Devastated by loss of Debra Beaver, friends raise domestic violence awareness

08/24/2014 8:25 PM

08/24/2014 8:25 PM

Debra Beaver hid it well.

Even the Overland Park woman’s closest friends, members of a group who call themselves the Woohoos, had no idea of the fear and tension stalking her.

“You always saw Debbie smile,” said Jan Helfer, the group’s founder. “She smiled through all of those things.”

The extent of those things became clear Jan. 5, 2012, when Beaver’s estranged husband ambushed her outside the home they once shared and pumped bullet after bullet into her car and body.

He drove away, parked and took his own life.

The grief they felt now motivates Helfer and the other Woohoos to honor their friend by raising awareness about domestic violence. To commemorate what would have been Beaver’s 59th birthday last Wednesday, the Woohoos held a Deed for Debbie day that raised money for Safehome, a domestic violence shelter in Johnson County.

They held donation drives at an area grocery store and restaurant where proceeds from meals purchased were donated to Safehome. Volunteers also collected donations of money and personal care items.

Beaver’s killing shocked her friends, who now with hindsight wonder whether they missed signs of trouble — and opportunities to help her escape an abusive relationship.

That’s part of the insidious nature of domestic violence, said Janeé Hanzlick, executive director of Safehome.

Whether it’s fear, embarrassment or shame, many domestic violence victims are reluctant to talk about what’s happening to them, she said.

“People keep it to themselves,” she said. “There are so many reasons.”

Donna Payne of Leawood, one of the Woohoos, said the group members believe it’s important to support a local shelter like Safehome in a community where few may realize domestic violence happens.

“People think it doesn’t happen to beautiful, successful, optimistic women like Debbie Beaver,” she said.

Helfer started the Woohoos in 2005. She gathered nine women, including Beaver, whom she worked with at the Visiting Nurse Association. They began going out to a group dinner once a month.

“We all became great friends,” she said.

But they noticed something “odd” about Beaver’s husband. She often missed the dinners because he didn’t like her going. When she did attend, he often came along and sat alone at a bar waiting for her.

When she attended alone, he would call and text her constantly throughout the meal, Helfer said.

In retrospect, she said, they now recognize that kind of controlling behavior as a red flag.

“But I never once felt she was in fear for her safety,” said another group member, Anne Burke.

Even when the Beavers were going through divorce proceedings in 2011, Debra revealed little to her friends.

They were unaware of the protection from stalking request Debra Beaver filed in Johnson County District Court in November 2011.

In it, Beaver recounted multiple incidents of violent and threatening behavior.

“He has a history of being abusive to me and my property,” she said.

Among the allegations: He rammed her parked car with his truck; pushed her down; pulled her hair; threatened to kill her and himself; fired a shot through a wall in their home; and broke out the window of her car with a golf club.

“I know he would hurt me and my property if given the opportunity,” she wrote.

That opportunity came two months later, with the murder-suicide.

“I was driving when I heard and almost ran off the road,” Payne said. “It was like somebody hit me so hard in the chest I couldn’t breathe.”

For Burke, Beaver’s murder was a jarring replay. In 2003, another friend, Carmin Ross-Murray, was beaten and stabbed to death at her home in Lawrence.

Her former husband, Thomas Murray, an English professor at Kansas State University, was convicted in the killing and is serving a life prison sentence.

“They were both professional women, very smart women, married to professional men,” she said. “It’s really scary. You never know what’s going on behind closed doors.”

In the wake of Beaver’s death, her Woohoo friends have become even closer, and they resolved to find a meaningful way to remember Beaver.

“Surely we thought that domestic violence would be a cause that she would support,” Helfer said.

Hanzlick said the women approached Safehome and said they wanted to do something to honor their friend and help Safehome.

Besides efforts to raise donations for the shelter, the group’s greatest gift is raising awareness about the problem, Hanzlick said.

“The situation with Debbie took a lot of people by surprise,” she said. “Domestic violence can happen to anyone.”

If you have a friend you are concerned about, talk to them and tell them how you feel, Hanzlick said.

“Not to tell them what to do, but listen to them and believe them,” she said. “It’s OK to say, ‘I’m scared for you.’”

Safehome and other agencies around the area that deal with domestic violence are more than shelters. They offer a variety of services such as counseling.

“To our knowledge, Debbie never sought out domestic violence services,” Helfer said.

Hanzlick called Helfer and her group “wonderful wonderful people” who are working to create something positive out of a tragedy.

“They are using it to save other lives,” she said.

To reach Tony Rizzo, call 816-234-4435 or send email to trizzo@kcstar.com.

To get help

Safehome has a domestic violence hotline at 913-262-2868. It is answered 24 hours a day.

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