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Trying to stop the violence

Published: Friday, October 5, 2012 at 12:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 5, 2012 at 12:07 p.m.

As the six-month anniversary of the murder-suicide of Kimberly Baucom by her estranged husband, Kevin Conover, approaches, community members and law enforcement officials involved in the case are looking at ways to ensure such violence doesn't happen again. But many acknowledge that preventing such tragedies remains a difficult challenge.

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Kim Baucom

In an effort to learn from what happened and assess steps that could be taken to prevent future deaths or injuries, the Sonoma County District Attorney's office will host a “domestic violence death review” inquiry in the coming weeks. The meeting is required by law to review deaths in the county caused by domestic violence and make policy recommendations for the future, aimed at curbing such incidents.

“The purpose is to work collaboratively to promote the safety of domestic violence victims, monitor existing services and responses, and promote programs to reduce domestic violence,” said Assistant District Attorney Christine Cook. She added that the meeting is closed to the public and that findings are confidential unless the team wishes to disclose policy recommendations.

Paul Gilman, lead investigating police detective on the Baucom-Conover case, said that the Petaluma Police Department will participate in the meeting. “If there are issues with the way we've done anything, we want to learn,” Gilman said emphatically. “If we were to sit back and say we handled this one perfectly, then we're not being honest with ourselves. We need to be ready to go in and be open to a lot of constructive criticism so we can learn from our mistakes.”

But, like many domestic violence murders, whether the crime could have been prevented by police or the court system is unclear. Court documents show that Baucom had applied for a temporary restraining order in March and an emergency protection order — or EPO — after an altercation with Conover outside their Searles Way home, jut nine days before her murder in April. EPOs are requested by police officers on behalf of domestic violence victims and are issued at a judge's discretion. Judge Virginia Marcoida denied the EPO request on Monday, April 9, citing insufficient evidence.

According to Baucom's sister, Lori Burleson, on April 13, several days after the EPO request was denied, Conover showed up at Meadow Elementary School, where Baucom was a teacher, and stood outside Baucom's classroom window. Baucom, recognizing her responsibility to her students, decided to apply for a restraining order. On April 15, Baucom was shot and killed by Conover as she left her divorce attorney's office, right after having filed for the restraining order against her husband. Conover then shot and killed himself on the sidewalk on Keller Street.

The murder-suicide shocked Petaluma. Baucom, a Petaluma High School graduate like her husband, was beloved by her students and their families, and left two teenage daughters from a previous marriage and twin 21-month-old children she had with Conover. But as details emerged about the relationship between Baucom and Conover, a familiar pattern of abuse came to light, highlighting the difficulties inherent to preventing domestic violence.

Baucom's relationship with Conover was relatively short, lasting just over two years. According to Burleson, Baucom had become pregnant with the twins shortly after meeting Conover.

“We were very sheltered growing up,” said Burleson, who remembers spending her childhood on their parents' farm in Petaluma with Baucom and their brother, Jason, who was killed in a drunk driving accident in 1997. “Our parents were very happy and our childhood was so idyllic that I don't think Kim realized how bad the relationship was until she was too far into it.”

Burleson said that the relationship between her sister and Conover had concerned family members from the start, with Conover using the death of their brother to insert himself into Kim's life by pretending he had been a close friend to her brother, something Burleson said was not true.

“He was very good at preying on women and portraying himself as something he wasn't,” she said.

Though family members were aware the relationship was rocky, no one realized how abusive Conover had become until it was too late. In a statement written by Baucom for a March temporary restraining order to her divorce attorney, Jeffrey Zimmerman, Baucom documented the history of abuse she had endured with Conover. The account included multiple instances of abusive emails, stalking, verbal abuse, physical assaults, and brandishing knives against her and her teenage daughters. It also documents a frightening incident of Conover raping Baucom in 2010 and then threatening to kill her while waving a gun around.

Burleson said that Baucom hid the extent of the abuse she endured, like so many other victims, because she was ashamed. “People who are being abused are going to try and hide and minimize what's going on because it's embarrassing and degrading,” she said. “Given what I knew, I never thought he (Conover) was seriously dangerous.”

Gilman said that when he was called out to the crime scene on Keller Street, he wasn't familiar with the names of Kim and Kevin Conover. “You would think that with a case escalating to that level of violence, we would have been aware of them,” he said. “They weren't people I recognized as being in a problematic relationship.”

This lack of awareness by police stemmed from the fact that when Baucom reported abuse by Conover, she did not report the extent of the abuse she was enduring. Baucom never reported the 2010 rape and death threat incident to police and decided to drop the restraining order application and a separate misdemeanor assault charge against Conover.

While Zimmerman says that he cannot discuss the details of the case, he said that he remembers a time in the 1970s and '80s when women would come to him and ask for a restraining order and he would tell them that there was little “a piece of paper” could do to protect them. Zimmerman, who said he was speaking in generic terms, said that women today have many more remedies to keep them safe, but added that if they do not actively seek help, it can be difficult for them to extricate themselves from dangerous situations.

“If a person gets a restraining order and drops it within the first year, their chance of injury increases,” Zimmerman said. “Once a gun has been displayed, the chances of it being redisplayed grow and the chances of it being used on them grow even more,” he added, citing statistics from his research and experience with previous cases.

The March temporary restraining order application was initially denied by a judge, despite its graphic detailing of abuse. Temporary restraining orders require an imminent threat of danger to be granted and the judge decided that much of the abuse documented by Baucom was too far in the past to be considered an immediate threat. The judge did, however, call for an additional hearing. Given the severity of the allegations, the judge wanted to revisit the issue and hear more about the case before making a final determination, according to court records.

But before the second hearing could take place, Baucom dropped the application. Zimmerman wouldn't comment as to why, but Burleson said that Baucom's desire to help Conover may have clouded her better judgment.

“The thing about Kim is that I don't think she ever stopped loving him,” said Burleson. “She was so strong and independent, but she was a teacher. She loved helping those in need.”

Burleson pointed out that although Baucom succeeded in reasserting some of her personal independence by leaving Conover in February, her sister's subsequent death has made her realize that she needs to speak out about domestic violence.

“When people would tell me that if this could happen to Kim, it could happen to anyone, it showed me that the word needed to get out better,” she said. “There's just so much more that needs to be done.”

Burleson added that while she continues to mourn her sister's passing, she takes comfort in the fact that Kim was strong enough to eventually leave the relationship, something that many other women in similar situations are unable to do.

“At the end, Kim was taking back her life for herself and for her daughters,” Burleson said. “I think that is something for everyone to hold onto.”

In fact, when Burleson shared her story at a recent domestic violence event held in August, people in the audience embraced what she had to say. Fabulous Women of Petaluma Founder Krista Gawronski, who helped host the event, said that afterwards three women came forward to say they needed help.

“One woman in particular was given overnight stays at a safehouse, help with child care issues and assistance in immediately beginning the process to request a restraining order,” Gawronski said. “The fact that Lori (Burleson) could be a part of that shows how important it is to keep this issue in front of people.”

Burleson is continuing to speak to women about her experience. On Oct. 18 she will be the keynote speaker at the Sonoma County Family Justice Center's one-year anniversary. “My goal is to use my family's pain to change people's lives,” she said.

“I would tell other families in similar situations to trust their instincts. If you think there's something wrong with your loved one's relationship, don't ignore that voice in your head,” Burleson said.

“Ask questions and offer as much support as you can because that person is going to try to hide it from you. Hang in there and don't judge them. You have to hope that they can eventually accept your help and that's all you can do.”

For information on the Sonoma County Family Justice Center visit www.fjcsc.org or call 565-8255.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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