The Valley of The Shadow Of Death
Matt and Kari Baker appeared to be the perfect Baptist couple. He was a charismatic minister in Waco; she taught Sunday school and happily raised their children. When she committed suicide after their baby daughter succumbed to brain cancer, everyone in their tight-knit community showered him with love and support. Everyone, that is, except Kari’s family, who accused him of being a sexual predator—and of getting away with murder.
Login / Register
ORNo Account? Register here.
On April 10, 2006, the day after Palm Sunday, it was standing room only in Waco for the funeral of Kari Baker, a pretty young Baptist minister’s wife. To accommodate all the mourners, her service was held at one of the city’s larger funeral homes instead of at Crossroads Baptist, the small church where her husband, Matt, preached. Yet even then, with extra folding chairs set up in the aisles of the main chapel, there was not enough space. Some of Kari’s friends stood along the back wall, while others gathered in the foyer, craning their necks toward the open doorway as a soloist sang “If You Want Me To,” a hymn about life’s most difficult struggles.
The Pastor who led the service, a lecturer in the religion department at Baylor University named Steve Sadler, read verses of Scripture about God’s unfailing love that he had found underlined in Kari’s Bible. He noted that she was beloved not only at her church, where she led the children’s programs, but also at a nearby elementary school, where she taught third grade.
He didn’t say anything about suicide. He didn’t need to. Just about everyone at the funeral knew what happened to Kari each spring—in late March, to be precise, right around the anniversary of the death of her second child, Kassidy, who had succumbed to brain cancer seven years earlier. Whenever the anniversary came around, Kari would be so overwhelmed that she would stay in her house for at least a day, lying in bed. Over and over, she’d watch a video of Kassidy crawling across a floor. Once, when Kari ventured out to attend a Bible study, the leader began to talk about “the baggage of death,” and she stumbled out of the room in tears.
This year, apparently, her grief had been too difficult to bear. According to the police, Kari, who was just 31 years old, had left a typed note on her bedside table before she overdosed on sleeping pills. “I want to give Kassidy a hug,” it read. “I need to feel her again.”
In his eulogy, Sadler asked the mourners to care for Kari’s other two daughters: Kensi, who was nine, and Grace, who was six. He also asked the mourners to pray for Matt, who was sitting on the front row, seemingly frozen in sorrow, his head in his hands. He was 35 years old, still boyish-looking, his eyes a startling light blue. At the end of the service, he managed to stand by the pulpit, his daughters beside him, hugging all those who came to offer their condolences. He promised them he would be back at Crossroads Baptist the next Sunday—Easter Sunday—to preach the glory of the empty tomb. “God has not abandoned me,” he whispered to one friend. “He will give me the strength to carry on.”
In the days to come, people would compare the earnest pastor to Job, the Old Testament figure who had remained true to God despite enduring one trial after another. Baptist ministers sent Matt e-mails and letters, praising him for his devotion. His church members let him know that they would be willing to do anything to help out in his time of need. One woman even offered to come over and teach him how to do his daughters’ hair.
But about a month after the funeral, a rather peculiar rumor began making its way through Waco. It seemed that Kari’s mother, Linda Dulin, along with her three sisters and her niece, was conducting her own investigation into Kari’s death. A few weeks later, people began hearing that Linda and her husband, Jim, had hired a Waco lawyer and a team of private investigators. The rumors didn’t make sense. Detectives from the police department in the small suburb of Hewitt, where the Bakers lived, had been so convinced that Kari had taken her own life that they hadn’t requested an autopsy. What could her family possibly be thinking?
This past September, everybody got the answer. Based on information provided by the five women—“the Charlie’s Angels of Waco,” their friends were calling them—as well as by the Dulins’ attorney, the Hewitt police announced that they no longer believed that Kari had committed suicide. They arrested Matt for her murder, claiming that he had drugged her with medication and alcohol and then stuck a “pillow or similar item” over her face, holding it there until she slowly suffocated to death.
It is a story that has transfixed Baptists throughout Texas, a sordid, sultry tale that is especially riveting because it is set in, of all places, Waco, the city that Baptists themselves call “Jerusalem on the Brazos.” Waco is not only home to Baylor, the largest Baptist university in the world, with more than 13,000 students (“Thee University,” alumni have nicknamed it), but also so chock-full of Baptist churches that you cannot drive more than a few blocks in any direction without running across one. “For us Baptists, Waco really is a special place,” said Paul Stripling, a longtime pastor and the former head of the Waco Baptist Association. “It’s a city where lots of people still believe their lives should revolve around their churches. It’s a city where they bow their heads over their meals at restaurants. It’s not exactly a city where anyone expects to hear the news that a pastor—and one of our Baptist pastors, at that—has been accused of killing his wife.”
But murder isn’t the only allegation that, in Stripling’s words, “has left all of Waco reeling.” Linda Dulin, a 54-year-old professor of communication studies at McLennan Community College, claims that she and her private investigators have also discovered that Matt Baker spent years in Waco leading what she describes as “a secret life as a sexual predator,” propositioning, harassing, and groping unsuspecting teenage girls and women—and in one instance, when he was a student at Baylor, attempting to commit sexual assault.
In her most explosive accusation, Linda says that in the months just before Kari’s death, Matt had set his sights on a new target: a 24-year-old single mother who attended his church and who happened to be the daughter of a minister of music who had once worked at Crossroads Baptist. “Maybe Matt decided to kill my daughter because he had fallen in love with his latest conquest,” Linda told me. “Or maybe he decided to kill Kari because she had found out about his other life and he was afraid she was going to expose him. Whatever the reason, he wanted my daughter dead.”
