James Hart | Murder victim conquered addiction, helped others do same

How Loretta Petty died isn’t the most important part of her life’s story.

Kansas City police found the bodies of Petty and her goddaughter, 16-year-old Deja Davis, inside Petty’s home after her husband, Jerry, died in a shootout on Thanksgiving night with police, who think he was responsible for the deaths.

It was a shocking tragedy, one that dominated the news. Not as many people heard the rest of the story, that Petty was a recovering addict who had marked nearly 20 years of sobriety. She had reconnected with her family, earned a doctorate and worked to help others with drug and alcohol addiction.

When dozens gathered for a prayer vigil last week in Petty’s yard, many of the mourners were people she had helped.

“Her whole life revolved around staying clean and helping others get clean,” her daughter Estella Thompson said.

Several people there knew Jerry, too, because he had tried to help them as Loretta had. One of the Pettys’ friends told my colleague Christine Vendel that Jerry had recently started using crack cocaine again.

The people at the vigil didn’t view him as a monster so much as someone who fought an illness — and lost, with devastating consequences.

Thompson struggled with her feelings. Jerry Petty ended her mother’s life. If Loretta Petty had survived, though, she probably would have tried to get him into treatment, her daughter said.

She would have fought to save the man who killed her.

“She wouldn’t want anybody to be angry at her husband,” Thompson said.

Not that Loretta Petty had low self-esteem, her daughter said. She was actually a very proud woman.

But Loretta had survived dark times, days when she constantly prayed, “God, please don’t let me do crack cocaine,” over and over in her head, Thompson said. It would have been very easy for people to give up on her. They didn’t.

Thompson wants those battling alcohol or drugs to know that help is there for them, too.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a 1-800 number for people who trying to find treatment: 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Alcoholics Anonymous has a hot line especially for the Kansas City area, 816-471-7229.

Getting clean is hard. Staying clean is hard. The relapse rate among addicts is 40 to 60 percent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

As Loretta Petty proved, though, it’s not impossible.

“She said, ‘If I can do it, anybody could do it,’ ” Thompson said.