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.
Matt, photographed at Trinity Baptist Church in Kerrville on January 10, 2008.
Photograph by Randal Ford

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

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week