Needless to say, such sensational charges have set off an O. J. Simpson—like media circus in Waco: In the usually sedate Waco Tribune-Herald, one headline about Matt’s alleged role in Kari’s death took up the entire top half of the front page and read “Suicide? Murder? It’s a Mystery.” An enterprising housewife named Shannon Gamble has gone so far as to start a Web site, dontevengetstarted.blogspot.com, which keeps everyone in Waco up-to-date on all the latest gossip about the case. Even producers and correspondents from such network television news shows as ABC’s 20/20 and CBS’s 48 Hours have arrived from New York to conduct interviews and shoot video of all the churches where Matt once preached.
“It just seems impossible to believe this is happening,” said Kimberly Berry, a 34-year-old married mother of three who had avoided church for several years before she began attending Crossroads Baptist, largely because she was so moved by Matt’s sermons. “What you have to understand is that he was a truly fine pastor. Whenever he preached, I felt like he was preaching directly to me. Now I just feel sick beyond belief. I keep asking myself, ‘Is it possible that someone who acted like such a man of God could have been someone else altogether?’ ”
Indeed, for so many of Waco’s churchgoers, this is no ordinary story. For them, it’s a story about good and evil that could have come straight out of the Bible itself. Is Matt Baker a truly devoted man of God who has been viciously persecuted by his grief-stricken in-laws? Or is he a murderous deviant cloaked in preacher’s garb? Is he, to use some old-fashioned Baptist phrases, consumed with demons and destined for hell?
And if he is, how was he able to last so long in a city like Waco without anyone finding out?
I had expected Matt to be like a lot of Baptist pastors I have known: good-looking in a local-television-weatherman sort of way, with a big handshake and a big personality to match, the kind of man who would say something like “Skip, God love you, I’m so glad to see you!” But when I met him at his attorney’s office in his hometown of Kerrville—free on a $200,000 bond, he now lives there with his parents and his two daughters—I was surprised to find that he was only five feet seven inches tall. His dark hair was closely cropped, and instead of the de rigueur pastor’s suit, he was dressed simply in an inexpensive button-down shirt and slacks.
Still, I couldn’t stop staring at his face. It reminded me of one of those sad, strangely beautiful portraits that can be found in Renaissance-era paintings of early Christian martyrs such as Saint Sebastian. When I started off our interview by asking him, point-blank, if he had murdered Kari, he rubbed his hand across a pale, soft cheek. His blue eyes slowly filled with tears, and he said, “Of course not. I was Kari’s protector. I did everything I could to make her safe. During all the times she struggled, I was there for her, telling her that we could get through this.”
He turned his gaze from me, and he looked blankly at a wall. “The tragedy here,” he said, “is that no one—not me, not her parents, not her therapist, not anyone who knew her—had any idea just how depressed she had become.”
It was a mesmerizing performance and, I have to say, a very believable one. I glanced over at his lawyer, Guy James Gray, a longtime district attorney from Jasper, who, before moving to Kerrville, gained national fame for prosecuting the James Byrd dragging case. He nodded his head, as if he’d sensed what I was thinking, and then let me know that he was so convinced of Matt’s innocence that he had decided to represent the pastor for free. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but this so-called evidence against Matt is nothing but pure speculation. There’s absolutely no physical evidence that suggests his wife was drugged. And there’s no physical evidence that suggests she was smothered with a pillow or anything else. To be honest with you, there’s no evidence that suggests there was any foul play at all. What’s being done to this young man is an injustice.”
Gray nodded again. “Ask any question you want,” he said.
“Any question?” I asked in disbelief.
“I have nothing to hide,” Matt said in his gentle voice. “My prayer is that the truth be known.”
Until this past year, people in Waco assumed they knew the truth about Matt. They had, for instance, heard him talk nostalgically in his sermons about his childhood in Kerrville. His parents, Oscar and Barbara, a quiet, hardworking couple, ran a group foster home for Buckner Baptist Benevolences. Besides Matt and his sister, the Bakers often had as many as eight foster kids of all ages and races living in their home, many of them victims of abuse or neglect. “That was my first understanding of the love and acceptance of Jesus Christ,” Matt once said about those days. “It does not matter about our past. Jesus takes us into his family.”
He was a devout Baptist almost from the day he was born. At the age of six, he was baptized at Kerrville’s Trinity Baptist Church, and he faithfully attended Sunday school, sang in the youth choirs, and participated in mission trips. The summer following his sophomore year of high school, he announced at a youth retreat that he would dedicate his life to the ministry, and like so many other Baptist teenagers in Texas who have heard the call, he said there was only one place for him to go: Baylor University.
When he arrived on campus, in 1990, he declared church recreation as his major, saying that his goal was to get a job as a youth minister before moving on to lead a church of his own. He also signed up to be one of the student trainers for Baylor’s athletic program, working with the football team at Floyd Casey Stadium. “He seemed like a phenomenal Christian young man,” said one of Matt’s classmates, who is now a well-known pastor in Waco (and who asked not to be named). “I’ve really thought about this for a long time, wondering if there was something about him that I missed. I did hear a couple of stories that he had tried to kiss girls at parties, but to me, it was just a college thing. Ministerial students, even those at Baylor, are horny too, you know.”
I asked the former classmate if he had ever heard a story about Matt’s being accused of attempted sexual assault during his sophomore year. “No way,” he said. “Not Matt.”
