Remembering the tragic murder of Kim Baucom

On a Sunday afternoon just two years ago, 43-year-old school teacher Kim Baucom Conover was fatally shot on Keller Street, while her divorce lawyer watched in horror. Moments later her assailant — and husband — Kevin Conover, 41, put the gun to his own head and pulled the trigger again. Both died before the day was over.

"There was a huge commotion — everyone was trying to figure out what had just happened," remembered Supervisor David Rabbitt, who had just come out of the nearby Petaluma Market to find a flurry of police cars arriving at the scene.

In some ways, Petaluma is still trying to figure out what happened. The Conover case shook Petaluma in more ways than one, not only for the violent end to the popular elementary school teacher's life. There was also the troubling fact that the woman was visiting a divorce lawyer to seek an end to her tumultuous marriage.

Friends and family knew that Baucom was in an abusive relationship with her husband of just two years. Even the courts did — she had applied for a restraining order at least twice, including an emergency protection order nine days before the murder-suicide. That was denied on April 9, possibly because the incidents she described were not recent enough. Baucom was in the process of again applying for a restraining order when she was killed on April 15, 2012.

The deaths once again brought to the forefront the issue of domestic violence, and the avenues of support for those who need it. A Sonoma County feasibility study several years ago showed that victims of family violence were referred to as many as 23 different locations for support services. With the more recent opening of the Family Justice Center in Santa Rosa, those two dozen referrals were consolidated to a single address: 2755 Mendocino Ave., near the county court, administration and sheriff offices.

The Family Justice Center is a clearing house for services for victims of family violence, child abuse, sexual assault and elder abuse. Participating organizations include Verity (formerly Women Against Rape) for sexual assault services; the Council on Aging on elder abuse; the Intertribal Council, serving the Native American population; Catholic Charities working primarily with immigration issues, and Legal Aid.

"Every single one of those agencies is about stopping family violence," said Wes Winter, the current executive director of the Family Justice Center. For many women in Sonoma County — and some men — domestic violence is a disturbingly common occurrence. Last year the Family Justice Center served 1,300 victims of all ages, not just victims of spousal abuse, but children and elders as well.

"We get folks who come in here at wit's end," said Winter. "We want them to understand that there are alternatives to going back to the same old situation that they've been in year after year after year."

It's a piece of a countywide movement to better address issues of family violence.

"We have made domestic violence prosecution a priority in this office," County District Attorney Jill Ravitch told the Argus-Courier. "We need to be mindful of how difficult it is to leave an abusive relationship, and support those who may not be ready when the first assault occurs. Helping someone develop a safety plan is essential, and a big part of that is knowing where services and support can be found."

Madeline Keegan O'Connell, the CEO of YWCA Sonoma County, stressed that the first thing anyone in an abusive relationship should do is call for help. The county's 24-hour Domestic Violence Hotline, run by the YWCA, is 546-1234. "To make that call is a huge first step," she said. The domestic violence hotline receives some 3,000 calls a year.

Sadly, there were no records of Baucom having called that number. "This incident led to more receptivity on our part to non-victims, to friends or family," said Keegan O'Connell. "It's up to every member of the community to provide information about domestic violence, not just the victim."

Spousal abuse remains an ongoing problem in Petaluma, in 2013 the police investigated 253 calls related to domestic violence. While Baucom's death didn't change how police respond to domestic violence cases, Special Operations Lt. Matthew Stapleton said Chief Patrick Williams put an added emphasis on the issue with a new policy when he arrived in October 2012: Daily Training Bulletins.

Every day they're on duty, officers are required to review policy reminders that reinforce their required response to sensitive situations such as discriminatory harassment and domestic violence, among others. It puts in the forefront of the officer's minds how to handle these often delicate disputes. For example, in cases of domestic violence with injury, the state penal code requires specific police action, even in situations where the victim does not want their abusers to be arrested.

"We have a very elaborate policy and expectation with respect to domestic violence, we treat it very seriously," said the 27-year Petaluma Police Department veteran. "Quite frankly, it's embarrassing how we treated it in law enforcement in the '80s, when I started."

Things are different now, he said. "Domestic violence is unacceptable, it is criminal and we will take action when we become aware of it. Meaning enforcement, arrest and prosecution."

Some changes since the April 2012 murder-suicide have taken place on a more personal, community level. At Meadow Elementary School, where Baucom taught second grade for over 12 years, she had been helping design an outdoor "common ground" garden, with tables and benches, flower beds and succulents. After she was killed, Principal Melissa Becker said the garden was rededicated in her memory — "as a place of healing for her family and friends, and to honor the light she was in the world."

(Contact Christian Kallen at argus@arguscourier.com)