Sherrier did not return requests for comment from The Gazette.
While Berry was waiting for a dependency and neglect filing that never came, her ex-husband’s lawyer filed a motion in family court in Douglas County seeking full custody, asserting that the mother was “emotionally abusing” and “projecting her own trauma, real or imagined, onto the parties’ daughter” through her claims of sexual abuse.
Because the father’s lawyer included insufficient postage when he mailed the motion, Berry didn’t even know she was in danger of losing her parenting time until she received the motion weeks later, just days before a pending scheduled court hearing she knew nothing about.
Douglas County Magistrate Rebecca Moss, who was adjudicating the custody fight, appointed a parenting evaluator, the second hired in the case, to give recommendations regarding the father’s motion for full custody.
In contrast, the magistrate never ruled on key motions filed by the lawyer Berry’s parents had scrambled to hire for Berry. The motions ignored by the magistrate included one from Berry’s lawyer seeking to persuade the judge to order play therapy at the reputable Kempe Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect. The father’s continued opposition to any therapy had effectively barred Sophia “from building a relationship in which she could feel safe enough to disclose sexual abuse,” the motion stated.
The mother’s motion also cited Elbert County’s child protective department’s final report stating the agency could not guarantee the safety of the child in the father’s home after investigating nine child sex abuse reports against the father from Berry and her family, but that the agency did “not have any concerns with Sophia’s safety in her mother’s home.”
The lack of any ruling seeking play therapy or any movement on the concerns of alleged sex abuse bewildered Berry. The new parental evaluator, Centennial psychologist Kevin Albert, had said he would like to talk to a therapist for the child given the competing allegations. The father was asserting Berry was emotionally abusing the child, but the father didn’t see any need for play therapy to support the child’s emotional well-being or to definitively clear him of any sex abuse allegations, she stressed in court filings.
“He was evasive,” Berry said. “And it’s like so insane that all this can be going on in black and white on paper in front of the judge’s face, and they still don’t see anything wrong with that picture. I don’t get it.”
Moss also never ruled on an “emergency motion” filed by Berry’s lawyer asking the magistrate to give Berry sole decision-making authority for parental responsibilities after her ex-husband was put into an induced coma and placed on a ventilator at a hospital after contracting COVID.
Magistrate Moss did not respond to requests for comment.
Without a ruling, Berry moved back to her hometown Carthage, Mo., desperate for help from her family after she lost her job as a paralegal in the economic collapse of the pandemic. She had to return to Colorado a couple of months later after the father emerged from the coma and his lawyer threatened to have her jailed, saying she had violated a court order.
Even after the parenting evaluator recommended in July 2021, four months after his appointment, that the magistrate should grant Berry primary custody and allow her to permanently move to Missouri, the case continued to drag on without a court hearing. The delay stretched for more than half a year, with a new judge eventually appointed to oversee the case.
Berry survived on tips she received after she began working as a waitress at the Tailgate Tavern & Grill in Parker as her concerns mounted that strangers had begun stalking her on the father’s behalf as an intimidation tactic.
When Berry’s mother asked her what she wanted for her birthday, Berry texted back: “Hi Mom, there are a million things I’d love to have for my birthday but what I really need is winter clothes for Sophia. She has outgrown last years’ winter coat and I know her snow boots are going to be too small.”
One parenting expert her lawyer hired to help prepare Berry for the case warned her to seek refuge in a hotel with her child during one critical juncture to ensure their safety and recommended doing a lethality threat assessment because the expert believed Hollins, the father, was dangerous.
“Just because something doesn’t seem right, it doesn’t mean nothing when it comes to the court there,” Berry said. “I still had to kind of maintain hope. I still had to find ways to keep going and to keep finding, you know, hope or whatever, but it was really, really devastating.”
The custody case, still at the discovery stage, came to a conclusion only after Sophia was murdered.
The Elbert County child protective administrator Misty Callahan sent a letter to Berry, via her lawyer, two weeks after the killing stating her agency “would be closing our assessment with a finding of egregious physical abuse resulting in a fatality against Dan Hollins.”
