Editor’s note: On January 20, the jury returned with a guilty verdict against Matt Baker, the former Baptist minister in Waco who had long been suspected of murdering his wife. The key witness in the case against Matt was his former mistress, Vanessa Bulls, who provided bombshell testimony earlier this week. Here is Skip Hollandsworth’s report about Vanessa’s day on the witness stand, in which she publicly talked for the first time about what she knew.
On Tuesday, January 19, after twenty-five witnesses had testified for the state, Vanessa Bulls finally arrived at the Waco courthouse to tell her story—and it was everything the prosecutors promised, one gripping anecdote after another that could have come straight out of a potboiler novel.
If Vanessa was to be believed, she was a naive woman, still upset and struggling from her recent divorce, who found herself being seduced by Matt Baker, her charming, manipulative pastor—a man who confided to her about his plot to kill his wife and who then made it clear to Vanessa that very bad things might happen to her if she ever told police about what she knew. She was so scared of Matt—and so ashamed at her own actions—that for years she never did say a word, not to police, prosecutors, or even members of her own family.
Now 27 years old and a seventh-grade language arts teacher at a junior high in Harker Heights in the Killeen school district—she also coaches track and volleyball—Vanessa is a beautiful young woman. When she walked into the courtroom, she was wearing a flattering gray pantsuit, her blond hair falling to her shoulders. The news media that was assembled—reporters from newspapers and all of the local TV stations, the Associated Press, CBS’s 48 Hours, TruTV, and ABC’s 20/20—stopped scribbling notes to stare at her. Matt Baker himself, wearing a gray tweed blazer with a light blue shirt, tie, and khaki pants, also stared at her, as if he was once again overwhelmed by her beauty, his stunning blue eyes barely blinking.
Refusing to show emotion, he took notes as Vanessa began to testify. (If you want more detail about her testimony, go to the Waco Tribune’s Web site to read the story by Tribune-Herald staff writer Tommy Witherspoon and the live blogging of the trial by Erin Quinn.) She said that she met Matt and Kari in September 2005, when her father went to work at Crossroads Baptist Church, where Matt was the pastor. About three months later, she said, Baker spotted her sitting alone in the sanctuary before the service started and asked about her divorce. He told her, “Whoever finds you is going to be a lucky man.”
Vanessa said Matt started calling her “regularly.” He asked her whether she needed counseling from her recent divorce. “God can get you through anything,” he told her. He did start counseling her, and his flirtations grew more obvious as the months wore on. One time he heard Vanessa talking about dating and he said, apparently joking, “Oh, don’t date other guys. Just date your pastor.”
During their counseling sessions, Matt began talking about Kari, telling Vanessa that she was so depressed that she had become “a horrible mother and a horrible wife.” He said that he had become Mr. Mom, doing everything for the couple’s other two daughters except for fixing their hair. Though Vanessa said that Kari never seemed depressed when she saw her at church—she said she and Kari talked about school, God, and the children and even had set up a lunch at some point—Matt continued to insist she was so depressed she practically couldn’t do anything.
Matt also started telling Vanessa she was beautiful. In late February of 2006, Matt told her he and Kari were no longer having sex anymore because she was so depressed. In early March, he invited Vanessa over to the Baker home for a counseling session while Kari was at work and the daughters were at school. “That was a point in my life when I wasn’t thinking straight,” Vanessa said. “He asked if he could hold my hands to pray, and after that he kissed me.” She said at first she said no, but then he took her hand, led her into the master bedroom, and they had sex. Vanessa said Matt told her that “God is such a forgiving God. I don’t think that God believes that a person can be with just one person for the rest of their life.”
He then told her he had gotten a vasectomy and was free from sexual diseases. Matt admitted to cheating on Kari Baker a few times when they lived in Dallas, calling her “clueless.” He said he wanted Kari out of his life. But there was no way he could divorce her without ruining his career. One day he told Vanessa about how Kari had tried to kill herself with pills, and, in retrospect, he wished he hadn’t have stopped her.
Matt flirted with Vanessa at church potlucks. He whispered to her that he wished the two of them were dating. “I was buying into everything,” Vanessa said. “He is a complete, and still is, a manipulative liar. He made me believe everything he was saying. And I was at my most vulnerable state.”
Soon, she said, Matt began talking about how he wanted to kill Kari and make it look like a suicide, considering that she had tried to kill herself before. “He talked about putting something in milk shakes. He talked about making it look like she had hung herself,” Vanessa said. He said that Linda Dulin, Kari’s mother, had a “pharmacy” in her house and it would be easy to go into her house and take drugs. Matt told her that he ordered “chloroform” online and had gone to a poor area of Waco to try to buy “roofies,” or the date rape drug.
Vanessa said that he had tried to drug Kari’s milk shake and