In fact, in December 1991, a female trainer for the football team, a freshman who happened to be a roommate of the granddaughter of Billy Graham, was found by a coach at the north end of the stadium, crying hysterically. She said that she had been on her way to clean out one of the locker rooms when Matt said he’d be happy to help. As they headed toward the locker room, she said, he began poking her bottom with a broomstick. Once they were inside the locker room, he pinned her arms behind her back, tried to kiss her, and then lifted her onto a sink and spread her legs. She said she managed to bite him on the shoulder and escape, but he grabbed her again, forced her onto a bench, and began rubbing her pants directly over her vagina. A few minutes later, she said, he stood up, told her, “I got what I wanted,” and left.
When I asked Matt about that episode, he didn’t flinch. He told me he had indeed been cleaning a locker room that night with several other trainers. After he finished, he turned out the lights, thinking he was the last one in the room. “She comes screaming and running out,” he told me, shaking his head. “I don’t know what it was that frightened her. Maybe she was scared of the dark.”
He said he was later called into a vice president’s office to tell his side of the story. “The vice president’s comment to me was that she had falsely accused someone in high school of doing something like this,” Matt said. “He said, ‘Okay, we’re not going to do anything with this.’ And that was it.”
Today, Baylor officials refuse to comment about the incident, citing federal privacy laws. But there is no question that the university sided with Matt. Administrators did type up a report, but they took no action. The girl dropped out of school and moved away. Matt, meanwhile, continued to excel, receiving a prized internship at First Baptist of Waco, where he would later work at the church’s recreation center and help run the summer youth camp.
In June 1994 a counselor named Kari Dulin began working as a lifeguard at the camp. She was bubbly and beautiful, and in the words of one of her friends, “she loved being a Baptist.” Although Kari had initially gone to Texas Tech University after graduating from Waco Christian High School, in 1993, she had returned home after her first semester, telling her family that she wanted to attend Baylor, major in elementary education, and meet “a good Christian guy.” And when she was introduced to Matt at First Baptist, she had no doubt that she had found him.
Matt, who was then a senior, was also smitten. On their first date, he took her to see a Meg Ryan movie, When a Man Loves a Woman. Three months later, they were married in the living room of the Dulins’ home. Friends figured they married quickly for the same reason that a lot of young Baptist couples do: They wanted to have sex, but they didn’t want to commit a sin. “I tried to get them to postpone the wedding for a year, but Kari told me there was no need to wait,” Linda said. “And I have to admit, Matt was very mature. He was always polite and exceedingly sincere. My husband and I kept saying, ‘Hey, he’s going to become a Baptist minister. What could be the problem?’ ”
Actually, there was a problem. Shortly after Matt and Kari’s wedding, the recreation minister at First Baptist received a report that Matt had grabbed a female custodian in a bathroom in the church’s recreation building and told her he wanted to have sex with “a mature woman” (the custodian was in her forties). Around the same time, the pastor received a separate report that Matt had cornered a teenage girl in a small room where the roller skates were stored and made sexually suggestive comments to her.
The recreation minister, who is now retired and asked not to be identified, told me that he confronted Matt, but he denied everything. Because the pastor had no concrete evidence, he didn’t fire him. Nor did First Baptist officials notify the Baptist General Convention of Texas, the organization that coordinates the activities of most of the state’s Baptist churches. Unlike some denominations, Baptist churches have no defined hierarchies and operate independently of one another. There are no rules, for example, requiring a church to inform the convention’s leaders that one of its pastors has been accused of misconduct.
In fact, to avoid defamation lawsuits, leaders of a church have an incentive to keep their mouths shut when it comes to questionable behavior among their clergy, which is perhaps why First Baptist officials said nothing about the allegations when other churches later called, interested in hiring Matt. (“All I can say is that he was very young, and I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt,” said the retired pastor. “If those stories weren’t true, I didn’t want to be known as the man who ruined his career.”) As a result, Matt continued to make his way up the ladder. In 1995, during his senior year, he worked as an assistant recreation minister at Columbus Avenue Baptist Church, one of Waco’s most prestigious churches, and after graduation, he took a part-time job as the youth and music minister at the First Baptist Church of Robinson, just outside Waco.
To supplement his income, he ran an after-school youth program at the YMCA. But in June 1996, two months after his daughter Kensi was born, he was fired. The director had received written statements from four young female employees, all of whom claimed Matt had sexually propositioned them. One of the women said Matt had asked her to meet him in the building’s attic. (“I’m horny, and I want to have sex with you now,” the counselor said Matt told her.) Another claimed that while she was meeting with Matt to discuss a business matter, he suddenly said, “I just want to f— you right here, right now,” touched her pants near her genitalia, and put her hands on his crotch.
When I asked Matt about the allegations at First Baptist of Waco, he again did not flinch. He told me that the recreation minister had asked him about an encounter with a teenage girl, but he insisted that she, like the student trainer at Baylor, was troubled. “Other people were around the skate room who knew that didn’t happen,” he said. He also denied any encounter with a custodian, and he insisted that the minister had never asked him about that incident. When I brought up the YMCA allegations, he gave me a look of disbelief. He said that he had no idea that there had been four complaints, which he insisted were false. He was asked to resign, he said, only because YMCA administrators believed he had asked one of the employees about her sexual exploits with her boyfriend. Matt said it was all a misunderstanding: He had asked her to stop talking about her sex life at work because children might hear her.
