Sheriff’s Deputy Tom DiBartolo spends his days talking to his kids about their mother, delivering presents to the needy and waiting.
It’s been 45 days since his wife was fatally shot with her own gun, and Patty DiBartolo’s killer is still free.
The 39-year-old mother of five was shot in the head and her husband wounded in a South Hill park last month.
The shock hasn’t worn off for the Spokane County deputy or his kids, DiBartolo said in an interview Friday.
“We are struggling with the preparations for the holidays with this loss in our home,” he said. “It is worse than you can expect, as far as the hole in this house. I won’t ever get over the issue. I just hope to get used to it.”
Detectives have no solid suspects and few good leads in the slaying, police Lt. Jerry Oien said last week. “We’re spinning our wheels,” Oien said.
Meanwhile, DiBartolo’s life is in a surreal stall.
The 41-year-old deputy - who suffered a flesh wound in what he described as a robbery attempt that turned deadly - hasn’t been named a suspect in the case, but he hasn’t been cleared, either.
His injury has healed, but the 18-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department can’t return to work until the investigation is completed.
All this from a Nov. 2 walk through Lincoln Park.
DiBartolo told detectives he and his wife were returning to their van about 9:30 p.m. after a stroll to view the city lights when they were attacked by two men. He said one of them grabbed Patty DiBartolo’s .38-caliber revolver from the van and fired at least twice.
DiBartolo said he grabbed his own handgun and fired at the fleeing men before pulling his wife into the van and driving to Sacred Heart Medical Center.
Police immediately launched an investigation. The rumors began almost as quickly.
Spokane airwaves, diners and family rooms crackled with speculation about whether DiBartolo was involved in her death.
A local television station aired a story showing how someone could shoot himself in the abdomen - where DiBartolo was hit - without causing permanent damage.
“It hurts. We’re not immune to what’s been said on the radio or television,” DiBartolo said during a recent interview. “But I’m not about to give it any credence. I’m not about to give it any weight. I take the sting and move on. It’s not true, so there’s no reason even to speculate.”
Detectives have no reason to disbelieve DiBartolo’s version of the fatal encounter, Oien said, but all angles must be explored.
“We’re still investigating all the possibilities, and that includes Tom,” Oien said.
Detectives have been swamped with scores of tips since the shooting. Each has been checked out, but none has borne fruit. “We’re plugging away,” Oien said.
DiBartolo provided police with a description of one of the attackers. He said the man was 5 feet 8 inches tall, 140 pounds, in his late teens or early 20s.
The deputy said the man was wearing a three-quarters length black jacket with “Sox” emblazoned on it in white. Police have refused to disclose the man’s race.
DiBartolo described the other man as only taller than the first.
The deputy said he saw car headlights in the parking lot of the park as he struggled with one of his assailants that Saturday night.
Police want to know if someone who hasn’t come forward may have happened upon the crime scene.
The Secret Witness program offered a $2,000 reward for anyone with any information on the case, but no one with useful information has surfaced so far.
Investigators hope to get a break in the case when the state crime laboratory finishes analyzing evidence gathered from the DiBartolos’ van.
A dozen detectives took more than 50 items from the red Toyota during an extensive search last month. The results of tests on that evidence could come back any time, Oien said.
DiBartolo, who knows lead detectives Roger Bays of the city police and Cal Walker of the Sheriff’s Department, said he understands why the case is taking so long.
Criminal investigations often can go on indefinitely, he said.
“I know that they are doing everything within their powers,” he said. “I know that this could go on for a long time. I know that it can go on to no avail.”
Michael Holmes, who teaches law enforcement courses at Spokane Community College, said the fact that DiBartolo is a deputy may also be slowing the investigation. Police tend to move cautiously when one of their own is involved in a crime - be it as a suspect, victim, or witness, he said.
The detectives know both the public and their fellow officers are watching closely, Holmes said, so they try to perform the most thorough, professional, fair investigation possible.
Some relatives aren’t so understanding. Patty DiBartolo’s father, Floyd Reeves, sounded exasperated during a brief telephone interview last week.
“I haven’t heard a word,” Reeves said. “You’ll have to try another source. I can’t find anything out.”
The criminal inquiry also is keeping DiBartolo off the job.
He’s been cleared by a doctor to go back to work but must undergo an internal Sheriff’s Department inquiry before he can return to duty.
That won’t happen until the criminal investigation is over, said Sheriff John Goldman.
Goldman said internal investigations are routine when a deputy fires his gun, whether he’s on duty or not.
While he waits, DiBartolo buys and delivers Christmas presents for a charity family he and his children adopted this year.
He comforts his kids and wonders when he’ll get a chance to grieve the loss of his wife of 19 years.
The deputy said he has gained new respect for his five children. Their normal Christmas requests for gifts and goodies have been replaced with thankfulness, generosity and a certain sense of wisdom, he said.
“They have rallied together, and they have rallied around me,” DiBartolo said. “They feel their gift this year is me surviving this. It’s a credit to their mom.”