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Crime News Prosecuting Evil with Kelly Siegler

Baptist Minister With a Dark Secret Accused of Murdering His Wife, Staging as a Suicide

Matt Baker reported his wife overdosed on pills, purportedly because of the untimely passing of their toddler daughter. The parents of Kari Baker, however, didn't believe things pointed to a suicide. 

By Jax Miller

The death of a devoted preacher’s wife might not have been solved if not for loved ones challenging a ruling of suicide.

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On April 7, 2006, Matt Baker called police in Hewitt, Texas — a predominantly Baptist town just south of Waco — telling dispatchers his wife, Kari Baker, “just committed suicide.” Matt reported Kari sent him to the video store at around 11:15 p.m., and when he returned at midnight, she was blue and cold to the touch atop their bed, attorney and former federal prosecutor Bill Johnston told Prosecuting Evil with Kelly Siegler, airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.

“When the Hewitt police arrive, they see Kari lying on the floor,” said crime journalist Tommy Witherspoon for CBS’s Waco affiliate KWTX.

The body was moved during Matt's alleged efforts to resuscitate his wife. Wine coolers and a near-empty bottle of sleeping pills were found at the scene, as was a typed suicide letter.  

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The purported suicide was tragic for the family, including Matt — a prominent preacher at Crossroads Baptist Church. The couple shared three daughters: Kensi, Kassidy, and Grace, though the middle child died of a brain tumor at just 14 months old.

The death greatly impacted Kari, who Matt reported struggled with depression ever since.

“She was sad, but she wasn’t can’t-get-out-of-bed sad,” said childhood friend Julia Therrell. “She had her daughters to take care of.”

Investigators considered Kassidy’s passing before the Justice of the Peace ruled Kari’s death a suicide, which was alluded to in the suicide letter, which read:

Matt, I am so sorry. I am so tired. I just want to sleep for a while. Please forgive me. Tell Kensi and Grace that I love them very much. Tell my mom and dad that I love them, too. I love you, Matt. I am sorry for the past few weeks. I want to give Kassidy a hug. I need to feel her again. Please continue to be the great dad to our little girls. Love them every day for me. I am sorry. I love you. Kari.

In smaller Texas towns, like the one Prosecuting Evil’s Kelly Siegler was raised in, it wasn’t atypical for a Justice of the Peace to rule on manners of death, which, in Kari’s case, didn’t require an autopsy of the body.

Loved ones call on outside investigators to help

Did Kari Baker Commit Suicide?

Kari’s parents, James and Linda Dulin, initially accepted their daughter took her own life. But several weeks later, James found “strange little hints” that led him away from the theory and toward one involving foul play, according to Johnston.

When Hewitt police refused to shift their stance from suicide, the Dulins turned to Johnston, who became their legal representative.

According to the grieving parents, Kari's surviving daughters claimed Matt took photos of Kari out of the home and that Matt allegedly claimed the girls were ready for a new mother.

“It appears Matt’s erasing Kari’s existence,” Johnston told Prosecuting Evil.

Kari’s parents also grew concerned when they received a phone bill. At the time, Matt and Kari were part of the Dulins’ phone plan, which showed numerous calls from Kari’s phone following her death. However, Matt explained it away, claiming he gave the phone to a woman in need from the church, a recently divorced single mother named Vanessa Bulls.

“The Dulins start wondering, ‘Is there a little more to this than he’s just counseling this woman with a child?’” said Witherspoon.

Citing Hewitt authorities’ unwillingness to reexamine the case, Johnston — by request of Kari’s parents — filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Matt Baker, hoping it would bring them closer to the truth.

A Wrongful Death Lawsuit and a Texas Ranger

Attorney Bill Johnston brought on Texas Ranger Matt Cawthon to assist in the investigation, and both became critical of how local authorities treated the case. They wondered if it was likely that someone wanting to take their own life would have left two sleeping pills behind and if a 45-minute window (when Matt Baker left for the video store and returned home) was sufficient time for the level of lividity Kari’s body had reached.

Another consideration was whether ingesting 29 sleeping tablets would have killed Kari in such a short amount of time.

Investigators also scrutinized the suicide note, which was typed as opposed to handwritten. It also contained grammatical errors, which Kari’s loved ones thought was uncharacteristic of the woman.

“It praises Matt and blames Kari,” Johnston told Prosecuting Evil. “Those tones are very suspicious, and put them on an unsigned, typed note, and they scream at you.”

A still of an interview in Prosecuting Evil With Kelly Siegler Episode 106

According to Siegler, around the time of Kari’s funeral, a preacher gained access to the deceased’s Bible and found a handwritten note dated April 2, 2006 — days before Kari’s death — scribbled in the pages.

“Lord, be the center of our relationship,” the note read, in part. “Lord, I’m asking for you to protect me from harm. I am not sure what is going on with Matt, but Lord, help me find peace with him.”

Adding to families’ suspicions, Kari’s therapist contacted loved ones and stated that Kari thought her husband was having an extramarital affair.

