Kari Baker’s death in 2006 was originally ruled a suicide, but her family’s persistence eventually led to her husband’s indictment and conviction for murder. How McLennan County prosecutors tried a cold case against a prominent Baptist minister.
On April 8, 2006, at midnight, the 911 dispatcher received a call from Matt Baker, a minister at Crossroads Baptist Church in Hewitt, south of Waco. Baker said he had just returned home and found his wife, Kari, unconscious in their bedroom. The dispatcher told him to perform CPR while he waited for emergency responders. Firefighters and EMS arrived but were unable to revive Kari; she was pronounced dead at the scene.
Officers with the Hewitt Police Department talked to Baker, who said that he had left his wife at about 11:10 p.m. to rent a movie and fill the car up with gas. When he returned, the bedroom door was locked. He pried open the lock with a screwdriver, only to find his wife unconscious and naked on the bed. Emergency responders noted that her body was clad in a t-shirt and underwear; Baker claimed that he dressed his wife while he was on the phone with the 911 dispatcher. A typed suicide note was found on a dresser along with an empty bottle of sleeping pills.
Officers took pictures of the scene, called a McLennan County justice of the peace, and told him what they had found. After conferring with them by phone and without going to the house, the JP ruled Kari’s death a suicide and did not order an autopsy.
Matt Baker met Kari Dulin when they were students at Baylor University in Waco; they married three months later at her parents’ home. He later attended Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary and became a Baptist pastor.
During this time, the Bakers had two daughters, Kensi and Kassidy. In 1998 Kassidy was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After treatment in a hospital, she appeared to be on the road to recovery and returned home, but early one morning in March 1999, Matt Baker walked into Kassidy’s room and found she had stopped breathing.
By all accounts, Kassidy’s death had a great impact on her mother. An outgoing young woman with a lively personality, Kari grieved greatly for her lost child. She sought counseling and wrote passages about her in her Bible. Kari’s suicide note even referenced her daughter, and Kari died right around the anniversary of the girl’s death.
Suicide or foul play?
Kari’s parents, Jim and Linda Dulin, were summoned to their daughter’s home the night of her death. While they had difficulty accepting that Kari had killed herself, there did not seem to be any other explanation. Kari had been pronounced dead early Saturday morning, and Matt insisted the funeral be on Monday.
About 10 days later, Linda Dulin got together with her three sisters, who told Linda that Matt had hit on several young women over the years. They had kept these things to themselves while Matt was married to Kari, so Linda was stunned. She resolved to find out the truth about her daughter’s death, even if that truth—that Matt had murdered her daughter—was harder to accept than her daughter committing suicide.
The Dulins had added Matt and Kari’s cell phones to their plan awhile back, and in checking the phone bill, Linda noticed a number of calls from Matt Baker to Kari’s cell phone—after her death. Within weeks, Matt made approximately 180 calls to the phone and as many as 17 calls in one day. Further investigation revealed that Matt had given Kari’s cell phone to a young woman from church named Vanessa Bulls.
Suspicious of their son-in-law, the Dulins hired a former assistant district attorney and assistant U.S. attorney, Bill Johnston, to investigate, and Johnston asked two onetime lawmen, former deputy U.S. Marshall Mike McNamara and former Department of Public Safety Undercover Agent John Bennett, to assist him. Their investigation turned up numerous instances of Baker’s sexual advances toward young women from his years in college and throughout his marriage to Kari. Further investigation indicated that Baker spent a great deal of time on pornographic websites, as well as searching the Internet for information on “overdose by sleeping pills” and for pharmaceutical websites where Ambien and other drugs could be purchased without a prescription. Based on what Johnston, McNamara, and Bennett unearthed, the Dulins filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Baker in July 2006.