“While there are no words I can offer that will lessen your heartache, if there is anything I can do to support you or to assist with burial expenses, please just let me know,” the administrator wrote.
“That made me want to vomit,” the mother recalled, stating that the child protective staff had failed to protect the child when she was alive.
In 2019, Moss, the same Douglas County magistrate that primarily handled Berry’s case, presided over another contentious custody hearing that ended tragically. The magistrate brushed aside warnings from the mother in that case, Jing Tesorierio, that it wasn’t safe to let 10-year-old Ty go home with his father, Anthony Tesorierio — this after the magistrate said she planned to award the mother full custody of her son.
Early the next morning, Jing Tesorierio woke up to a chilling email from the father: “by the time you finish reading this, Ty will be moments away from joining me in the afterlife.” He murdered his son and then killed himself during the early morning hours. The murder occurred less than 24 hours after Moss allowed the father to take Ty home with him despite the protestations from the mother.
There is seemingly no type of red flag the custody case for Ty didn’t raise. The Department of Human Services received numerous reports while the custody case was pending, including a document in which Ty said that his father choked him and statements that the father threatened to harm him if he didn’t say his mother had mistreated him.
Sophia and Ty have become part of a grisly, and growing, statistic. More than 900 children in the United States have been murdered by a divorcing or separating parent since 2008 and an estimated 58,000 children have court-ordered unsupervised contact with an abuser, according to the Center for Judicial Excellence, a nonprofit that advocates for family court reform.
In December and last month, at least three other children in Colorado joined that death toll.
In a Fort Collins home, Adam Zipperer, 36, on Dec. 3 murdered his children Cameron Lynn Zipperer, 8, and Audrey Jane Zipperer, 6, before he killed himself.
Erica Bethel, the mother, had earlier convinced Larimer District Court Judge Juan Villaseñor that the father struggled with a volatile temper and severe depression and had made statements around the children about suicide, court records show. Still, the judge ruled in March 2019 “there is no evidence of danger to mother or to the children as an acute or significant concern” and ordered that the father’s parenting time gradually increase until each parent had equal parenting time during summers.
Court motions were pending before another judge from the father seeking to increase his parenting time. The mother had dropped her efforts to get approval to relocate herself and the children to St. Louis, Mo., to be near her parents.
In Teller County, District Court Judge David Sells found “credible evidence” of domestic violence after Cathleen Brueche alleged that William Brueche, whom she was divorcing, had physically abused her in front of their toddler son and had emotionally and physically abused both her and their son.
Still, the judge ruled the father was able to manage his issues of being a “worrier and anxious” person and found him “fit to parent his child,” ordering that the child stay with the father three overnights a week. The father never showed up for his court-ordered child exchange in January.
A day later, on January 5, Teller Sheriff’s deputies found William and 5-year-old Liam Brueche dead in a pickup truck in Florissant in another murder-suicide case.
Many details of Sophia’s life with her father and the circumstances of her death continue to remain shrouded as the Elbert County Sheriff’s Office continues investigating and has declined comment, as has the Elizabeth Police Department.
Melvin Berghahn, who resigned from his post as chief of police the same day that Hollins’ family reported the kidnapping of Sophia, said he couldn’t recall his interactions with Berry back when she was trying to report her concerns to police. Berry said Berghahn, at that time a commander, told her to stop reporting unsubstantiated allegations, and she provided a telephone call of her describing that encounter to another police official.
“I’ve never, never ever turned anyone away for any help,” said Berghahn, who said his resignation was for unrelated reasons.
Berry said Elbert County Sheriff’s Deputy Sgt. Jonathan Rollf, the lead investigator in the deaths, told her the bodies were found in a pickup truck along Highway 86 in Casey Jones Park. The coroner told the family that two guns — one small and one larger — had been used and recovered from the scene. A rape kit was conducted on Sophia but an analysis of the results has not yet been released by the state crime lab at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
Berry said the sergeant also told her that Hollins left a suicide note with relatives in Lone Tree. She has never seen the note but said that the sergeant told her that Hollins said in the note that he had destroyed the hard drive of his computer.