Investigators interview Vanessa Bulls

Vanessa Bulls was the “younger, attractive” daughter of the music minister at Matt Baker’s church, Johnston told Prosecuting Evil. Those representing the Dulins wanted to speak with her, especially since calls to Kari’s phone totaled about 17 a day in the month following Kari’s death.

“We didn’t know if she was an active part of this murder, or was she just someone who caught his fancy,” wondered Texas Ranger Cawthon.

Investigators spoke with Bulls on August 3, 2006. According to the congregation member, Matt Baker approached her about one to two months after Kari’s death and asked her to “start the dating process.”

“He kind of made me believe that Jim and Linda [Dulin] were horrible people who were pushing the whole investigation,” Bulls said. “I felt sorry for him.”

As part of the wrongful death lawsuit, Johnston had the power to depose Matt, ordering the defendant to provide them with his personal computer and printer. When it came time for Matt to attend the deposition, Matt claimed the computer and printer stopped working and that he threw them out.

A search of Matt Baker’s work computer reveals a troubling search history

Investigators turned to Matt’s second job at the Waco Center for Youth and learned his work computer was allegedly stolen. However, the I.T. department helped them access Matt’s disturbing search history.

“We determined that, along with a lot of pornography, Matt was searching for overdosing on sleeping pills,” according to Cawthon.

Matt also ordered Ambien — a powerful sedative — from “an off-shore pharmacy” just one month before Kari Baker’s death, Johnston told Prosecuting Evil.  

“The internet search is beautiful circumstantial evidence,” said Kelly Siegler. “The only thing about that is we need to exhume the body to see if you can find the presence of Ambien.”

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Three months after Kari’s death, her body was exhumed from the ground. Although she hadn’t undergone an autopsy, the body did go through the embalming process, making it impossible for experts to test her blood.

They were, however, able to test samples from muscular tissue, which showed the presence of Ambien, despite Kari not having a prescription for the sleep aid.

It was enough evidence for Dulins’ representatives to demand the Justice of Peace reopen the case, and more than a year after Kari’s death, a judge officially amended the cause of death from ‘suicide’ to ‘undetermined.’

On September 21, 2007, authorities arrested Matt Baker for his wife’s murder.

Matt Baker’s murder trial begins

A still of an interview in Prosecuting Evil With Kelly Siegler Episode 106

McLennan County Assistant District Attorney Crawford Long was on the case and opted to delay the indictment while their office’s investigator spoke with Vanessa Bulls. Bulls was granted immunity for her information, an event Long described as “a nuclear bomb.”

Bulls admitted she and Matt Baker had an affair before the murder trial began on January 13, 2010, at the McLennan County Courthouse. It would be an uphill battle for prosecutors, however, since Matt maintained support from the highly religious community.

Matt gave multiple press interviews to defend himself and even appeared on the cover of Texas Monthly, leading others to believe he reveled in his newfound celebrity status.

“When the trial began, we were all glued to the TV because we wanted to know answers,” Kari’s friend, Julia Therrell, told Prosecuting Evil. “This was the biggest thing that had happened since David Koresh.”

One by one, Kari’s loved ones took the stand, testifying to Kari’s plans for her future. But most damning was the testimony of Vanessa Bulls, who admitted that the affair started before Kari’s death.

“It started off talking about my divorce. He started quoting scripture, and then he asked if he could hold my hands to pray,” Bulls testified. “Then, afterward, he started to kiss me. Then he took my hand and led me to the bedroom.”

Jurors began to see Matt as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” according to Siegler.

Bulls testified that Matt emailed her about previous suicide attempts Kari allegedly made. Reportedly, Matt feared divorcing his wife for fear that it would tarnish his standing as a preacher.

According to Bulls, Matt made several plans to kill his wife, including plots to make it look like she hung herself, tampering with her car brakes, and even staging a drive-by shooting. Matt once sent Bulls an email, claiming he spiked Kari’s drink just a week or two before her death but that she didn’t drink it because “it tasted like lead.”

On the stand, Bulls detailed what happened on the night of Kari’s murder, per statements Matt made to Bulls days after Kari’s death. Matt allegedly said he lured Kari to the bedroom and handcuffed her to bed under the guise of sexual activity.

Kari then fell asleep from pills Matt had spiked with Ambien, and he used a pillow to smother her.

“He said he kissed her on the forehead and said, ‘Give Kassidy a kiss for me,’” Bulls told the court.

Months later, when Bulls tried to break things off with Matt, he allegedly said, “I killed my wife for you,” per Bulls’ testimony.

Jurors took less than eight hours to find Matt Baker guilty of murder.

During the punishment phase, when jurors in Texas rule on sentencing, the court heard no fewer than 12 women who took the stand and said Matt approached them sexually.

“Those women had a right to be angry; they had a right to be heard, and I’m glad they were,” said Kelly Siegler.

Ultimately, Matt Baker was sentenced to 65 years behind bars. He will be eligible for parole in 2042.

Watch new episodes of Prosecuting Evil with Kelly Siegler, airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.