That month, in light of the evidence obtained in the continuing investigation, the justice of the peace, Billy Martin, decided to reopen his ruling that Kari Baker’s death was a suicide. Her body was exhumed and an autopsy performed at Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences in Dallas, but because of the passage of time and the embalming of the body, the pathologist could determine only that traces of alcohol, Ambien, and Unisom (both sleep aids) were in her muscle tissue at the time of death—but neither a time frame nor an amount of the drugs could be ascertained. He ruled the cause of death undetermined.
As part of the wrongful death investigation, the Dulins hired a toxicology expert from Tennessee. The toxicologist’s opinion was that because no pills were found in Kari’s stomach at the autopsy, he did not believe she died of an overdose, nor that she died within 45 minutes, the time Baker said he was gone from the house.
The JP held an inquest in August 2007 at the Dulins’ urging and once the results of the autopsy came in. He took evidence from the toxicologist, pathologist, police officers, and the Dulins; Matt Baker did not testify at the hearing. At the end, the JP changed his previous ruling on the death from suicide to undetermined.
That October, Baker was arrested for murder on a warrant from the Hewitt Police Department, based on numerous facts: the improbability of Baker’s timeline the night of Kari’s death, his statements during the 911 call, searches of his office and home computers, an affair with Vanessa Bulls, the toxicology from the autopsy, and the JP’s change in the cause of death from suicide to undetermined. The case was assigned to me, Crawford Long; Susan Shafer, another prosecutor in our office, offered her expertise and assistance, and I gladly accepted.
Preparing for trial
In my almost 30 years of prosecuting cases, this was one of the most difficult, partly because of the enormous publicity. Both the defendant and a lawyer for the victim’s family had been interviewed on TV. News programs “20/20” and “48 Hours” broadcast stories on the case, an article ran in Texas Monthly magazine, and stories were published in numerous newspapers across the country. Additionally, I had to learn some things that had nothing to do with the law—specifically, the effects of drugs and lividity (pooling of blood) in a body. The answers I found were not reassuring for our case.
Baker’s version of events was that he left home to get a movie for Kari at 11:10 p.m. Baker’s credit card record showed that he rented movies at 11:50 p.m. The 911 call was received at midnight. That meant that Kari would have had to overdose and die within her husband’s 45- to 50-minute absence. The problem was that while the medical people believed that time frame was unlikely, they did not believe it was impossible—a very tough standard to overcome for beyond a reasonable doubt. Plus, because Kari’s body had been embalmed, most of the medical experts I consulted were unable to conclusively say whether drugs had caused her death.
The question of lividity had the same problems. The consensus was that lividity can form in 20 minutes to two hours after death. The pictures of Kari were taken a little after 12:30 a.m. and showed lividity; however, the photographs were not close-ups, and doctors were unwilling to say from the pictures when her death could have occurred.
Even more curious was Baker’s relationship with Vanessa Bulls, the woman who had Kari’s cell phone. During previous questioning by law enforcement, she had denied a relationship with Baker or any knowledge of Kari’s death.
Abdon Rodriguez, an investigator in our office, was assigned to this case; his easygoing manner and his reputation for getting suspects to confess to their crimes made him a natural choice for talking with Vanessa Bulls. Investigator Rodriguez interviewed Vanessa with her attorney, Bruce Burleson, on January 27, 2009, and she held firmly to what she had told Hewitt police investigators in August 2006.
We decided to subpoena Vanessa to the grand jury. She again brought her attorney, who said that Vanessa intended to take the Fifth but that she had some information for us. We went before Judge Matt Johnson of the 54th District Court, had him grant her testimonial or “use” immunity, then took her before the grand jury. We knew through cell phone records that she had been with Baker about a week after Kari’s death, and she and Baker had been spotted looking at rings in a jewelry store a few weeks later. I questioned her about the many phone calls and about shopping for rings, and she admitted to these incidents but denied an intimate relationship with Baker. Toward the end of my questioning, I asked if Baker had ever told her anything about Kari’s death, and her answer shocked me: She said that Baker told her he killed Kari for her. I quickly got the details of the conversation locked down while she was under oath. After she completed her testimony, we consulted with our elected Criminal District Attorney, John Segrest, who told us to prepare a murder indictment against Matt Baker and present it to the grand jury that afternoon.
