A former Powell and Cody man charged with murdering his girlfriend in Torrington last spring has made a request to withdraw his no contest plea for the crime and the guilty pleas he made to four other charges. On Aug. 23, Sean Pettus had pleaded no contest to second degree murder and guilty to first-degree arson, two counts of burglary and felony theft.
He is being detained at the Goshen County Detention Center
According to Torrington Police, officers found the body of his wife Madison Cook in her home wrapped in a blanket placed between the bed mattress and the bedroom wall. She had received six stab wounds and blunt force trauma to her right eye.
About 32 hours after Cook’s murder, in the early morning of April 20, Pettus allegedly set ablaze his BadDreams & Robots tattoo parlor, and a few hours after that stole a vehicle.
Under the no contest murder plea agreement made between the prosecution and the defense, Pettus would serve a life sentence in prison. He would also be required to serve consecutive sentences for the remaining counts.
At his plea hearing on Aug. 23, around 50 people, many of them family members and friends of Cook, showed up for the proceedings and celebrated when his pleas were entered, according to the Torrington Telegram.
For Pettus, the plea bargain allowed him to plead to second degree murder as opposed to first degree murder, which would’ve come with the possibility of the death penalty. He admitted to the allegations made in each charge against him at his sentencing.
Life imprisonment is the maximum penalty for second degree murder in Wyoming.
Last Friday, a letter was entered into the court record that Pettus, 32, had written to Goshen County District Court Judge Patrick Korell, asking to withdraw his pleas. Pettus said he was misled by “ineffective counsel” and his public defender attorney lacked “efficient knowledge” about his case, leaving him “hopeless and uncertain of the actions I should take in order to defend myself effectively.”
He said he was not kept informed about case developments and he alleges he was not informed about the prosecution’s intent to no longer accuse him of “specific intent” due to his drug use. Pettus accused his counsel of requesting two competency evaluations against his wishes, while telling him not to admit his drug use.
He blamed his intoxication for the diminished intelligence he said he exhibited during questioning and initial hearings, and said he was off his psychoactive medications.
A no contest plea disqualifies him from the right to appeal his murder charge after sentencing.
“(I) Was given misinformation by counsel,” Pettus wrote, “regarding my right to appeal the no contest to murder plea, was led to believe the rights waived were specific to the ‘guilty’ pleas.
“Knowing that I was being given ineffective counsel, possibly due to bias and the fear of ‘rocking the boat,’ making the decision to give any plea with such a large amount of necessary information is a violation of due process.”
In a prior letter written on Sept. 24, Pettus said his attorney told him he should not “depend” on the appellate process, but was not informed he was fully waiving his appellate rights.
Pettus said he made an “emotional and impulsive decision to ‘rush the process’” when submitting his plea and that he was “heavily considering” committing suicide at that time.
“I feel everyday like I’m trapped in a waking nightmare and at the time, just wanted this to be over with,” he wrote.
In past Facebook posts, Pettus discussed the topic of depression and mental health, and how he struggled fighting his own demons.
Pettus said he had requested his counsel, state defender Eric Palen, to withdraw his plea, but said Palen was uncooperative with this request. Palen was Pettus’ second attorney; Jonathan Foreman was representing him until Aug. 4.
Palen did not respond to a request for comment before publication.
In addition to requesting his plea be withdrawn, Pettus is now requesting a jury trial to prove his innocence.
“That can only be brought into the light during a trial: If we allow the justice process a true chance,” Pettus wrote. “Please forgive my misstep and allow me to retract my hasty, irrational plea.”
Under Wyoming law, if a request to withdraw a guilty or no contest plea is made before a sentence is imposed, the court may, but is not required to, permit withdrawal of the plea upon a showing by the defendant of “any fair and just reason.”
Pettus also said he has “collected” new evidence that provides him with an alibi during the determined time of murder on April 18. On Sept. 30, Torrington resident Tristen Brightwell sent a letter to the court saying Pettus was staying at his residence “around” April 18-20, until the time shortly before he allegedly committed arson. In a phone interview Wednesday morning, Brightwell clarified he still thinks Pettus is guilty.
“I just want Madison’s family to know I’m so sorry for their loss and I wish I did more to try and prevent it,” he said.
Pettus had previously told investigators he was at this residence early on the morning of April 19.
According to police documents, investigators spoke with Brightwell’s roommate who denied Pettus being at the property until the evening of April 19.
In a video found on Pettus’ phone timestamped from the night of the murder, Pettus was holding a bottle of alcohol and a knife authorities believed to be the murder weapon, and making cryptic, threatening statements about Cook. Witnesses said they heard loud thumping noises coming from their apartment around this time.
More than a suspect
About nine months before the murder, Pettus was released from custody. Pettus had been incarcerated by Park County District Court Judge Bill Simpson after breaking his probation and court-supervised treatment program he was put into after stealing a vacuum cleaner.
“The system failed him,” his mother Cody resident Norma Pettus said in a September interview, while still expressing her deepest sympathy and condolences to Cook’s family for their loss.
While incarcerated for the theft, Sean Pettus made requests for exoneration and sentence reduction, after a letter was sent to the court by the owner of the vacuum cleaner, saying the incident was more of a misunderstanding than a simple burglary. Neither of those requests were granted.
“What the (criminal justice) system does is hurt more than help people,” Norma Pettus said. “Once you’re incarcerated, all you do is fight to get out and you never really come out.”
Norma Pettus said once her son was released from custody he struggled to find access to outpatient resources and other rehabilitative services, a tough situation for a man that she said needed supervision and structure in order to thrive.
“He was left to his own devices, they basically told him, ‘Good luck,’” Norma Pettus said. “Nothing was offered. All of the classes he had to pay for were out of pocket. How is he supposed to come up with this money when he just got out of jail?”
Despite all of these issues, she said he was doing well after being released from parole, and he opened up his tattoo parlor a few months after. Her son started dating Cook in January and the two were married by March 16. Norma Pettus said it was the death of his father that brought about a screeching halt to this rehabilitation.
Norma Pettus said her son was a completely different person when he was high, describing him as an incredibly loyal and helping individual when sober. When apprehended, Sean Pettus was under the influence of meth.
Cody Polvado said he moved from North Carolina to work at Pettus’ shop in late 2020, but quickly became disenchanted with his new boss.
“He broke into my house at 4 a.m. and I had to fend him off,” Polvado said during a May interview. “I haven’t ever really met someone like him before.”
Norma Pettus said there needs to be more funding allocated for mental health services in Wyoming, to help others avoid the path her son went down.
“I didn’t have the money needed to help my son,” she said.
Pettus is currently scheduled for sentencing on Nov. 15.