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City and police leaders collected checks for the Baker Butler Memorial Fund for months. From left, Santa Cruz Deputy Police Chief Rick Martinez, Chief Kevin Vogel, then-Mayor Hilary Bryant, Deputy Chief Steve Clark stand with Bike Dojo co-owners Rob and Kim Mylls. (Contributed)

SANTA CRUZ -- The day after Sgt. Loran "Butch" Baker and detective Elizabeth Butler were shot and killed, residents began pouring donations into two funds intended to help their families.

However, nearly a year later, none of the more than $556,800 collected by the city, two banks and the Santa Cruz Police Officers Association has been given to survivors. The delay was caused by a tangled web of threatened legal action and no plan by city officials and police union leaders to distribute the fund.

"It's probably something that should have been done by someone else, not the POA, not the Police Department," said Sgt. Mike Harms, the police liaison to the Baker family. "We had enough to contend with. But you don't think of that when you're in the heat of some terrible tragedy."

After the Sentinel began asking questions about the fund two weeks ago, the union sent a letter Monday to immediate family members of the slain officers proposing to halve the money between the two families. Then, each family's portion would be split into 50 percent for the surviving spouse or partner with the rest distributed evenly among the children within that family.

The union set a deadline of Feb. 21 for the families to reply to the money arrangement, according to the letter. Otherwise, attorneys for the police union told the Sentinel, any disputes will have to be worked out among the recipients, through mediation or other legal means. Community donations might be tapped to cover the union's legal fees if the matter goes to court, or they could be paid by the union, which is funded by its members, police officers.


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A DIFFICULT JOURNEY

Butler's domestic partner, Peter Wu, said he agrees with the disbursement percentages, and it would be "extremely helpful for the funds to be released as soon as possible."

Wu said he did not receive Butler's death benefits -- which are separate from the memorial fund -- because the couple was not married. Returning to work as a Metro bus driver in November, Wu is raising the two boys, 3 and 6, he shared with Butler.

"The simple arithmetic is that Elizabeth Butler and I had purchased our house with a mortgage and planned to raise our family with two kids based on our two combined salaries," Wu said. "The children do get some death benefits but I do not."

Kelly Baker, Butch Baker's widow, and Adam Baker, his 22-year-old son, declined to comment publicly about the fund and its disbursement. The Sentinel could not reach Jillian Baker, Kelly's daughter from a previous marriage who is also a fund recipient.

But Ashley Baker, Butch Baker's daughter from a previous marriage, said she plans to contest the proposal.

The 25-year-old former community college student from Santa Maria is estranged from the rest of the family and is represented by a pro-bono attorney who argues that the funds initially were promoted as scholarship funds and therefore intended for the Baker and Wu children. The funds eventually were combined and called a memorial fund.

Ashley Baker said she was confused when the fund's name changed sometime after April 2013.

"That's not fair, that's not legal and that's not how it works," Ashley Baker said.

Officer Joe Hernandez, the police union leader, said threats of a lawsuit by Ashley Baker and her attorney after the tragedy contributed to stalling the money's distribution.

FAMILIES IN GRIEF

Ashley has been on her own since age 17. After her father's death, she said she quit school. In turn, she lost her financial aid, which covered her rent. Because she injured her hand in a car accident, she has been unable to work as a hair stylist and her unemployment benefits ended about the time her father died.

"The reason I'm not in school is because this has been horrendous," Ashley said, referring to her father's death.

Before she agrees to the distribution proposal, of which she would receive about $46,000, she said she wants a list of the donations to the fund. She said she disputes the distribution on principle because she distrusts police leaders who she said mistreated her.

Rocky Lucia, a Pleasanton-based lawyer for the police union, said he hopes the matter can be settled amicably. When members of law enforcement are killed, family matters often get complicated, he said.

"We were hoping that we wouldn't get to this point," Lucia said. "We have every confidence that in the end, the donations generated by the community will be distributed to the proper beneficiaries.

"The public donated the money and there should be transparency."

Meanwhile, members of both families have had financial needs that other groups have stepped in to meet. The Fallen Officer Foundation paid about $10,000 for 26 hotel rooms, meals and some flights for family members to attend a mega memorial service in San Jose.

Foundation president Donna Lind, a retired Scotts Valley police officer and former mayor, said it's important to determine at the start of any memorial fund what it will cover, such as medical expenses, funeral expenses, scholarships or family expenses. She said she advises groups to "get legal advice to anticipate these complications," but added that it wasn't her place to offer unsolicited advice to Santa Cruz police or the police union at the time of the tragedy.

"They were basically dealing with a crisis at the time with a whole lot on their plate," said Lind. "We all know their intentions were good."

Spouses of fallen officers typically get benefits from the California Public Employees' Retirement System, according to Lucia. There are also state benefits, federal benefits and private funds that give money to survivors.

Community members began donating money for the families the day after the two police officers were killed.