Even more scandalous details
We still felt that Vanessa was holding back information, so we sent Investigator Rodriguez to speak with her again on March 31. Vanessa essentially told him the same details that she had given in the grand jury, but once Investigator Rodriguez turned off the tape recorder, Vanessa asked if he believed her. He replied that he didn’t think she was telling him everything she knew. Vanessa then admitted that she and Baker had slept together one time, in the master bedroom of the Bakers’ home, before Kari’s death.
Feeling that Vanessa might disclose more if given the chance, we arranged for another meeting with her in our office after hours. I had another commitment that night, so fellow prosecutor Susan Shafer and investigators Montea Stewart and Abdon Rodriguez met with Vanessa and her attorney, now Russ Hunt, on September 2. Over the next four hours, she told them about her relationship with Matt Baker and what she knew of Kari’s death.
Baker had begun flirting with her in November or early December 2005, and by mid-December the flirtation had become overt, with Baker telling Vanessa such things as, “Don’t date that guy—only date your preacher.” He also said that he had cheated before, that Kari never had a clue, that he had no STDs, and that he was unable to get Vanessa pregnant. Their conversations often included Baker saying negative things about Kari: that she was always depressed, that he was the primary caretaker of the children, that Kari was lazy, and that their girls did not like their mother. Vanessa and Baker began a sexual relationship in late February 2006 at the Bakers’ home. After their first sexual encounter, Baker told Vanessa that Kari was hideous and that if he and Vanessa “ever fell so much in love,” that Baker would “find a way out of” his marriage.
By March, Baker was running his murderous ideas by Vanessa, suggesting such things as tampering with Kari’s brakes or setting up a drive-by shooting—even remarking that he could hang Kari and convince authorities that it was a suicide. Vanessa said that Baker told her that he had tried to buy Rohypnol (a “date rape” drug) to incapacitate his wife.
Matt finally settled on a plan. He would slip something into Kari’s drink and leave a suicide note. When Vanessa asked him how he intended to write the note, Matt replied that he would type it. “You can’t type a suicide note!” Vanessa told him, but Matt replied that Kari typed everything and that, with the anniversary of Kassidy’s death looming and the family’s awareness of Kari’s grief, no one would be suspicious.
Two weeks before Kari’s death, Matt told Vanessa that he had made Kari a milkshake spiked with medication, but she had refused to drink it because it tasted like lead. (Later, we found an email Matt had sent to Kari on her work account from around that date, saying that he would make her a better drink than the one he made the night before by putting lots more chocolate in it.)
On Friday morning, April 7, Vanessa knew that Matt intended to make another attempt on Kari’s life during his “date night” with her that evening. On Saturday morning, Vanessa’s mother woke her and told her that Kari was dead—word of her death was quickly spreading among church members. Vanessa and her parents went to the Dulins’ home later that day to offer condolences. As they were leaving, Matt followed them out and winked at Vanessa as she and her parents drove away.
The next Wednesday, while the Baker girls were at school, Vanessa sat with Matt in his living room, and he revealed the details of Kari’s murder as though telling a story around the campfire. He had taken apart some sexual stimulant capsules, filled them with Ambien, and given them to Kari. (She thought she was taking an over-the-counter stimulant as part of the “date night,” but Matt consumed the sexual stimulant himself.) He took Kari to the bedroom as she became groggy and handcuffed her to their bed, where he engaged in foreplay until she fell asleep. (Although Baker always asserted in interviews and his videotaped deposition that Kari was nude when he “found” her, we believe that she died wearing underwear and a t-shirt.) Kari was snoring but alive. Matt kissed Kari’s forehead and told her to give Kassidy a hug or a kiss from him, then placed a pillow over her face. Kari struggled, moving her head back and forth a few times, but between the Ambien and the handcuffs Baker was able to subdue her. He told Vanessa that he removed the pillow, thinking that Kari was dead, but that her eyes flew open and she took one enormous gasp of air. He replaced the pillow on Kari’s face, this time being careful to apply pressure around her nose and mouth. When he was sure that Kari was dead, he removed the handcuffs, typed the “suicide” note on the home computer, rubbed Kari’s hand on the note in case anyone checked for fingerprints, and placed the note and a bottle of sleeping pills on the bedside table.