Matt pointed out that one of the perils of his profession was dealing with accusations from females who, for whatever reason, misinterpreted a friendly hug or a lighthearted comment. He also pointed out that the allegations made about him remained just that—allegations. On that point, he was exactly right. For whatever reason, the YMCA decided not to press charges. Just as they had been at Baylor and at First Baptist of Waco, the written complaints about his behavior were put in a file and, for better or worse, forgotten. Apparently, no administrator from the YMCA, First Baptist, or from Baylor itself uttered a word in 1996, when Matt was accepted into the university’s renowned George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Nor did anyone say a word when he got his first job as a pastor, at Pecan Grove Baptist, in nearby Gatesville, a tiny church that was well-known for grooming talented Baylor “preacher boys.”
In 1998 Matt left Pecan Grove to become pastor of Williams Creek Baptist Church, in Axtell, another town close to Waco. He was, by all accounts, adored there. He expanded the children’s Sunday school program and the Wednesday night youth group, and he showed up at numerous community functions, encouraging those he met to visit his church. On Sundays, instead of preaching fire and brimstone, he spoke compassionately about a forgiving, inspiring Lord. “God is looking for people to be transformed,” he said in one sermon. “He’s looking for people who say, ‘No longer am I going to be like the rest of the world.’ ”
As for Kari, she was, in the words of one of her friends, “the perfect pastor’s wife, with this vibrant spirit you could feel radiating across the room.” She led Bible study groups, using lessons written by Beth Moore, the famous evangelical teacher from Houston, and she let it be known that her door was always open for those who needed to talk. One despondent young man, who was struggling with his homosexuality, came to Kari to ask what he should do. Instead of reading him Bible verses, she threw her arms around him and said, “God will always love you—always.” Years later, after her death, the young man wrote her mother and told her that he believed Kari had saved his life.
During those years, Kari certainly didn’t seem bothered by the complaints that had been made against Matt, though it’s impossible to say how many she knew about. Her mother remembered that Kari had told her that Matt had been unfairly accused of saying something flirtatious to a teenager at First Baptist. Linda said Kari also mentioned a peculiar incident in 1997 with a woman named DeeAnn Avalos, who lived with her sixteen-year-old daughter in a town house across the parking lot from where the Bakers were living. Avalos had informed Matt and Kari that her daughter had told her that Matt had started talking to her in the parking lot, asked if she had ever been kissed, and then grabbed her and kissed her. But Kari assured Linda that the teenager had made up the story to get attention.
Her mother believed her. And why shouldn’t she have? The Bakers were the portrait of the wholesome young Baptist family. “All in all, I couldn’t have been more pleased with Matt and Kari,” said Paul Stripling, who was then in charge of the Waco Baptist Association. “As for Matt, I never once heard any rumors about him being involved in immoral activities—not one. As far as I was concerned, he was one of our good young pastors doing very good things.”
Then, in late 1998, the Bakers’ lives were changed forever. Doctors found a tumor in the brain of their second child, Kassidy, who had just turned one. She underwent surgery and stayed in the hospital for ninety days, fighting off numerous complications before going home. But her recovery was short-lived. In the early morning hours of March 22, 1999, Matt walked into Kassidy’s room and found that she had stopped breathing.
Even after Kassidy was pronounced dead at the hospital, Kari kept holding her, rocking her gently. At the visitation, she lay facedown on her casket and wept. A few days after Kassidy was buried in the children’s section of Waco’s Oakwood Cemetery, Kari returned to the grave and began digging with her bare hands at the mound of dirt, as if she wanted to see her daughter one more time.
When members of Williams Creek Baptist heard that Kari was not getting out of bed, they came by the house every day with food and flowers. “It was absolute torture to watch her mourn,” recalled one of the church staffers. In memory of Kassidy, the church built an outdoor prayer garden, where Kari often came and stood, weeping into her hands. One afternoon, according to Matt, Kari ran out of the house with a knife, mumbling something about “ending things.” He said he found her at the church playground, where they cried together before he led her back home.
Because Williams Creek contained too many memories of Kassidy, Matt and Kari decided it would be best to move on. In 2000 he became pastor of the First Baptist Church in Riesel, another town near Waco, where Kari gave birth to Grace. Two years later, after Matt graduated from Truett, he became the pastor of Northlake Baptist, in Dallas, and Kari started work on a master’s degree in leadership and management from Dallas Baptist University. But in 2005 Matt moved the family back to Waco, telling people that Kari missed being close to her parents and to Kassidy’s grave.
Matt accepted a job as the chaplain for the Waco Center for Youth, a residential treatment facility for emotionally disturbed adolescents, and he was also asked to be the pastor of Crossroads Baptist, in Hewitt, the same church that Kari’s parents attended. “We were very small, with only fifty people or so coming to church on Sunday,” said Jim Dulin, a senior inspector for a Department of Defense facility who is also one of the church’s deacons. “But a new neighborhood was being built across the street, and we were sure Matt would help us grow. We couldn’t have been happier.”
Matt indeed began to bring in new families. Kari also plunged into life at Crossroads, teaching children’s Sunday school and leading Bible studies, and she got a job teaching at a nearby elementary school, where she was known to skip across the lunchroom to entertain the kids. When other teachers asked about a “Live-Strong” wristband she wore, she said it was to remind her of Kassidy. She even went to the LiveStrong Web site, the online home of Lance Armstrong’s cancer foundation, and wrote: “To me, live strong means to not give up when my pain hurts . . . My daughter fought until she couldn’t so now I must take up her strength. . . . She will always be in my heart and I can’t wait until the day we see each other again!”
