DENVER — It’s the type of tragedy that should never happen and yet, in Colorado, there have been four instances within the span of a month of children dying at the hands of their fathers in murder-suicides.
The first happened on Dec. 1 in Elizabeth; a 5-year-old girl and her father were found dead in a vehicle at Casey Jones Park.
It was determined the man was the girl's custodial parent and "clearly presented a danger to the child," the sheriff's office said in a news release. A missing and endangered alert was issued for the girl.
Then, two days later in Fort Collins, 8-year-old Cameron Zipperer and 6-year-old Audrey Zipperer were found dead alongside their father inside a home off Stratton Drive.
A forensic pathologist determined the children died of gunshot wounds and their cause of death was listed as a homicide. The adult man died of a gunshot wound to the head and his manner of death was ruled a suicide.
Finally, on Jan. 5, 2023, the Teller County Sheriff's Office received a call regarding a man who was unconscious in his truck in Florissant.
The sheriff’s office had begun looking for the two of them after they missed a court-ordered child exchange with the boy’s mother.
Deputies later discovered the body of William Brueche and his son Liam in another murder-suicide.
“You're playing Russian roulette with that child's life,” said Maralee McLean, the executive director of Moms Fight Back, a group fighting for legislation for more court reforms.
Three decades ago, McLean lost custody of her own daughter for several years after a bitter divorce involving domestic violence.
McLean said she had doctors reports, police reports, hospital reports and more proving domestic violence and sexual abuse of her daughter but the judge still granted her ex-husband custody of their then 4-year-old daughter. She spent 10 years in courts appearing before different judges paying one attorney after another to fight for custody.
In 2021, Colorado legislators passed Julie’s Law, which increased and clarified domestic violence training for courtroom personnel. The law was named after McLean’s daughter.
That same year, legislators also passed Ty’s Law, named after 10-year-old Ty Tesoriero, who was killed at the hands of his father. Anthony Tesoriero was a convicted domestic violence abuser and continued to have coercive power and control over Jing Tesoriero, Ty's mother, as well as the child.
The murder-suicide happened hours after a contentious court hearing in which Anthony learned he was going to lose custody of his son. But despite that, a Douglas County judge let Ty have one more night with his dad. It was a decision that cost Ty his life, and Jing, her son.
That law requires the Department of Humans Services to create a domestic violence task force. The group was tasked with creating a new definition of child abuse that includes domestic violence in state law.
The same judge who presided over Tesoriero’s case oversaw the case of the 5 year old who died in Elizabeth in December.
“They're ruling on a child's life and that parent's life and they're making horrific mistakes, horrific,” McLean said. “Judges don't want the legislators to tell them what to do, that they need this training. They need to be held responsible for the deaths of these children.”
Despite these changes, children are still dying.
This year, Colorado lawmakers are considering two more bills to change Colorado’s court system.
The first, House Bill 23-1108, creates a task force to study the training requirements for judicial personnel when it comes to domestic violence, sexual assault and other crimes.
A second bill, House Bill 23-1178, would align Colorado with the federal Keep Children Safe from Family Violence Act and place requirements and restrictions on the courts when it comes to which experts and evidence could be used in these court proceedings.
Despite the introduction of these bills, McLean says she doesn’t have a lot of faith that the change that needs to happen will. She called the bills a stepping stone but said a systematic change is needed to truly make a difference.
“We're going to have more kids murdered if you're not going to look at the domestic violence,” McLean said.
She wants to see more training for court personnel who are making custody recommendations to judges, more transparency within the court system for why judges are ruling in a particular way in these custody cases and more accountability.
She also said it’s time to rethink the court responsibility of ruling in favor of what’s in the best interest of the child.
“In the best interest of the child, the statute is that the parent who’s more able to nurture the relationship with the other parent is the one that gets custody. Obviously, if a woman is trying to protect her child, she's not going to want to nurture that relationship. Take that best interest out, go for the paramount to make the safety of the child, first deal with domestic violence first,” McLean said.
She said that means rethinking split custody arrangements and reunification camps in the state if domestic violence or child abuse allegations are involved.
McLean worries that without major change, more children will be put in danger, so she insists she will keep fighting until the right reforms are enacted.