After staging the scene, Baker left the house to establish his alibi by buying gas and renting a video. He locked the bedroom door on his way out, leaving the couple’s two daughters, then ages 5 and 8, alone in the house with their mother’s body. Luckily for Matt Baker, none of the police officers who arrived at the scene checked the home computer for the “suicide” note or took the computer as evidence.
Vanessa’s statements to us that night confirmed our suspicions about Baker, but we were shocked at how much she knew. We were well aware that Vanessa’s progressively more detailed disclosures about Kari’s death meant serious credibility issues in front of a jury, and we were eager to find other evidence to corroborate her testimony at trial. We tracked down the email that Baker had sent to Kari shortly before her death regarding the drink that he had made for her. That email not only corroborated what Vanessa said about Baker drugging his wife but also about Baker killing Kari near the date of Kassidy’s death to make it look like a suicide.
Additionally, Vanessa told us that Baker had sent her an MP3 of the song “Dirty Little Secrets” by the All-American Rejects. Baker identified strongly with the lyrics (“I’ll keep you my dirty little secret / Don’t tell anyone or you’ll be just another regret”) and reminded her that if she told what she knew, she’d be his “next regret.” (Vanessa had broken off her relationship with Baker in July 2006 and had had no further contact with him.)
Knowing that these pieces of evidence corroborated Vanessa’s testimony, we prepared to go to trial.
Trying the case
Two goals of our voir dire were to keep potential jurors from being inclined to acquit Baker because he was a minister and to keep them from being disqualified because of the publicity. Indiana prosecutor Gregory Garrison wrote a book called Heavy Justice on his trial of boxer Mike Tyson for rape. In the book, he included voir dire questions intended to prevent jurors from giving Tyson celebrity status, and we used some of them on our own prospective jurors so panelists would not give Baker special status as a minister.
To protect potential jurors who had heard of the case through the media, we got help from Toby Shook, a former Dallas prosecutor. He told us about an excellent case, Newbury v. State,1 on qualifying a juror who has already formed an opinion; its language was very helpful. Fewer panelists were disqualified on publicity grounds than we expected, and jury selection was completed by the end of the day.
Susan Shafer gave the opening statement. Though our office normally has an open file policy, in this case we had not provided the defense with Vanessa Bulls’ statements. We had made much of what was in the file—offense reports and evidence from the civil case—available to the defense but held the information from Vanessa close to the vest. The defendant had a propensity to change his story and lie, and we wanted to keep Vanessa’s testimony sealed as long as we could. Shafer went through the evidence we would present and ended by telling jurors that Vanessa would tell them how Kari died.
We began by calling witnesses who testified about Kari’s state of mind in the week leading up to her “suicide” to show the jury the improbability of her killing herself. She had been forward-looking and excited about an interview for a new teaching position; the interview was the day of her death.
Next we called the officers who responded to the 911 call and the justice of the peace who had ruled Kari’s death a suicide. We had the delicate task of putting on witnesses who had come to the scene and made some obvious mistakes and pointing out these mistakes to the jury. Most of our witnesses were willing to admit that they have since learned from the errors they made on the night of Kari’s death or that they simply acted on the information Matt Baker gave them. We were very frank that the investigation did not include many important things, such as checking the home computer for the suicide note, noting when it had been typed, taking the computer and printer, and collecting the wine cooler bottles on the bedside table. We simply offered the evidence as it had come to us.
We called the Dallas pathologist who had performed the autopsy on Kari’s body and had him explain why it was impossible to state a cause of death. We wanted all the evidence before the jury so it would not appear we were hiding anything.