But on February 6, 2006, as yet another anniversary of Kassidy’s death approached, Kari sent an e-mail to her husband from her computer at school. “I feel like I am just about to die,” she wrote. “This might sound crazy, but I think for the first time I have realized that [Kassidy] is not coming back.” Over the next few weeks, she wrote him even gloomier messages, telling him she felt as if she were “sinking,” “stressed,” and “tired.” And on March 21, the day before the anniversary, she wrote, “I cannot get my hands to stop shaking. I haven’t felt this bad in a long time.”
Grief is never an easy thing to overcome, and that was certainly the case with Kari. “I promise you, most days she was so cheerful and so funny,” said her best friend, Jill Hotz, a high school drama teacher in Dallas who’d gotten to know Kari at Northlake Baptist. “I’ll never forget one Sunday morning in church, she leaned back over the pew to grab my hand to say hello, and she mistakenly grabbed the foot of some man who was wearing flip-flops. Right there in church, she laughed so hard she couldn’t control herself. But I have to admit, when March would come and she’d lock herself in her house, I did worry about her.”
Hotz, who’d talked to Kari at least once a week after she moved back to Waco, said she initially did not sense that Kari’s mood during that spring was all that different from her mood in previous years. Then, in late March, Kari told her that she and Matt had gotten into a heated argument about their prayers during Kassidy’s last days. Matt had prayed that God would make Kassidy cancer-free and let her live; Kari had prayed that Kassidy wouldn’t have to bear more pain than she could handle, even if it meant that God took her up to heaven. She said Matt had suddenly lashed out at her for making such a prayer and had even written her an e-mail the next day continuing to criticize her. “You and I have discussed the fact that your prayer was the one that WAS answered that night,” he wrote. “I know deep down I hold a grudge against God and you for Him answering your prayer and not mine . . . In some ways, I do hold you (the fact that it was your prayer that was answered) to blame for her death.”
Kari was devastated. She told Hotz that Matt had never talked that way before. Blaming her for Kassidy’s death? Holding a grudge against God? Something was going on with him, she kept saying. He didn’t seem interested in their marriage anymore, she said. He certainly wasn’t interested in sex, she added.
Kari sent an e-mail to Matt letting him know how much he had hurt her. “I feel like you just took a knife and put it through my heart,” she wrote. “I am not sure how a marriage can last when one person blames the other for the death of that child.” She then sent an e-mail to her mother saying that she and Matt might be headed for divorce.
On April 3, Hotz was driving home from work when Kari called her cell phone. She was sobbing, barely able to speak. She said she was convinced that Matt was having an affair. “I kept telling her how much Matt loved her and that the idea of an affair was impossible,” Hotz said. “I said, ‘Kari, be real. Matt never looked at another woman during the entire two years you were in Dallas.’ ”
Hotz was so concerned that she turned her car around and headed to Waco. Kari, however, called back a few minutes later and said she was going to be okay. But the next day, Kari went to see a Waco therapist whom she had met with several times after Kassidy’s death. The therapist said that Kari started off the session saying she was in a “much better place” with her grief. Still, Kari added, things weren’t great at home. She thought that her husband no longer had any desire to be close to her, she said, noting that he had even left the house that morning without saying that he loved her.
There was a pause. Kari then told the therapist about her fear that Matt was having an affair. But she added one extra detail: She said she had found a small unlabeled bottle in his briefcase filled with pills. She said she thought that Matt was planning to kill her.
When the stunned therapist asked Kari to repeat the story, she backed off. The therapist made her promise to call her the following Friday, April 7, if she was still having “obsessive thoughts” about her husband.
But Kari never called. According to people who saw her that week, she appeared to be her usual outgoing self. That Friday, she visited a junior high school to interview for an opening as a reading specialist. Kari was animated, and afterward one teacher said she seemed “elated” by the idea of taking a new job that fall.
Matt, Kari, and their daughters were seen late that afternoon at the YMCA, where Kensi had swim practice. According to witnesses, Kari seemed perfectly normal, cheerfully greeting people she knew. But that was the last time anyone saw her. A few minutes after midnight, a 911 operator received a call from Matt. “I think my wife just committed suicide,” he said.
Paramedics arrived in less than five minutes and found Kari on the floor by the bed, her lips blue. On the bedside table they saw a bottle of Unisom, a nonprescription sleeping medication, with only 2 pills left in the 32-pill bottle. They also found a typed note, written to Matt. “Please continue to be the great Dad to our little girls,” it read. “Love them every day for me. I am sorry. I love you. Kari.”
Matt told Hewitt police officers that Kari had been talking about suicide for the past two weeks. But he said he’d had no idea she was serious. He added that when they got home from the YMCA, she was feeling ill. She even went to the bathroom to throw up. He said she then got into bed, drank a couple of fuzzy navel wine coolers—he and Kari occasionally had a drink at home but never in public—and then asked him to rent them a movie. According to Matt, she said she wanted When a Man Loves a Woman, the film they had seen on their first date.
Matt said that after he put the girls to bed, he left home around eleven-fifteen, stopped at a gas station, drove to a video store to pick up the movie, and returned home a little after midnight. The bedroom door was locked, and when he knocked, Kari didn’t answer. He used a screwdriver to open the door, and that’s when he found her, not breathing, just like he had found Kassidy. He attempted to give her CPR, and fluid came out of her mouth and covered her face and her hair.
A detective who arrived at the Bakers’ home contacted a justice of the peace, read him the suicide note, and they both agreed, perhaps out of respect to the young pastor, that an autopsy would not be necessary. The justice of the peace didn’t even come out to the house that night, as he was required to do by law, to pronounce Kari dead. He simply typed on her death certificate “Overdose of Unisom Sleep-Aid.”
