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 then sent her an e-mail that said that “she didn’t drink it.” He then began talking about tampering with the brakes of her car or maybe doing a drive-by shooting.
Matt admitted to Vanessa that he had been “doing the husbandly duty” by going out on “date nights” and having sex with Kari while they were seeing a counselor. (You have to shake your head at that irony: Matt, during his “counseling” sessions with Vanessa, talking about his “counseling” sessions with his own wife.) But he said he hated having sex with her. He called her a “fat bitch” in her lingerie, Vanessa said.
By late March, she said, Matt told her he had decided to murder Kari on one of their “date nights” and make it look like suicide. He couldn’t stand how depressed she was, he said. On the morning of April 8, Vanessa said, her mother woke her up at the Bulls’s home where she was living and told her that Kari had died the previous night. Stunned—“I was shocked, because part of me didn’t really think he was going to go through with it”—she went with her parents to the Baker’s home to pay their sympathies to Matt. She looked at Matt, she said, and he winked at her.
Vanessa attended Kari’s funeral, and then five days later she met with Matt. It was their first time alone together since Kari had died. He told her that he would tell her just one time what happened the night of Kari’s death and then he never wanted to talk about it again. He told her that he had emptied the inner contents of sex-stimulus capsules that Kari had bought to improve her sex drive and then filled the capsules up with Ambien he had taken from her mother’s house. He gave her some alcohol along with the Ambien-filled capsules and waited for her to pass out. He said that he kissed Kari on the forehead and asked her to “Give Kassidy a kiss for me.” Then, he put a pillow to Kari’s face. After a few seconds, he thought she was dead. Suddenly, she took one big last gasp for air. He said, “Oh shit,” and put the pillow back over her face, making his hand into a fist to be sure that he suffocated her.
Then, Matt told Vanessa, he typed a fake suicide note on the bedroom computer, printed it out, rubbed Kari’s fingers over it to leave fingerprints, and put it on the bedside table with the alcoholic drinks and a real bottle of Ambien. He locked the door and left, drove off to rent the movie When a Man Loves a Woman, and came back and busted open the bedroom door. He waited a minute before calling 911.
According to Vanessa, Matt said to her, “You know you are stuck with me, right? Because you know about it and are just as guilty as I am.” He added that God is a forgiving God, and that God had forgiven him.
After Kari’s death, they did start a full-blown relationship—Vanessa showed up at one of his daughter’s birthday parties, and she went with him to a jewelry store to look at engagement rings. But Vanessa admitted that she was becoming “more worried.” She was afraid she could be held responsible in some way for Kari’s murder—or at least for having not said anything. She was also afraid Matt would accuse her of doing the killing. “In truth, who would believe me? He was a preacher,” she said.
On top of that, Vanessa was more than a little scared of what Matt might do to her if she did talk. In one of the more explosive moments of her testimony, she said he had sent her lyrics from an All-American Rejects song called “Dirty Little Secret.” One line of the lyrics went: “I’ll keep you my dirty little secret. Don’t tell anyone or you’ll be just a little regret.” Vanessa said, “He didn’t threaten me really harshly, but he was letting me know what he had done before.”
As the weeks passed, said Vanessa, “I didn’t want to be in love anymore. I just wanted to be safe . . . I wasn’t attracted to Matt. I just wanted to be safe.” Then she got a call from Linda Dulin, who told her a private investigation had begun and that Kari’s body was going to be exhumed. When Vanessa talked to Matt, terrified, he told her in a “creepy tone” that she “better not” tell the investigators what had he had done. He told her, “Hopefully, when all this is over, I can give you a hug.” Matt told her he was moving with his daughters to Kerrville and wanted her to come with him. She hesitated, and later, after he moved to Kerrville, she called him from a Starbucks in Temple to end things. “We don’t worship the same God,” she said. Matt replied, over and over, “I killed my wife for you, and now you’re leaving me? You’re leaving me?”
But still, Vanessa kept her mouth shut. At some point, she was contacted by a private investigator working for Kari’s parents. She said that she “completely denied everything.” When a detective from the Hewitt Police Department brought her in for an interview, she also denied all allegations that she and Matt had had an affair, claiming she knew nothing about Kari being murdered.
Afterward, she got a call from Matt, who sounded so “creepy” that she almost had a panic attack. She said she told him to turn himself in, but he replied, repeatedly, “God has forgiven me.”
Although Vanessa and Matt stopped speaking, she continued to deny everything for the next couple of years. Even as late as January 2009, she told police investigators nothing when they again came calling, explaining to the jury that she was “terrified” Matt would put a bullet in her head.
Finally, in March 2009, after she broke down and said to some officers she did indeed have an affair with Matt in the months before Kari’s death—interestingly, she still didn’t mention what she allegedly knew about the murder—she arranged to be given “testimonial immunity” when she testified for the grand jury looking into Kari’s death. Vanessa admitted to the affair to the grand jury but again said nothing to the grand jury about Matt murdering Kari. (She said was not sure at the time whether the immunity agreement applied to what she knew about the murder.) She only spoke about these details for the first time when she took the stand Tuesday.
Obviously, Vanessa’s testimony about Matt confessing to her caught Matt’s defense attorney, Guy James Gray, off guard. And she more than ably stood up to his cross-examination. When he asked why she continued her affair with Matt after Kari’s death, she said Matt had “warped” her mind and that she was “afraid for” her life and her daughter’s life. “I knew what he was capable of,” she said.
“Why should we believe you here today?” Gray said.
“What do I have to gain from this right now?” Vanessa snapped. “I could lose my job as a teacher. I am sitting here because a manipulative liar wearing the mask of God came into my life, and I am here to put him where he needs to be.”
Gray asked whether she was worried about CPS taking her own child away because she had been hiding details of a murder plot. “No,” said Vanessa, “because he’s the one who did this. . . . He victimized me, he victimized Kari, he victimized his girls, and he thinks he can do it again. He thinks he can do it again.” She added that she still sleeps every night with a “crystal nail file” because she is scared Matt is going to get out of jail and come get her.
All in all, Gray didn’t lay a finger on Vanessa. She admitted that she was at fault for not “opening her mouth and doing anything.” But she hoped her testimony would help her get over her guilt. “Everything has now been said,” Vanessa testified. “I wash my hands clean.”
It was assumed Matt would testify, but Gray decided not to put him on the stand—a pretty obvious sign that the defense is in trouble. Closing arguments were scheduled for late Wednesday afternoon. The end could come very quickly for the once-promising Baptist preacher.