Ex-pastor's murder conviction ends four-year saga

January 23, 2010 6:08:13 AM PST
Nearly four years ago, a preacher's wife was found dead beside a typed suicide note and bottle of sleeping pills, and police quickly closed the case. Now, her husband Matt Baker is starting a 65-year prison sentence for murder. Baker, 38, will be eligible for parole in about 30 years.

The saga that began with botched police work ended with what Kari Baker's relatives and friends had been praying for, what they had printed on hundreds of bumper stickers: justice for Kari.

"You see, Matt, you were never going to win this one," a sobbing Linda Dulin, Kari's mother, said during a victim impact statement Thursday. "You spent your life preying on innocent people. ... But love triumphs evil. Do you hear me, Matt? Love triumphs evil."

Still, there may be another chapter. Linda and James Dulin, who filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Baker because they never believed she killed herself, are suspicious about the death of the Bakers' middle daughter in 1999.

That issue arose unexpectedly during Baker's trial when his ex-mistress, Vanessa Bulls, testified that Baker, after learning his wife's body was being exhumed for an autopsy, said he was going to the cemetery "to see if they messed with Kassidy's grave." Prosecutors and defense attorneys did not ask Bulls about her comment or refer to the issue during the trial.

Attorney Bill Johnston said that while the Dulins plan to drop their civil suit, they want him to continue investigating baby Kassidy's death. She was about 16 months old when she died at home while recovering from brain tumor surgery, Johnston said.

Johnston plans to discuss with authorities some points of his investigation so far, such as whether a baby monitor had been removed from her room, the attorney told The Associated Press on Friday.

The Dulins never believed their daughter, a bubbly 31-year-old teacher, would have left behind her two daughters. And her husband's behavior seemed odd: he insisted on having Kari's funeral two days later, didn't seem too upset and removed her pictures from the house.

Baker told some people he was shocked by his wife's death but told police and others she had been deeply depressed over Kassidy's death.

The Dulins didn't want to believe their son-in-law was a killer, but with gnawing doubts, they met with Johnston and decided to file a civil lawsuit to gather evidence.

Justice of the Peace Billy Martin had ruled Kari's death a suicide after receiving a late-night phone call from police who said it appeared to be a suicide, and said "That's good enough for me" before going back to sleep, he testified.

Kari's body was not exhumed until three months after her death after Johnston's team showed evidence that Baker's account of her death did not match police photographs from the couple's Hewitt home. Johnston's investigators also learned Kari had told her counselor about finding crushed pills in Baker's briefcase and being afraid.

Johnston said police in Hewitt, a small suburb of Waco, refused his offers for help so he started working with a Texas Ranger who thought the case should be reopened. Two detectives later assigned to the case did provide help, Johnston said.

"He got away with murder, and it took the family doing an end-run on law enforcement to change that, and that's a shame," Johnston said Friday. "And thank goodness for the prosecutors who got hold of the case."

Some of Baker's computers were missing, but a computer forensics expert was able to retrieve data from Baker's church-issued laptop hard drive and the main computer server of a youth center where Baker was a chaplain. He found Baker had typed in "overdose on sleeping pills" in a search engine and looked at numerous pharmaceutical sites and online pharmacies.

That evidence led to an arrest warrant for Baker in the fall of 2007. He was released on bond and returned to his hometown of Kerrville, about 160 miles southwest of Waco, where he had moved with his two children a few months after Kari's death.

But Baker had not been indicted six months after his arrest, the time frame required by law, so prosecutors refunded his bond. They said they lacked enough evidence to go to trial but worked for another year.

Last March, Baker was indicted after grand jury testimony from his ex-mistress. Bulls testified in the trial that she had repeatedly lied about the affair and knowing how Kari died, but decided to tell the truth because she did not want to commit perjury and also was granted immunity.

"We only get one shot," prosecutor Crawford Long said after the sentencing, adding he would "take the heat" for the lengthy process because it resulted in Baker's conviction.

Bulls testified during the trial that Baker slipped his wife Ambien -- one of three drugs found in her system -- and smothered her with a pillow after she fell asleep. Baker told Bulls he typed a suicide note and rubbed Kari's lifeless hand over it in case it was tested for fingerprints.

Defense attorney Guy James Gray had contended Baker was on trial only because he lied about having an affair.

After sentencing, Gray and fellow defense attorney Harold Danford were removed from representing Baker their request. Gray said Baker had denied the affair until a month before the trial, so he began to doubt other things his client said -- although Gray said the case had reasonable doubt.

Baker has remained in denial. "I truly believe in my innocence. I believe the jury made a mistake in this," he told the judge after the sentence was announced.