Less than a week after the funeral, Matt Baker returned to Crossroads Baptist, as he had promised, to preach the Easter sermon. Just like Jesus, he told his congregation, Kari had made a “triumphal entry” into heaven. “Death could not control her,” he said. “Death could not control her at all.”
Sitting in a pew, Linda and Jim Dulin wept. “Were we thinking then that Matt might have had something to do with her death?” Linda asked. “Absolutely not. You have to understand that we had never had a cross word with him in eleven years—not one. We really believed that Kari, for reasons we would never understand, had decided she could no longer go on.”
But the week after Easter, Linda’s three sisters—Nancy Lanham, Kay Bailey, and Jennifer Biles—and Nancy’s daughter, Lindsey Pick, dropped by for a cup of coffee. Nancy, who owned and managed real estate in Waco, told Linda that none of them trusted Matt. She said all of them had heard stories about his sexual indiscretions. She then told Linda about a teenage girl they all knew who had come to see Kassidy at the hospital back in 1998. The teenager said that Matt had taken her aside, put his hand on her leg, and asked her if she wanted to go with him to an empty visitors room.
“That can’t be true,” Linda said.
Kay, a speech pathologist for the Waco public schools, jumped in and told Linda that Matt had even come up to Kay’s teenage daughter one evening, hugged her suggestively, brushed his hand against her breast, and asked if she was wearing panties.
Then Kay hit Linda with the bombshell, telling her what the Waco therapist, a longtime friend of Kay’s, had confided to her about Kari’s visit just before she died. “Linda, if we don’t find out why Kari said all those things,” Kay said, “this will haunt us forever.”
Linda burst into tears. And with that, the Charlie’s Angels of Waco were formed.
They had little idea what they were doing, of course. Using tips they had picked up while watching CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the Angels decided to retrace the route Matt said he had traveled the night Kari died, even going to the video store and sweet-talking a clerk into checking to see if Matt had indeed rented When a Man Loves a Woman. (He had.) They dug through his trash, pulling out photos and papers. At one point, Lindsey, a stay-at-home mom and a full-time college student, rang the doorbell, telling him she would love to have the James Avery ichthus fish bracelet that Kari used to wear. As Matt looked for it, Lindsey searched the house.
Periodically, the women met for lunch at their favorite Mexican restaurant, notebooks in hand, and asked one another Sherlock Holmes—like questions. Why would Kari leave two pills in her Unisom bottle? Wouldn’t she have taken all the pills, to make sure she would die? And did it make sense that she would not have signed her own suicide note? There were, after all, plenty of pens in the bedroom.
But they were getting nowhere—until Linda checked her monthly cell phone bill, which included Matt’s phone records (when the Bakers moved back to Waco, Linda added their cell phones to her account so they wouldn’t have to pay a deposit). She noticed that he had been calling a certain number over and over since early January. He had even called the number the morning of Kari’s death and the night after the funeral. When Linda looked up the number on Google, she discovered that it belonged to Larry Bulls, who had been the minister of music at Crossroads during the first few months Matt was there. That was odd, she thought. She had no idea they were such good friends.
Then, a few weeks later, a friend told Linda that Matt had invited a young woman—beautiful, slender, and blond—to help him supervise a slumber party he was throwing for Kensi. At one point, said the friend, Matt and the woman sat together on a couch. Matt put his head on her shoulder, then he put his head on her lap. The woman’s name, the friend added, was Vanessa.
Linda gasped. Vanessa had to be Vanessa Bulls, Larry’s daughter. Recently divorced and the mother of an infant daughter, she had been living with her parents. And despite the fact that her father had moved on to another church, she still periodically attended Crossroads Baptist. Obviously, Linda concluded, she was going to see Matt.
The Dulins decided not to confront Matt—not yet, anyway. But Jim was so angered that he had a T-shirt made with a photo of Kari and her daughters on the front, which he began wearing to church so Matt would see it. Meanwhile, Linda paid a visit to the Hewitt Police Department, begging the detectives to launch a criminal investigation. When they told her there was still no evidence of murder—she said Hewitt’s chief of police told her she was wasting her time—she went home and called a lawyer named Bill Johnston.
The strapping, six-foot-four-inch Johnston is a maverick in Waco legal circles. During the thirteen years he spent as a prosecutor with the U.S. attorney’s office, he was known for taking on cases that other prosecutors didn’t think they could win. In his most famous, he started the investigation that led to the arrest and conviction of serial killer Kenneth McDuff. But in the early nineties, after he claimed he had evidence suggesting that the FBI had lied about its actions during the siege on the Branch Davidian compound, he found himself in a high-stakes political showdown with the Justice Department, which eventually charged him with obstruction of justice for not producing all of his notes about the matter. He ended up pleading guilty to a lesser charge of “misprision of a felony” but was allowed to keep his law license. (The president of the State Bar of Texas called him a hero for standing up to the government.) Since then, he has done mostly civil litigation. But his friends say he has remained a prosecutor at heart, and there was no question he saw in the Matt Baker investigation a chance to return to his old role, accepting a case no one else wanted.
Johnston brought in a couple of retired lawmen he had once worked with: former deputy U.S. marshal Mike McNamara and former Department of Public Safety undercover agent John Bennett. McNamara tracked down the retired recreation minister at First Baptist Church of Waco, who told him about Matt’s internship at the church. He also got a tip about Matt’s alleged behavior at the YMCA.
