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What a year: Top stories of 2012

The Petaluma Nationals celebrate their path to victory.

John O'Hara/ For the Argus-Courier
Published: Monday, December 31, 2012 at 8:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 11:57 a.m.

It was a year to remember in Petaluma, one of deep lows and elevated highs. The community had its share of grief: a longtime Petaluma resident was arrested for allegedly swindling his friends and neighbors out of millions of dollars and a beloved school teacher was tragically shot and killed. But the community also had a big share of joy in the come-from-behind story of the Petaluma National Little League team. Following is a summary of the most compelling stories of 2012, as compiled by the Argus-Courier staff.

Nationals capture Petaluma's imagination: Perhaps no other sports team ever had the impact on Petaluma that a group of 13-year-old baseball players had last summer.

The Petaluma National Little League All-Star players, 12 years old when they started the season on their various teams in March, and most of them 13 by the time they finished third in the Little League World Series in August, captured the attention and the hearts of not only Petalumans, but people from around the Bay Area and throughout the state.

The team was the first from Petaluma ever to reach the Little League World Series and its reputation grew with each game it played in Williamsport, PA.

Ironically, the game that captured the attention of the nation and the one for which the Petalumans will always be remembered was one of just two they lost (while winning five).

Trailing by 10 runs going into their last scheduled at bats against Goodlettsville, Tenn., the Petalumans refused to quit, scoring 10 runs for a tie to force extra innings.

Tennessee rallied to win the game and the U.S. championship, 24-16, but it was the Petalumans who made national headlines with their historic comeback.

Petaluma went on to take third place by beating Panama, 12-4.

The Little Leaguers returned home to a two-month celebration that included a parade through downtown Petaluma; trips to Giants and A's games; proclamations from city, county, state and national officials; a private meeting with Major League manager Tony La Russa; and gifts of rings fashioned on the model of those given to Super Bowl champions.

Violence that shocked a community: April 15 started off as a sunny spring day in Petaluma, but it ended with a community in shock and grief over the murder-suicide of Kimberly Baucom Conover by her estranged husband, Kevin Conover.

Kim Baucom, 43, and Kevin Conover, 41, both graduated from Petaluma High School and made their lives in Petaluma, making diverse friends and acquaintances along the way. Baucom taught second grade at Meadow School for more than 12 years.

The community learned later that the couple's relationship was marked by domestic violence, from which Baucom had tried to extricate herself.

Baucom was shot and killed by Conover as she left her divorce attorney's office, right after having filed for a restraining order against her husband. Conover then shot and killed himself on the sidewalk on Keller Street.

Baucom was the mother of two teenage daughters from a previous marriage and twin 21-month-old children she had with Conover.

Following her death, the community came together to support her children and take steps toward preventing future domestic violence.

Shopping centers move forward: After the grassy lot that used to house Kenilworth Junior High sat vacant for more than five years as the Target-based East Washington Place shopping center slugged its way through a lengthy approval process, officials gathered for a groundbreaking ceremony in February.

Since then, the site has been full of construction activity, and Target, along with other stores like Sprouts Farmers Market, T.J. Maxx and Dick's Sporting Goods, are expected to open in the summer of 2013.

Another large shopping center, to be anchored by the popular Friedman's Home Improvement, received its needed approvals in 2012, despite threat of a lawsuit by the Petaluma Neighborhood Association.

The developer and the PNA reached a settlement, however, and now Friedman's is expected to open in late 2013.

Budget problems plague city: Petaluma continued to be plagued by low tax revenues and high pension costs, problems exacerbated by tens of millions of dollars being lost to the city when the state ended redevelopment agencies. In addition, a challenge by a former City Council member led the city to withdraw funds for about $500,000 annually in flood prevention activities. All told, the budget was balanced narrowly with about a five percent reduction in cuts across all departments and a tiny reserve fund.

The city did achieve a small step toward pension reform when it passed a “second tier” for all its union employees, meaning that newly hired employees will receive a less generous benefits package than current employees. City staff has acknowledged that the change won't result in savings for Petaluma for many years, until a significant number of new employees have been hired.

More hopeful sights were on the horizon for 2013, with car sales on the upswing and revenue from the Target Center expected to start flowing in.

Ponzi schemer shocks Petaluma: Many longtime Petaluma residents were among the 50-plus victims of real estate developer Aldo Baccala, who was arrested in early June for perpetrating a $20 million Ponzi scheme on his investors.

The 71-year-old Petaluma man allegedly used his likable personality and local connections between friends and relatives to gain trust and encourage people to invest in a number of projects, promising huge returns that never materialized.

Many of the victims of the most recent scheme were elderly and had known Baccala and his family for many years. Through his business, Baccala Realty, Inc., Baccala raised millions of dollars from investors for East Coast nursing homes and a car wash, among other things, officials said.