After the medical testimony, we put on the computer evidence. Baker had said he was using his computer to find out the effects of sleep aids his wife had been taking because he was afraid she would overdose. He was adamant he had never tried to order drugs. Our computer expert showed that many of the sites he visited were not informational but solely for buying drugs. On one site, Baker had attempted to purchase Ambien and had put the order in the shopping cart but not completed it. We then called Mark Henry, the owner of the international site where Baker had tried to purchase Ambien; he came from Spain at his own expense simply because he knew that no one else could explain what he knew about the business records and about how his sites work. He testified that, due to his marketing knowledge, his websites are not reached by simply searching for “overdose by sleeping pills” or “Ambien”; rather, a person would have to search for “buy Ambien” or “Ambien without prescription” for his site to pop up. He operates a point of sale, rather than informational, site. Henry testified to the steps a person would take to put an order in the cart. He said many potential customers stop the order, as Baker had done, when a message came up that shipping would take two weeks and would be delivered via U.S. Postal Service; many U.S. customers would rather order from other prescription websites that delivered via a private delivery service such as FedEx. Baker had visited this site only a couple of weeks before Kari’s death and had placed a bottle of generic Ambien in the shopping cart before abandoning the purchase.
We next called Linda Dulin. We wanted to tell the jury about some crushed pills Kari had found in Matt’s briefcase a few days before her death, but we knew it would draw hearsay objections. To side-step them, we asked Linda about her own confrontation about the pills with the defendant after her daughter’s death. In Linda’s conversation with Baker, he acknowledged Kari had found the pills and said that children at the Waco Center for Youth had put them in his briefcase because they did not want to take their medicine. We then played a videotape of Baker’s deposition in the wrongful death suit where he claimed that the pills were Kari’s and denied they came from the students at the Waco Center for Youth. Immediately nailing him on his different lies with the video was destroying his credibility with the jury, whether he testified or not.
We then called Vanessa Bulls. An attractive sixth-grade teacher, she was very articulate. She told about meeting Baker at church and admitted the affair with him. We carefully discussed each interview she had given, and she admitted lying to the Hewitt Police Department and initially to Investigator Rodriguez, as well as not giving the full story during her grand jury testimony. When she discussed how Baker talked to her about plans to murder his wife, everyone was horrified. She told the jury that she knew when Baker planned to kill Kari and how he later told her how he had done it—by giving her enough crushed Ambien (disguised as a sexual stimulant) for her to pass out, handcuffing her to the bed, then smothering her with a pillow. He then kissed her on the forehead and said, “Give Kassidy a kiss for me” or “Give Kassidy a hug for me.” This testimony was ghastly. Vanessa said in one of their last conversations, Baker told her he killed Kari for her and that “God had forgiven him.” We felt it was crucial for the jurors to believe Vanessa, to understand that although she had lied in the past, they could trust her testimony. Someone normally lies to get out of trouble or to make herself look better, but Vanessa’s statements after she quit lying did the opposite—they got her involved in the case and painted her in a terrible light. (We pointed this out in closing arguments too.)
Vanessa held up reasonably well under cross-examination. She became confused, as we did, when the defense asked which statements she had made during various interviews, but she was able to refresh her memory over a lunch break and, upon redirect, unequivocally stated which information she had provided in which interviews, even those in which she absolutely denied any knowledge of Kari’s murder. Susan’s meetings with Vanessa paid off as she was willing to acknowledge all the lies she had told before admitting the affair and foreknowledge of the murder.
After Vanessa testified, we called Dr. Sridhar Natarajan, Chief Medical Examiner at the Lubbock County Medical Examiner’s Office. We had asked him to review the autopsy findings from Southwest Forensics. Dr. Natarajan pointed out the gravitational lividity apparent in the few crime scene photographs we had; it did not match up with Baker’s explanations for how he found Kari, nor with a diagram he drew for his deposition in the civil case. In looking at the photographs of Kari at the scene and the autopsy photos, Dr. Natarajan found a mark on her nose, which was consistent with a pillow being pressed over her face. After his testimony we rested our case.