Then, one afternoon at lunch, Johnston, McNamara, and Bennett happened to tell a couple of other law enforcement officers about their investigation. Later that day, one of the officers called and hinted that the Waco Police Department knew something about Matt. Johnston made an open-records request, asking the department for any files it had on Matt, and he soon received a package that contained a police report from November 1997. A young woman named Lora Wilson had driven up from Houston and met with a detective, telling him that she wanted to file charges against Matt for attempted sexual assault, which she claimed happened six years earlier in the locker room at Floyd Casey Stadium. Wilson said that Baylor administrators at the time had asked her not to contact police, promising her they would punish Matt themselves. But she knew they had let him walk away, and after all these years, she still wanted justice.
Because the statute of limitations had expired, the detective could not pursue the case. Still, if it hadn’t been for his report, Johnston and his team would never have learned about the locker room episode. Bennett tracked down Wilson, who was living in West Texas. She told him that she had left the university in disgrace—“The Baylor people had thought I was just some screwed-up slut who had wanted to ruin the life of a good ministerial student”—and that she had spent her life trying to escape the nightmare of what had happened. “Please get him,” she said to Bennett. “Please get him before he does it again.”
At that point, Kari’s father had finally decided to tip off the other deacons at Crossroads Baptist about Matt’s behavior. Outraged, they asked for Matt’s resignation. Not long afterward, he quit his other job at the Waco Center for Youth and moved his family to Kerrville, denying the deacons’ charges but telling his friends and church members that he did not want his girls to have to endure the vicious rumors that he knew would soon be sweeping through Waco.
Sure enough, the rumors were flying by late summer, when the Dulins asked Johnston to file a wrongful-death lawsuit against Matt in civil court. In truth, the lawsuit was thin: Johnston had little evidence to indicate that Matt had murdered Kari. But in August, while McNamara was visiting the Waco Center for Youth, someone there took him aside and told him that the computer in the office of Matt’s secretary had turned up missing. When a specialist did some checking, the computer was found on Matt’s desk. What was even stranger was that the labels from Matt’s original computer had been removed and put on the secretary’s computer to make it look as if it belonged to Matt. So where was Matt’s computer? And why had it disappeared?
McNamara later received files from the center’s computer network, which kept track of the staff’s Internet activity. He noticed that in early March, someone using Matt’s computer had done a Google search for “overdose by sleeping pill” and for “Ambien,” a prescription sleeping medication. He then noticed that someone on that computer had gone to several Web sites, such as Secure RX Cart, that allow a user to purchase medication and have it shipped straight to his home. McNamara called Johnston and said that Matt might have used his computer at work to figure out how to murder his wife.
Still, Johnston knew he had a long way to go before he could get Matt arrested for murder. Around that time, he got even more bad news. An autopsy had finally been performed on Kari’s body—the justice of the peace who had originally ruled Kari’s death a suicide had second thoughts and ordered her body exhumed—but it showed very little. The pathologist noted that Kari’s muscle tissues contained traces of the drugs that make up both Unisom and Ambien. But because she had been embalmed, he couldn’t accurately determine how much medication she had ingested. There was no way, he concluded, to determine how she had died.
Undeterred, Johnston hired David Stafford, the well-regarded former head of the toxicology lab at the University of Tennessee, to study the pathologist’s report. Stafford determined that there was no trace of the drugs in her stomach. If Kari had overdosed by swallowing pills, he stated, some of those drugs would have had to have gotten into her digestive tract. Obviously, he said, drugs didn’t kill her. What’s more, because the autopsy found that her lungs were clear, he also concluded that Kari “did not aspirate, that is, choke on her own fluids, resulting in her death.”
So what killed her? Johnston brought in another expert, Tom Bevel, who specialized in homicide crime scenes. Studying the photos the police had taken of Kari on the night of her death, he noticed significant bruising around her lips. The bruising, he told Johnston, could have been caused by someone using a pillow to suffocate her. The experts also noted that the paramedics who arrived at the Bakers’ home noticed lividity (a discoloration of the skin caused by the pooling of blood after death) in parts of Kari’s body. For such lividity to have taken place, they said, there was no way Kari could have died during the 45 minutes Matt said he was out of the house. Stafford, in fact, believed that a lethal dose of alcohol and sleeping pills would have taken as long as an hour more to kill Kari than the time frame described by Matt.
It remains a mystery why the Hewitt Police Department took several months to file murder charges against Matt. Some sources say the detectives and police chief were skeptical of the evidence Johnston and his team had found. Others say they didn’t want to reopen the case because they didn’t want to admit they had botched the initial investigation. But this past fall, after Linda testified about Kari’s death at a civil court proceeding, which led to front-page headlines and a public uproar—and after Matt Cawthon, a veteran Texas Ranger, reportedly called the Hewitt chief and said that if he didn’t file charges, the Texas Rangers would—a Hewitt detective finally filled out an arrest affidavit.
By then, Matt was working as a minister for the Baptist Student Union at Kerrville’s Schreiner University and as a substitute teacher for the public schools. A spokeswoman for the school district described him as “a wonderful person.” His arrest, she said, was “heartbreaking for all of us.” The head of the Hill Country Baptist Association told a reporter that Matt had done a good job at Schreiner, adding, “Hill Country Baptist leaders are praying for Matt.”
Within weeks, a fundraiser for Matt had been organized in Kerrville among friends of the family. His mother, Barbara, told reporters she had received hundreds of cards and calls from people saying that they believed her son was innocent and that they were praying for him. What really impressed his defenders was that Matt had agreed to let reporters come see him—a clear sign, they said, that he had nothing to hide.
