Work with victims is DA staffer’s ‘dream job’
For three decades, Mary Sommerfeld has put out her best for those at their worst in Mesa County.
“This was always my dream job,” explains Sommerfeld, who has served as the victim assistance coordinator for the 21st Judicial District Attorney’s Office since 1985. “I liked the idea they were trying to marry a job working with victims in the legal system, which is very complex. There needs to be someone here explaining things to them.”
Over 29 years, Sommerfeld has personally handled victim issues in thousands of felony cases in Mesa County.
A teacher at the Western Colorado Peace Officers Academy, Sommerfeld also administers two boards. She heads the Victim Assistance and Law Enforcement board, which awards grants to agencies working with crime victims. She’s the point person for Mesa County’s victim compensation board, which handles claims from crime victims involving medical, burial and other expenses.
Monday through Friday at the Mesa County Justice Center, she’s on the phone each morning calling new victims of felony crimes in anticipation of defendants’ initial bond hearings. Passed in 1992, Colorado’s Victim Rights Amendment mandates that DA offices must keep victims of crime in the loop on court happenings.
“When I started, we didn’t have to notify or consult with victims and that’s wrong,” Sommerfeld said. “Now, it’s the norm.”
Sommerfeld said she was influenced in her career path by her mother, who was employed as a secretary for a police agency in Saginaw, Mich. Sommerfeld recalls stories from her mother about being roped into undercover operations. At the time, there were no female officers on staff, she said.
“My experiences with law enforcement early on were positive, so when I went to college I ventured off into the social work arena,” Sommerfeld said.
Sommerfeld started in social work in Michigan, handling termination of parental right cases before her husband, Stuart Jones, was hired in 1982 as a deputy prosecutor in Mesa County under then-District Attorney Terry Farina. She worked child welfare cases with the Mesa County Department of Human Services before accepting her current job.
Sommerfeld said homicide cases are consistently the most difficult she works because they take years to resolve and are typically followed by endless appeals. She said she still maintains contact with some families more than a decade after she got involved.
“There’s a loss that will never go away,” she said. “Victims are focused on that court process, but when that process is over, that can be time they start grieving.”
Not all victims feel properly served by Mesa County justice, she noted.
“Nothing should come as a complete surprise,” Sommerfeld said of plea agreement resolutions of some cases. “You have to be honest and up-front with people and explain we have laws and guidelines under which were work. Are people going to be frustrated and unhappy? Yes. I have people call me up and yell at me and that’s OK. It’s part of the job.”
District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said Sommerfeld’s ability to do more with less is among her strengths.
“She is also incredibly tough,” Hautzinger said. “Trial lawyers are a difficult bunch to deal with at the best of times, but it is a whole lot worse in the middle of a murder trial. Mary inevitably deals with our stress, petulance and demands with patience and grace.”
Hautzinger added, “I am just begging her not to retire until after I am term-limited.”
Although she didn’t identify them, Sommerfeld said one or two cases in Mesa County will always stand out for their shocking nature.
“When there’s one of those major national events, like a school shooting, I have a tendency not to focus on the defendant,” she said. “My mind goes to all those victims, what’s going to happen to those families, the systems they’re going to be going through and how difficult that process is going to be for them.”
Pausing while collecting her thoughts, she added, “I also think about the fact there are people who are going to be there to help them.”