Thursday morning was filled with shock and sadness at the law office of Freeman, D’Aiuto, Pierce, Gurev, Keeling & Wolf. A paralegal named Billi Jo Dyer-Romero, who had worked there nearly a decade, was dead; the victim of an apparent murder-suicide in Acampo.
Paralegal Laura Smith said Dyer-Romero’s brother had called the firm that morning to alert it to the tragedy. But how could it be? Smith wondered. There had been no history of violence, no warning signs, she said.
“We’ve all just been hit so hard by it because it was completely unexpected,” Smith said. “There was no foreseeing anything like this occurring. It’s been very shocking.”
The woman co-workers said was kind and strong was, according to the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department, murdered by her husband Juan Romero. For unexplained reasons, Romero then apparently turned the knife he allegedly used on Dyer-Romero on himself, the department said.
“Billi Jo was a gem — a cherished colleague and friend to many and someone whose work in the community improved the lives of others,” Thomas Keeling wrote in a comment on the News-Sentinel website on Sunday night. “This is surely one of the most painful and senseless tragedies to hit the community.”
Keeling is a partner in the Freeman law firm, who worked with Dyer-Romero for her 8 1/2 years there. On Monday, a quiet and restrained Keeling reiterated his praise of the woman whose office was right across the hall from his.
“I think of her as a sweet person and a cherished colleague and friend,” Keeling said. “I look in her office, like I did this morning, and I just kind of expect and want to see her sitting there, cheerful.”
Smith worked closely by Dyer-Romero’s side as well, and didn’t want to discuss her friend and co-worker while at the office. It would be too hard, she said, a struggle to keep it together.
Later, a somber Smith reflected on a person she called very generous.
“(Dyer-Romero) was such an amazing, great person, and just had a wonderful heart,” Smith said. “She was the kind of person who would go out of her way to help everybody.”
Dyer-Romero had told Smith in February that Romero was out of a job again, Smith said, causing her serious stress. Sheriff’s spokesman Les Garcia said Dyer-Romero had recently requested a divorce, and the couple had been experiencing marital issues for a couple of months.
But nothing seemed out of the ordinary, Keeling said. Dyer-Romero was at work every day, and as helpful as ever.
“If (Dyer-Romero) had felt there was danger, I would have to believe she wouldn’t have gone home that night,” he said. “She’s not a wilting lily; she’s a very strong person.”
Smith recalled how proud Dyer-Romero was of her work with the Mokelumne Mounties, the equestrian drill team she was drillmaster for. On a couple of occasions, Smith and her husband had even gone to see the Mounties perform.
“We saw each other every day, so you become a part of each other’s lives,” she said.
Dyer-Romero and Smith often traded stories about their children; Dyer-Romero leaves behind three daughters. Smith said her friend was a very devoted mother.
“The most important thing to her ... was the pride she took in her three daughters,” Smith said. “She always had such good things to say about her kids.”
Many of the questions from Wednesday night’s incident will stay unanswered, at least for a while: Toxicology and autopsy reports will not be available for weeks. So for now, those who knew Dyer-Romero will have to mourn their loss without a full understanding of why it occurred.
“To say she’ll be missed is really the biggest understatement,” Smith said. “There’s really just no easy way, or any way, to express the grief that everybody’s experiencing that worked with her.”
“Everybody’s stunned ... a whole community is stunned,” Keeling said. “It’s just very sad. This is unspeakable.”
Contact reporter Fernando Gallo at firstname.lastname@example.org.