Victims expressed outrage and disappointment at being taken in by someone they said had pretended to be their friend.

“There is joy in Mudville tonight,” said Petaluma resident and longtime acquaintance of Baccala's, Lou Neve, at the time that Baccala was arrested.

“I'm looking forward to being able to tell my story in court and ultimately, to justice being served,” said another victim.

Rocky period for Police Department: Petaluma saw multiple police chief stories in 2012 as the department transitioned to its first permanent police chief in more than three years. In early January, allegations surfaced by the ex-wife of then-interim police chief Dan Fish that he had concealed an affair with a married police department employee, Debra Mishler, in 2009. Fish didn't dispute that he had a relationship with another woman while still married to Jenny Fish, though he declined to comment on apparent discrepancies between his story and that of his ex-wife. He married Mishler after divorcing Jenny Fish.

In July, City Manager John Brown hired Petaluma's first permanent police chief since 2009: Patrick Williams from the Desert Hot Springs Police Department in southern California. But right after Brown's announcement, Williams was named in a $5 million federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Andrea Heath, a former Desert Hot Springs detective. Heath had been the FBI's star witness in a civil rights suit against a fellow Desert Hot Springs police officer, and claimed in her suit that after testifying against her fellow officer, she endured harassment and intimidation in the Desert Hot Springs Department, all under Williams' watch. The case is ongoing.

Since then, Williams has made more positive headlines for his plans to implement a new, community-oriented policing strategy in Petaluma and restore resource officers to the local high schools, among other things.

Two teens go missing: It's a parent's worst nightmare for their teenage child to go missing, and yet it happened twice this year within the space of a few days in October. First, a 15-year-old female student left town with her 29-year-old godfather, with whom she may have been conducting a sexual relationship. Several days later, after the parents made public, impassioned pleas for the return of their daughter, she was found with her godfather, Hilario Matus-Carmona, in Selma. Petaluma detectives returned the girl to her parents and later produced evidence that led to two felony charges against Matus-Carmona of having sexual intercourse with a child under 16 and a third misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Matus-Carmona faces a maximum of six years if convicted. The case is ongoing.

Then, just a few days after the teenage girl returned home, a 15-year-old boy disappeared from his parents' home. The Casa Grande high school sophomore was missing for several days before he finally called his very relieved family from the East Coast. New Jersey police located the boy at the Trenton Train Station, attempting to catch a train back home. He was placed into protective custody until his father could fly out and bring him home.

Multiple embezzlement arrests: Embezzlement ran rampant in Sonoma County this year, with three high profile cases coming out of Petaluma. In August, police arrested John C. Sheehan, 43, of Rohnert Park, for embezzling more than $1.1 million from his employer, family-owned Bibbero Systems, Inc., over a six-year period that began in 2006. Sheehan, who reportedly spent the money on vacations, cars and expensive remodels to his Rohnert Park home, pleaded guilty to several embezzlement charges and was sentenced to nine years in prison.

In September, bookkeeper Charity D. Howder, 36, of Santa Rosa was arrested by Petaluma police on suspicion of bilking two customers out of more than $260,000, including the law office Project Management Practice, Inc. out of Petaluma. Howder was later charged with embezzling more than $100,000 from a third company.

The year's biggest embezzlement surprise came in October when San Rafael police arrested 44-year-old Petaluma resident Jodi M. Azevedo for stealing almost $1.6 million from her San Rafael employer, Plastiras' Parkway Properties Investment Corp. Azevedo, a well-liked community member who often volunteered at the Petaluma Christian Church, pleaded guilty to two felony embezzlement counts and a white-collar penalty enhancement. She is expected to be sentenced to six years in prison on Feb. 20 in Marin County Court.

Community wakes up to federal raid

Petaluma's McNeil Avenue made headlines in May when federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers conducted a raid to capture a 20-year-old man wanted in connection with a gang homicide in South San Francisco.

In the early hours of May 3, residents were awakened by a helicopter landing on their street and the sounds of gunshots and several dozen agents storming the Flores residence at 1325 McNeil Ave. Three agents were shot during the raid, which was part of a larger North Bay area sweep to arrest multiple members of San Francisco's 500 Block/ C Street Gang.

Victor Flores was arrested on multiple charges, including three counts of murder, and could face the death penalty if convicted. He is also facing additional charges related to the shooting of the three agents wounded during the raid. Flores pleaded not guilty to all charges in August.

City Council sees a turnover: Petaluma's more moderate, candidates claimed victory in this year's City Council race, changing the makeup of the City Council from four moderates and three progressives to five moderates and two progressives.

Incumbent progressive Tiffany Renée lost narrowly to moderate newcomer Kathy Miller, who was formerly the chair of the Planning Commission. Incumbent moderates Mike Healy and Gabe Kearney were also reelected.

(Comiled by Argus-Courier staff. Contact the news staff at argus@arguscourier.com.)

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