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Crime News Dateline

Was a College Student’s Brutal Murder an Occult Sacrifice or a Cold-Blooded Betrayal?

Ron Baker, an astrophysics major at UCLA, was found in 1990 with his throat slit just days after the summer solstice in a dark tunnel ominously referred to by locals as the “Manson Tunnel.”

By Jill Sederstrom

It was just a few days after the summer solstice when hikers stumbled upon the body of 21-year-old Ron Baker in a dark tunnel in June 1990. 

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The tunnel, marked with satanic symbols and references to drugs, was known to locals as the “Manson Tunnel” because of its dark and ominous past.

“We were told that they would do animal sacrifices there,” Los Angeles Police Detective Frank Garcia, now retired, told Dateline: Secrets Uncovered. “There was writing on the inside of the tunnel. Things about hell and fear. There was pentagrams all indicating some kind of occult activity that was taking place in the tunnel.” 

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Famed cult leader Charles Manson had also once lived near the tunnel, only adding to the folklore.

What Happened to Ron Baker?

Baker, an astrophysics major from UCLA, was found dead with multiple stab wounds. His throat had been slashed. 

“It was a pretty horrible place to die,” said best-selling crime novelist Michael Connelly, who was covering the case at the time as a reporter for The Los Angeles Times.

Detectives learned that before his death Baker had become increasingly interested in the pagan religion Wicca and was a member of a college group known as the Mystic Circle. At his apartment, they found an altar, complete with candles and a pentagram, and large knives “that were supposedly used in their ritual,” Garcia said.

Investigators were also unnerved by the day the college student disappeared. 

Baker vanished on June 21, 1990, also known as the summer solstice, a day considered to be a holiday within the Wicca religion.

“There were rumors going around at times that this could have been a sacrifice due to the multiple stab wounds and the fact that Baker’s throat was slit,” Garcia said. “We didn’t know. We certainly didn’t rule that out.” 

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Baker’s death came at a time when satanic panic was still running rampant throughout the United States, sparking urban legends and drumming up fear in suburban communities everywhere. 

“We had to take it seriously,” Det. Rick Jackson told Dateline correspondent Keith Morrison of the theory that Baker’s death may have been linked to the occult. 

The detectives set out to learn all they could about Wicca and tracked down one of Baker’s friends in Mystic Circle. She told detectives about the religion’s focus on nature, its peaceful rituals, and spiritual traditions.

“He had absolutely no involvement in anything that would ever involve human sacrifice. I mean, he would never have meddled or even ventured into anything like that,” she told Dateline: Secrets Uncovered. 

According to her, as a physicist, Baker had been drawn to the religion because of its tie to nature. 

“What do physicists study? They study energy and they study forces and those were things that were part of everyday language in Wicca,” she said. 

While the public was quickly fascinated by that tie to the case, investigators soon began to believe that Baker’s religious studies had nothing at all to do with his death. They began to look at those closer to the quiet college student.

On the night he disappeared, Baker’s roommates Duncan Martinez and Nathan Blalock told detectives Baker planned to go to UCLA to meet up with his Mystic Circle friends. They said they dropped him off at a bus stop that night and never saw their friend again.

Baker and Martinez had been close friends for years. Martinez had been a regular fixture at the Baker house during his high school years. 

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“He was always really personable, very funny, easy going, easy to talk to,” his sister Patty recalled. 

Blalock, a former football star and Army veteran from Detroit, befriended the pair later. Both told detectives they had no idea who may have wanted to harm Baker. 

The night he disappeared, Baker’s parents reported receiving a strange phone call from a man claiming to have kidnapped their son. The caller said he would kill the college student unless the family delivered $100,000 by 5 p.m. the next day. The following morning, they received another eerily similar call and contacted police. 

But the family never heard from the supposed kidnapper again and after police collected a photo of Baker, they were able to match it to a John Doe in the coroner’s office. 

The devastated family was tasked with laying Baker to rest. Martinez delivered an emotional eulogy for his long-time friend.

