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When violence comes home


Heaps of daffodils, roses and tulips crowded the sidewalk of a Petaluma elementary school where a second-grade teacher should have returned to class last Monday.

Kim Conover knew she needed to protect herself from her estranged husband. The 43-year-old mother of four called 911 on three occasions, twice asked for restraining orders and twice began divorce proceedings. Then, as many victims of domestic violence do, she changed her mind.

Her actions showed a yearning to work things out within her family. She would not get that chance.

Kevin Conover, 41, walked up to his wife, the mother of their 21-month-old twins, and shot her last Sunday on a Petaluma street in broad daylight. He then turned the revolver on himself.

The shocking explosion of violence is all too familiar in Sonoma County.

Since 2005, one out of five killings in Sonoma County was committed by husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends and wives against their partners.

The people involved were couples with decades of marriage between them, young lovers and parents of young children.

They were immigrants and people born and raised in Sonoma County. They were teachers, house cleaners, landscapers, psychiatrists and technicians.

The killings left at least 13 young children without one or both of their parents.

The deaths are the most extreme outcome of domestic violence that quietly occurs every day in Sonoma County. It is a crime that cuts across social, ethnic and economic lines, presenting agonizing decisions for the people involved in the turmoil and the advocates, police, judges and prosecutors trying to stop the pervasive problem.

About twice every day, Sonoma County judges issue temporary restraining orders related to domestic violence.

And about eight people each day call the domestic violence crisis hotline operated by the YWCA, which runs the county's only shelter for battered women. Last year, YWCA staff helped 71 women and 140 children flee abusive partners or parents.

About 10 percent of 911 calls to the Santa Rosa Police Department were for domestic disturbances.

"It is every day, it is a couple times an hour sometimes," said Santa Rosa Police Sgt. John Snetsinger, who runs the department's domestic violence unit.

Onus on victims

The onus is often on victims to take a stand against their abusers, even as they grapple with issues surrounding children, money and property.

"The victim has to decide they're ready," said Jennifer Lake, director of operations for the YWCA.

The Conover case has directed attention to the way police and the courts respond to domestic disputes. Judges on two occasions denied Conover's request for restraining orders against her husband.

Neither District Attorney Jill Ravitch nor Rene Chouteau, presiding judge of the Sonoma County Superior Court, had fully reviewed the police and court reports by Friday to evaluate how Conover's last request for a restraining order was handled.

"If there has been a failure on the part of public safety, obviously there needs to be a better job done," Ravitch said. "I will look at it to see what we can do going forward and if there is anything we could have done better."

After a preliminary review, Chouteau said it appears there were no mistakes made. A Petaluma police officer relayed information from Conover to the on-duty judge, Virginia Marcoida, who took the rare step of denying the order. To approve a request, a judge must determine there is a serious and current threat of violence.

"It's an abbreviated process," Chouteau said. "The judge has to make the best decision possible based on the facts presented."

The court's 23 judges take turns pulling after-hours duty fielding calls from police officers seeking restraining orders and search warrants. They pass around a special cellphone that is accessible by police officers in the field.

It's a weeklong rotation that comes up about three times a year. And it's one many judges greet with a sense of dread.

Calls come in at all hours. A judge's worst nightmare is to find out someone who was denied a protective order has wound up injured or dead.

However, most such orders are approved, sometimes over the victim's wishes or even a recommendation from law enforcement. Denial is a rarity.

Still, a protective order is not a bulletproof vest against someone bent on violence. In some cases, it can even serve to inflame an estranged spouse.

"Restraining orders can't prevent people from ambushing and shooting someone," Chouteau said.

Chouteau said the system is working and that it's a vast improvement from years ago when domestic violence was largely ignored.

Problem's deep roots

The problem starts deep within a relationship.

Abusers often seek to control their partners and fear they will leave. Victims continue to hope the person they fell in love with will follow through with promises. They fear losing the security of a home and support, advocates say.

Then violence erupts.

Police show up. The first step is to separate the people, Snetsinger said. Most law enforcement agencies automatically send two officers to any domestic violence call.

The officers must make a quick assessment. Decades ago, officers had to see violence or evidence of violence before making an arrest.

"It used to be you show up, try to talk one of them to go to a hotel or their brother's house, and then you left," Snetsinger said.

The 1996 shooting of Teresa Macias by her estranged husband on a Sonoma street led the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office and other agencies to change how they respond to domestic violence reports.

Macias contacted law enforcement at least 18 times in the weeks before she was killed by her husband. Law enforcement at the time said she was not explicit enough about what was going on.

The year after her death, the Sonoma County Superior Court opened a courtroom devoted to domestic violence cases.

Since then, state laws and local policies have given officers more discretion to arrest suspected abusers.

Probable cause that a person was harmed or is at risk is all an officer needs to make an arrest or take the first step to request a restraining order, according to the Santa Rosa Police Department's domestic violence policy.

Officers must be prepared to confront emotions "that have been building over months or years," Sebastopol Police Chief Jeff Weaver said.

"The stakes are so very high: children, income, where you live and it's so intertwined," Weaver said. "It's not just something where you can easily walk away from without ramifications in other aspects of your life."

Court and police records show Conover, one of her daughters and even her husband reached out to authorities. But each time it appeared Conover and officers backed down.

Honeymoon phase

After a violent encounter, there's often what advocates call a honeymoon phase.

"They will suggest that won't happen again, 'I won't do that, I'm very sorry, that's not like me, that's not how we're going to live our lives,' " said Madeleine Keegan O'Connell, YWCA executive director.

"The person who is being abused, that's what she wants to hear. She wants to heal," O'Connell said.

Then the tension builds again.

Nearly 2,800 people called the YWCA's crisis hotline last year. Calls come from victims, their family members, neighbors and coworkers, said Lake of the YWCA. Trained staff connect people with lawyers and funds to help cover costs of getting away from an abuser.

They coach people to tell victims about the crisis hotline and describe what resources are available to them.

During 2011, the agency made 5,000 referrals to resources such as legal assistance, therapy, child care and safe housing, O'Connell said.

They help victims make an escape plan, from deciding where to hide a getaway bag with essential documents, a change of clothes and additional items for children to what time to leave and where to go.

Anger over killings

"I am angry that there have been three domestic violence homicides in our county in three years," Lake said. "We have the expertise and staff to make a dent in that."

As the bell was about to ring Thursday at Meadow Elementary in east Petaluma where Conover had taught for more than 12 years, Rosario Jimenez settled a vase of daffodils among many dozens of roses, tulips and lilies outside the administration office.

"I loved her teacher," Jimenez said of Conover, her 7-year-old daughter Melina's teacher.

Above the floral display hung drawings from students of rainbows, sunshine, hearts and with the rickety penmanship of children learning to write:

"I know you're in a good place in heaven."

"You were the teacher I looked up to the most, and you still are."

"Meadow school misses you."

You can reach Staff Writers Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com and Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paulpayne@pressdemocrat.com.