We prepared for Matt Baker’s testimony the next day. Though defense counsel never implied he would take the stand, we thought he might try to talk himself out of yet another scrape, as he had done all his life. We wanted to question him on a long list of contradictory statements he had made on many subjects. Our good fortune was that he had been interviewed on “20/20” and “48 Hours” and had testified in the deposition for the Dulins’ wrongful death suit, so we could use his words where we wanted to by editing and presenting his videotaped statements. (To get these TV interviews into evidence, we used information from an article in the July-August 2009 issue of The Texas Prosecutor journal about the new “media shield” law, and the court took judicial knowledge of the programs that had aired.) We also prepared a dummy on a bed for him to demonstrate how he put a shirt on his naked wife while talking to the 911 dispatcher on his cordless phone, as he’d claimed to have done, during the call the night of Kari’s death. (Although the entire call is four and a half minutes, Baker states after 90 seconds of “dressing” Kari that he had her on the floor and was preparing to begin CPR.)
The next morning, defense counsel introduced several of Kari’s emails where she expressed sadness over Kassidy’s death. The defense also called a DNA expert to testify about DNA on the “suicide” note. (We had decided not to call the DNA witness ourselves because he had compared DNA standards for Kari, Matt Baker, Vanessa Bulls, Linda Dulin, and a number of police officers with the DNA on the note. The numbers were so low that they did not point to any individual.) Then the defense rested. We were disappointed Baker did not testify, but frankly, as a tactical point, it would have been very difficult for a defense attorney to put him on the stand, given the number of conflicting statements he had already given and the impossibility of explaining so many assertions made on the 911 tape.
The jury was out approximately seven and a half hours before returning the guilty verdict. We learned later they were very thorough in their deliberations and that there was only one vote.
On punishment we called several women that Baker had molested over the years. One incident involved a young woman who had gone to the hospital to visit the Bakers while their daughter Kassidy was ill. We also put on testimony that Baker had been consistently visiting pornographic websites on his computer at the Waco Center for Youth and on the laptop provided to him by Crossroads Baptist Church.
The defense called a number of character witnesses for Baker. Interestingly, they seemed better acquainted with the family than with him. Some of his following seemed to have almost a cult-like support of him. When one woman was asked if her opinion was altered by the fact he had an affair, had molested young women, and watched pornography at work, she said she still believed he was a “godly person.” Another of his witnesses testified that she believed that a man could murder the mother of his children and still be a good father to the children.
Both sides made their punishment arguments. Baker had filed an application for probation, as he was eligible under the statute in place in 2006. His attorney, Harold Danford, told the jury that on that day, they had seen the good side of Matt Baker, the good father, the good neighbor, the church volunteer.
We responded by telling the jury that the only good side of Matt Baker is his daughters, whose mother he killed and who convinced the girls that their mother had abandoned them and that he was being railroaded in the courts. We reminded the jury of the last few minutes of Kari’s life, when she knew that her husband, whom she loved and trusted, was killing her, and of the damage Baker had done not only to Kari but also to her daughters and family.
The jury returned several hours later with a 65-year sentence. We were satisfied that justice had finally been done both for the Dulin family and the people of the State of Texas.
Matt Baker was a person who led a double life and used his position as a minister for evil purposes. In the end he reminded us of the quote from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, “The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”
1 135 S.W.3rd 22 (Tex. Crim. App. 2004).
Editor’s note: Any successful prosecution is a team effort. Investigators Abdon Rodriguez and Montea Stewart helped us put the case together. Tracy Viladevall, our victim services assistant, spent a great deal of time with the Dulins and others in the case, always in her kind and professional way. John Messinger, our appellate attorney, assisted with many legal issues. Prosecutor Robert Callahan helped us with the visual displays for the jury, as did Garrett Pennington, a law student with a third-year bar card who donated his time to organize evidence.