Berry and Hollins had been married by a justice of peace just a few months after meeting one another while working for the same law firm in Fayetteville, Ark., she as a paralegal and he as an IT specialist in the firm’s Omaha, Neb., branch. Berry said she was vulnerable at the time because she was struggling from post-traumatic stress disorder she incurred after surviving a horrific tornado in Joplin, Mo., in 2011 that left 161 people dead.
She claimed that during the marriage Hollins required her to eat rancid meat he cooked more than three weeks past its expiration date and had other troubling demands, including that she eschew makeup and severely limit any contact with her family or friends. In addition to invading her privacy when she went to the bathroom, he also required her to eat off paper plates and refused to let her use the oven instead of the microwave, Berry said.
Once when a chemical smell permeated the farmhouse they were renovating, nauseating Berry and making her eyes sting, she asked Hollins where the smell was coming from. He opened a door to a guest bedroom to show her more than 20 vats of chlorine he said he had stockpiled to make homemade bleach, which he said they would rely on to purify their water if there was ever a water shortage.
“It was very much kind of like living in a horror movie, and I was very scared, and I tried to get away from him by going to Colorado and to get safe to get away, but he followed me,” Berry said.
From the get-go, there was little they could agree on over the impending birth after she alerted him she was pregnant and giving birth in Colorado. She said Hollins kept insisting the due date the doctors had estimated was incorrect. After the birth, he took to calling the child Sophie instead of by her real name Sophia. The parents could not agree on day care or schooling, with the father insisting that only home schooling was safe because of COVID.
But Berry said she never suspected the father would sexually abuse Sophia until the child turned 3 and began making troubling disclosures and showing up with what appeared to be ligature marks around her ankles and a strange rash. The child also was exhibiting sexualized behaviors that included inserting items in her orifices during bath time and reporting that her father kissed her in her private parts, according to Berry.
Unknown to Berry, Sophia’s previous childcare provider also had made a report to Douglas County’s child protective services alleging that Sophia had made overt sexual overtures with a toddler boy. Berry said she only learned of that report months later after talking to the provider about her own concerns.
“They didn’t believe me,” Berry said of everyone from the magistrate overseeing the custody case to the parental evaluators who interviewed her and police who investigated. “I believed her. I believed her. You know, I know my kid. I knew. I knew. I knew this was not right. This was not just a kid with an active imagination. This was very extreme. I thought, well, if I just could get her into play therapy, then she would have a place to not only process these traumas and these things that were happening, but she would have a third party that she could make disclosures to and that might help.”
Now that her daughter is dead, Berry is left with nothing but ashes and memories of a child who once loved singing with gusto songs she wrote about God and angels and used to proudly show off the art she made of hearts and rainbows. After Berry and her family drove the child’s body back home to Carthage, Mo., where Berry is from, she decided to have Sophia’s body cremated.
“It felt right to have her physical body purified,” Berry said. “It would hurt me worse to think of her, my baby, being in the ground. I just wanted to burn away all the stuff that was put on her. I didn’t like the idea of anything else denigrating her.”
Berry sprinkled some of Sophia’s ashes among the 10 blueberry bushes she planted in her mother’s garden in Carthage in Sophia’s honor. Blueberries were Sophia’s favorite fruit.
It was there, in the garden of her grandmother, Valerie Berry, that Sophia most liked to play during the brief time she lived in Missouri when her father was in a coma. She loved rooting around in the dirt, enthusiastic and eager to see her grandmother digging up carrots for pickling, traipsing around with her ballerina and dance moves as her mother’s dog Duke frolicked with her.
During one face time call with her grandmother after Sophia moved back with her mother to Colorado after her father emerged from a coma, Sophia had giggled incessantly as her grandmother videoed herself pulling up carrots, brushing the dirt away and gobbling them up.
“Get another one to eat,” she had shouted, her laughter pealing out. “Get another one.”
The family plans to put up a sign made of rhinestones and glitter, the type that Sophia used in her art. Sophia’s blueberry patch, it will read.
Nobody claimed the father’s body. Berry said police told her family members of Hollins, even ones to whom he had deeded his property, said they wanted nothing to do with a burial after what he had done. His body was donated for science and parted for academic research.