Former minister on trial for wife's death

January 13, 2010 5:50:21 PM PST
A minister's wife told her therapist a few days before she died that she thought her husband was going to kill her and was having an affair, her therapist testified Wednesday at his murder trial. Therapist JoAnn Bristol said Matt Baker's first words to her at the funeral visitation for Kari Baker were "I never saw it coming." Kari Baker's 2006 death initially was ruled a suicide.

"He said, `Did she tell you that she thought I was trying to kill her?' I said 'yes.' Then he said, `Did she tell you she thought I was having an affair?' I said 'yes.' ... Then I said, `Matt, what happened?"' Bristol told jurors on the first day of Baker's trial.

Baker, 38, is accused of drugging his wife with sleeping pills and suffocating her with a pillow after she fell unconscious in their home in Hewitt, a Waco suburb. If convicted, he could face life in prison. Baker has denied that he killed his wife, saying she was despondent over the cancer death of their 16-month-old daughter Kassidy in 1999.

Bristol, a licensed clinical social worker, said she knew Kari's family and counseled her for a year after her daughter's death. Bristol said Kari never was suicidal, even during that time, and steadily showed improvement by wanting to spend more time with her older child and getting pregnant with another child.

When defense attorney Guy James Gray showed some entries from Kari Baker's diary and Bible, Bristol said it was a normal part of the grieving process.

In a 1999 diary entry that was a letter to Kassidy, Kari Baker wrote, "I just float through days, never really touching ground. ... Why can't I just die?" On one page of her Bible that was filled with her notations, Kari Baker wrote, "I want to go with Kassidy."

Bristol said that during her session with Kari a few days before her death, the 31-year-old told her she had been to a doctor who diagnosed her with depression. But Bristol said Kari was frustrated and told her, "I just ripped up the prescription because I was not depressed. I was anxious."

Bristol said she disagreed with that doctor's diagnosis because Kari was looking forward to starting a group to help other mothers whose children had died.

Prosecutor Crawford Long showed another notation from Kari Baker's Bible, dated five days before her death, in which she wrote, "Peace! Lord, grant me peace! Calm my soul. ... I'm asking you to protect me from harm. I am not sure what is going on with Matt, but Lord help me find peace with him."

Bristol said Kari had told her that she thought her husband was trying to kill her but then recanted. The therapist testified that she told Kari to call her in a few days if she still felt that way -- but the call never came.

In other testimony, the first police officer to arrive at the house after Matt Baker's 911 call said the minister led him to Kari's body in the bedroom and said there was a suicide note.

The typed note read: "Matt, I am so sorry. I am so tired. I just want to sleep for a while. Please forgive me. I love you Matt -- I am so sorry for the past few weeks. ... I want to give Kassidy a hug. I need to feel her again. Please continue to be the great Dad to our little girls. Love them every day for me. I am sorry. I love you. Kari."

Crime scene photos showed two ink pens on the bedside table by the note, which was not signed. The photos also showed two empty wine cooler bottles, two cups, a bottle of an over-the-counter sleep aid and two sleeping pills on the table.

The officer, Michael Irving, said that when he leaned over to pick up the note, he felt something wet on the bed by the pillow. Irving said Baker later told him that his wife had been depressed about Kassidy.

But Baker gave a different account to "20/20," according to a clip of the ABC news program played in court. Baker said the officer brought him the suicide note, and said that was the first time he thought his wife would "take her own life." The segment included part of his 911 call in which he talked about finding the suicide note.

During opening statements earlier Wednesday, Gray said evidence would show that authorities suspected his client from the beginning and never sought evidence that would show Kari authored the suicide note. Gray acknowledged that his client lied about the affair after his wife's death, but also pointed out that medical experts could never determine Kari's cause of death.

Gray said Kari's friendly, outgoing personality masked deep depression -- not only about her middle daughter's death but about her own weight gain and her husband's affair.

"Kari Baker had some problems," Gray told jurors. "She had a husband running around on her, was still fighting to get over the loss of a child, had problems sleeping, and she mixed sleeping pills, diet pills and alcohol -- and she died. It became a murder case when her family learned there was an affair."

The case was reopened a few months after Kari Baker's death at the insistence of her parents, who hired an investigator to gather evidence for their wrongful death lawsuit against Baker.

Justice of the Peace Billy Martin, who had initially ruled Kari Baker's death a suicide, testified that he ordered the body exhumed and conducted a formal inquest after he received new evidence. The death certificate was amended to list the cause as undetermined.