OFFICERS DOWN

Baker, 51, and Butler, 38, were ambushed and shot by sexual-assault suspect Jeremy Goulet on Feb. 26, 2013, while investigating a claim made against him by a former co-worker. Goulet, 35, an Army veteran with a history of sexual assault accusations, fled with the officers' weapons but returned 30 minutes later and was killed after engaging responding officers in a gun battle.

Problems with the fund came to light after Ashley Baker's attorney contacted the Sentinel with concerns about how police leaders treated his client and how the community funds were being handled.

Santa Cruz Police Chief Kevin Vogel and union president Hernandez acknowledge that early on there wasn't a firm plan for distributing the money. The leaders said they had no experience handling memorial funds and were grieving themselves while trying to perform day-to-day police work in the months after the murders.

"When the money started rolling in in the beginning -- we'd never had this happen before," Vogel said.

He said emotions were high and there was no strict definition of where the money would go.

"Maybe it needed more attention on the front end, but I truly believe the intent of these funds is to benefit the families."

Vogel, who is not a member of the police union, said he did not have a hand in deciding how the funds would be distributed. Those numbers were drafted by union leaders and their attorneys.

The funds started when Bay Federal Credit Union and Central Coast News KION/KCBA created a scholarship fund for the children of Baker and Butler. The Santa Cruz Police Officers Association also set up the Baker/Butler Scholarship Fund with Wells Fargo Bank.

Because donors flooded the Police Department and City Hall with phone calls and financial pledges, the city accepted credit card numbers by phone. The Finance Department began managing the funds, which eventually were combined at Wells Fargo. Union leaders say they always intended to take over the fund.

"The city took the lead for us," said Hernandez, the union president.

City Manager Martín Bernal said he believes it was appropriate for the union to handle the money and said the members couldn't have anticipated all the problems.

"They were the caretakers of the families," Bernal said. "That was a role they took on immediately."

Ashley Baker wishes they'd taken more care with her. Because Ashley's mother and Butch divorced when Ashley was about a year old, not all of Butch Baker's friends and colleagues knew about Ashley.

Ashley was escorted to the memorial service at San Jose's HP Pavilion by the Rev. Rick Bloom, a Santa Maria police chaplain, and Atascadero Police Chief Jerel Haley, an old friend of her father's. Santa Cruz police arranged the escort, something she said she was grateful for.

After the service, Ashley said she wanted to see her father's hearse, and Haley scrambled to find their way outside. Bloom left the service thinking Ashley wasn't treated as well as she should have been and some time later introduced her to an attorney in his congregation, David Bixby.

Bloom, whose church paid $700 for a month of her rent, realized there was a scholarship fund for children of the fallen officers and was concerned Ashley wouldn't benefit from it.

"The people that gave that money -- the average citizen in Santa Cruz -- would sure hate to see that happen to that officer's daughter," Bloom said. "It shouldn't make any difference if the Santa Cruz Police Department didn't know who she was. She's still his daughter."

For months Bixby tried to secure money for Ashley and at least twice said he would take his case to the media before he called the Sentinel in mid-January. Because of the threatened lawsuit, Santa Cruz police stopped talking to him on the advice of Santa Cruz City Attorney John Barisone.

"I was so overwhelmed with what was going on I didn't even know how to stick up for myself," Ashley said, explaining why she sought legal counsel.

Santa Cruz police say they tried to treat Ashley respectfully, but the relationship became strained.

Harms, the liaison to the Baker family, spoke with Ashley on the phone several times before the memorial service. Harms and other police said she was the first to ask about the scholarship fund, which was troubling to them.

"I tried to do what I could to include her in everything," Harms said.

Hernandez also said the relationship with Ashley was difficult. His promises that she would get her fair share of the fund did not assuage her concern.

Donations continued to pile up unspent. Without a family or financial support system, Ashley's lawyer persisted on her behalf.

"No orphan should ever be treated with such a lack of dignity and respect," Bixby wrote in an April 26 letter to Chief Vogel.

Ashley told Harms she just wanted a phone call from Vogel but never got it.

"If she wants to talk to me, she shouldn't reach out through her attorney," Vogel said. "The way in which Ashley Baker is pursuing this is completely against the community's generosity. It strikes me as being some selfish motivation."

Some donors to the fund say it isn't their place to judge why the donations haven't been distributed.

Analicia Cube, a spokeswoman for the public safety group Take Back Santa Cruz, said it would have been preferable that the families had received the money immediately.

Yet, she said, "I trust that police will work it out."

Caleb Baskin, a lawyer with Baskin & Grant in Santa Cruz, said, "I was honored to raise funds and contribute, and I hope that in some small way it helps the families and department deal with these remarkably difficult circumstances."

Sentinel staff reporter J.M. Brown contributed to this report. Follow Sentinel reporter Stephen Baxter at Twitter.com/sbaxter--sc. ------ (c)2014 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.) Visit the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.) at www.santacruzsentinel.com