And I have to say, during my visit with him, he didn’t seem fazed by any of my questions. When I asked him about Vanessa Bulls, he said they didn’t start dating until after Kari had died. “She was one of the few people I felt I could talk to,” he said. When I asked about a report that he had been looking at engagement rings with Bulls just weeks after Kari’s death, he explained that they had gone to a jewelry store only to buy earrings for one of his daughters. He also insisted that Kari never once accused him of having an affair with Bulls or anyone else. Nor, he said, had she ever accused him of trying to kill her and that the story she told her therapist about the pills was simply untrue. “I don’t know what was going on in my wife’s mind,” he said, shaking his head sadly. “I don’t know what she was thinking.”
Matt added that he did everything he could to make Kari feel better that spring, taking her on romantic dinner dates and going so far as to send her several e-mails a day professing his love for her. He admitted he did a Google search for “overdose by sleeping pill,” but he had only done so because he had noticed that Kari was taking more sleeping pills that spring than usual and that he was worried about her. He denied purchasing sleeping medication on the Internet. Instead, he said, he purchased a liquid concoction that was supposed to make him and Kari feel more sexual. And as for the mystery of the missing computer? Matt simply said he didn’t know what happened: Anyone could have stolen his computer because he rarely locked the door to his office.
Whether or not Waco residents believe anything Matt is saying, the fact is that his attorney will be able to provide him with a strong defense. According to Guy James Gray, no fibers were found in Kari’s nose, mouth, or lungs during the autopsy, which means there is no evidence to prove a pillow was used to suffocate her. That bruise around her mouth, Gray said, could very well have been caused by the mask the paramedics used to pump oxygen into her lungs. The oxygen could also have cleared out her throat, pushing away the vomit that might have choked her. As for the lividity, Gray claimed that the paramedics he interviewed said that only certain parts of her body were reaching that point, which suggests that Matt’s time frame still holds up.
What must also be remembered is that Gray will make sure a jury does not hear a word of testimony about Matt’s alleged sexual misconduct. Matt will be put on trial for murder, not for his personal life—if he’s ever put on trial, that is. According to some sources close to the investigation, prosecutors with the district attorney’s office in Waco are worried that they still don’t have enough evidence for a conviction, which could be the reason why they have yet to put the case before a grand jury. And if they do get an indictment, it’s doubtful they’ll be able to find an impartial jury in Waco, given all the publicity. Today the Web site that was started by Shannon Gamble is filled with angry postings from residents, almost all of whom condemn Matt in lofty biblical parlance. “Let all kinds of justice rain down on this evil man,” thundered one writer. “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light,” someone else declared. At one point, to make sure people knew her opinions about the case, Gamble had a Johnny Cash song start playing whenever anyone visited the site. “You can run on for a long time,” Cash sang in his deep baritone, “but sooner or later God’ll cut you down.”
Besides the anger, Matt’s arrest has generated a painful wave of soul-searching among those who knew him. Linda and Jim, who’ve put themselves more than $200,000 into debt to pay Johnston and his team, admit they’ve gone to such expense, in part, because of what Linda describes as “our shame that we didn’t see Matt for who he really was.” Jill Hotz told me she will be “haunted forever” because she defended Matt when Kari was crying out for help. Even Lora Wilson, the former Baylor trainer, said she feels enormous guilt. “If I hadn’t done what Baylor told me to do and if I had done what was right and tried to get him arrested back in 1991, I think Kari would be alive today,” she told me.
And then there are some in Waco who are so distraught by what has happened that they have stopped going to church altogether. “I feel violated by Matt,” said Kimberly Berry, the young woman from Crossroads Baptist who once thought Baker was preaching directly to her. “When all this came out, I put my Bible in the trunk of my car. I don’t know where it is now, and I really don’t want to look for it.” According to the local gossip mill, Vanessa Bulls is so embarrassed that she fell victim to Matt’s charms that she now rarely goes to church at all. In an interview she recently gave to the Hewitt police, she admitted that she and Matt started dating after Kari’s funeral, but she added that what she now knows about him made her “want to throw up . . . I hate that I ever showed up at Crossroads and let Matt into our life.”
Yet what is perhaps most amazing of all is that Matt still doesn’t flinch. I told him that a lot of people in Waco see him as the personification of evil. I told him that his in-laws actually believe he first tried to make Kari commit suicide when he wrote her the e-mails blaming her for Kassidy’s death. When that didn’t work, he decided to murder her. His in-laws, I told him, are also convinced that his willingness to talk to reporters proves only that he’s utterly delusional.
Matt nodded his head solemnly and told me the story of Joseph, from the Old Testament, who was betrayed by members of his family and then falsely imprisoned. “And then he came back and helped the family that had tried to destroy him,” Matt said.
Once again, his eyes filled with tears and he gave me that sad, suffering look. “I have said a prayer asking God to forgive the Dulins,” he said. “And I have prayed for God to let me forgive them. But I don’t blame them. I understand they are hurting so deep inside that the only way for them to deal with it is to lash out at me.”
And what will happen, I asked at the end of the interview, if the Dulins win and he is sent to prison?
Matt paused for a long time before finally saying, almost in a whisper, “My call will never change. I will always tell people about God.” He stood up and quoted for me one of his favorite Bible verses, from the Book of Proverbs. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart,” he said. “In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.” Then, with tears still in his eyes, he shook my hand softly and walked out the door.