Former Waco-area pastor indicted on murder charge in wife's death

By Tommy Witherspoon

Tribune-Herald staff writer

Waco Tribune-Herald

March 26, 2009

Vanessa Bulls emerges from the grand jury chambers after her testimony Wednesday about her relationship with Matt Baker. Witnesses have told authorities that Baker and Bulls were seen looking at engagement rings within days of Kari Baker's death. (Jerry Larson photo)

Linda Dulin cried tears of joy Wednesday, saying she is one day closer to fulfilling a vow she made after the death of her daughter, Kari Baker.

Dulin’s excitement was evident after hearing the news that a McLennan County grand jury indicted her 37-year-old former son-in-law, Matt Baker, on murder charges in Kari Baker’s April 2006 death at their Hewitt home as their two daughters slept down the hall.

“I knew this day was coming,” she said. “I knew it was. Now, I want Matt to pay for murdering my daughter, and I want to rescue my granddaughters. That was my last promise to my daughter, and that is that I would save her daughters.”

Dulin and her husband, James, never believed Baker’s account of how their daughter died, claiming in a wrongful death lawsuit set for trial in September that Baker, a former Baptist minister at several Central Texas churches, slipped his wife an overdose of sleeping pills, smothered her with a pillow and then made her death appear a suicide.

They prodded Hewitt police to reopen the investigation, exhumed their daughter’s body for an autopsy and kept pressing for answers.

Matt Baker was indicted Wednesday on murder charges in his wife's 2006 death. His bond was set at $500,000

The indictment against Baker alleges that he killed his 31-year-old wife by “administering drugs to her and suffocating her with a pillow.”

Baker, who has since moved to Kerrville with his two daughters, has said in numerous media interviews that he did not kill his wife. He has said that his wife committed suicide because she remained despondent over the death of a daughter in 1998 from cancer.

Baker’s murder case has been assigned to 19th State District Judge Ralph Strother’s court. Strother set a post-indictment bond of $500,000 for Baker on Wednesday.

Baker’s attorney, Richard Ellison, said he isn’t sure if Baker will be able to post a $500,000 bond, saying he will schedule a bond-reduction hearing as quickly as he can. He said he was unsure whether Baker will surrender to McLennan County officials or try to make arrangements to post bond in Kerrville. After Baker’s arrest in December 2007, a family friend from Kerrville posted a $200,000 cash bond to secure his release.

“We are shocked and disappointed,” Ellison said when told of Baker’s indictment. “I think this is politically motivated. It is all caused by family pressure. He is innocent, and we look forward to our day in court so the truth will come out and put an end to all of this.”

Ellison called the bond amount “absurd” and said that Baker is no flight risk and is not going anywhere.

Prosecutors Crawford Long and Susan Shafer presented Baker’s case, including one witness, Vanessa Bulls, to the grand jury. They declined comment after the indictment was issued, citing confidentiality rules that govern grand jury proceedings. District Attorney John Segrest also declined comment.

Authorities allege that Kari Baker's death in April 2006 was caused by an overdose of sleeping pills and being smothered with a pillow.

“The state of Texas does its talking in the courtroom, not in the media,” Segrest said.

It was not clear Wednesday when Baker’s criminal trial will be held. However, Segrest said the criminal case will take precedence over the civil wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the Dulins, which is set for trial Sept. 28 in 19th State District Court.

Kari Baker’s family and friends have denied that she was depressed, saying the young teacher was looking forward to starting a new job at a new school. Officials have said she told at least one friend and her counselor that she thought her husband was having an affair and that she feared he would kill her after she found crushed pills in his briefcase.

Baker, who also was chaplain at the Waco Center for Youth, conducted research on Web sites relating to sleeping pills and overdoses, police officials charged in records filed in the case.

Woman called to testify

Authorities say Baker was pursuing a romantic relationship with Bulls, a former member at Crossroads Baptist Church, where he once preached. Baker has denied any romantic intentions toward Bulls, saying they were just friends.

On Wednesday, Long and Shafer escorted Bulls into the grand jury chambers, where she testified for about 30 minutes. That was after 54th State District Judge Matt Johnson granted her immunity from any legal repercussions that might come from her testimony, courthouse sources said.

Bulls was accompanied to the courthouse by Belton attorney Bruce Burleson, who waited outside the grand jury chambers. Burleson also declined comment.

Baker reportedly gave Bulls his wife’s cell phone after her death, officials have said. Baker’s phone records show he called Bulls dozens of times between January and April 2006.

Witnesses have told authorities that Baker and Bulls were seen looking at engagement rings at a jewelry store in Richland Mall in Waco within days of Kari Baker’s death.

Baker told the Tribune-Herald that he and Bulls were looking for earrings for his daughters at the store.