“He was the most friendliest, sweetest guy … and I just hope that it’s something I can get over because I love him,” Martinez said in a recording from the funeral. 

Duncan Martinez and Nathan Blalock Become Suspects

To Baker’s family, Martinez appeared to be a grieving friend. But investigators began to suspect that Martinez and Blalock weren’t telling everything they knew about the grisly crime.

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Martinez told detectives that after learning Baker had been kidnapped, he and Blalock went looking for him at Chatsworth Park, a park suspiciously close to the tunnel where his body was later discovered. 

Martinez also failed a polygraph test.

Just as investigators were starting to take a closer look at him he disappeared under a bizarre set of circumstances. A few weeks after the murder, Martinez left a troubling message on his friend’s answering machine, claiming he had been kidnapped and was being held at a warehouse.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” he said in the message. “I’m gonna try and get out of here.” 

Detectives immediately launched a search for Martinez, but found no sign of him. 

They determined the call had been nothing but a “farce” after they traced the call back to a pay phone at a Las Vegas airport. Investigators concluded that Martinez had staged the kidnapping to explain his sudden disappearance. 

“He was gone, missing. We had no idea where he was,” Garcia said.

More than a year after Baker’s murder, a seasoned passport agent at a federal building in Boston, Massachusetts became suspicious after a man claiming to be Jonathan Wayne Miller came in trying to get an emergency passport without any photo identification. 

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The agent looked into the man’s claims and discovered he had stolen the identity of a baby who had died years earlier. 

The FBI issued a warrant for passport fraud for Miller. When the same man was stopped by a Utah highway patrolman, the trooper discovered the warrant and arrested him. It turned out it was Martinez, who had been living under the fake identity. 

Now facing federal charges, Martinez was suddenly willing to talk to detectives about Baker’s death. But there was one big catch.

He would only be willing to share what he knew if authorities agreed to give him a “King for a Day” immunity deal. 

It meant that authorities were unable to use anything he said that day against him, but if he ever talked about the crime again or new evidence was discovered, he could be charged with murder.

With the deal in place, Martinez chillingly recalled how he and Blalock had lured Baker to the tunnel to “drink beer and meet girls.” Martinez claimed Blalock tripped inside the tunnel. When Baker made a  joke, he said Blalock flew into a rage and began to stab him.

“Ron was screaming um, ‘Help me, Duncan ... why are you doing this to me? What did I ever do to deserve this?’” Martinez said.

According to his account, they staged the kidnapping calls to Baker’s parents to try to shift suspicion away from them. 

There was one detail that led investigators to believe the killing may actually have been pre-meditated. Martinez told investigators he and Blalock had been watching the TV show Dragnet when they talked about killing someone.

“I think it was a joint thing. They were both involved,” Jackson said.

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Martinez even agreed to record a series of conversations with Blalock, which gave authorities enough evidence to confront Blalock, who ultimately confessed and was charged. But Martinez was still a free man.

He went on to lead a new life as a college student at The University of Utah, joining a fraternity, dating, and taking film classes.

“He was the center of attraction at a lot of events,” Jackson said.

Ron Baker's Murder, Solved

But his new life wouldn’t last for long. Martinez began talking about Baker’s death to his girlfriend at the time, telling her that he and a friend had talked about “going after” Baker as part of an intentional plan. Word about his involvement in the crime soon spread among the university, destroying his new reputation. 

Then, police finally got the break they needed when he was arrested for burglary in Utah. The local detective there got Martinez to open up about the murder — and his chilling role in it — during a recorded phone call. 

“I told Nathan …’You’ve got to finish him off or something because you can’t leave him like that,’” Martinez said of giving the final order to kill his friend. “‘You better cut his throat and finish him off or something.’” 

With his immunity no longer in place, police finally had enough to arrest Martinez.  

Both men were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole. 

However, California Gov. Gavin Newsome later commuted Martinez’s sentence and he was released on parole in 2020.