Murder or Suicide? 20/20 Investigates

A wife and mother is found dead in Texas; her husband is the prime suspect.

March 7, 2008 — -- Matt and Kari Baker appeared to have a perfect life in Waco, Texas: a house in the suburbs, two beautiful daughters and church on Sundays with Matt at the pulpit.

But that existence was shattered when almost two years ago, when Kari was 31 years old, she apparently committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills. There was a typed unsigned suicide note.

Matt, received the sympathy and compassion of his community -- until he was charged with his wife's murder. Now the 36-year-old preacher must defend himself to an increasingly doubtful congregation and prosecutor.

"There was never a doubt that I loved her or that she loved me. I never doubted that for a moment," Matt said. "She had a wonderful smile, great personality. I don't think my love ever stopped for her and it won't."

Although Kari had a full life, not only as a mother and wife, but as an elementary school teacher, Matt said there were signs of trouble.

It began with a monumental tragedy in the young couple's life: the loss of their second daughter. Kassidy, who was born a decade ago, suffered a brain tumor when she was 1 and died at 16 months. Everyone agrees that the death drove to bouts of terrible grief.

"I didn't think she was depressed," Matt said. "I thought it was just a deep sadness."

Suicide or Murder?

The night Kari died, Matt told investigators about Kari's sadness over the loss of her daughter and they quickly decided the death was a suicide. A lone detective took photographs of the scene and the justice of the peace -- who didn't come to the house -- made a ruling of suicide over the phone and without an autopsy.

Just days after Kari was buried, her family, recovering from shock, told everyone who would listen that suicide was not in Kari's nature. She had two daughters, Kensi and Grace, and loved her job at Spring Valley Elementary School.

"This just came out of nowhere," said Nancy Lanham, Kari's aunt. "There is no way Kari would've done this."

Lanham also says Kari was excited for her future.

"The day of her death, she had gone in for an interview, that went, it went really well," Lanham said.

Matt's mother, Barbara, remains convinced that her daughter-in-law took her own life. "Suicide is an answer to pain you can't get rid of," she said. "There was pain that Kari was undergoing that she either couldn't or didn't get the proper help for and that was not a bad answer for her."

The churchgoing people of Waco viewed Matt as a grieving widower left to raise his two surviving daughters and to pick up the pieces after these two terrible tragedies.

Which is why it was a shock to Waco, Matt's church and his family when months after Kari's death, the justice of the peace changed his ruling on the case. Matt was arrested and charged with first degree murder.

'Never Once Did I Solicit Sex'

"I did not kill my wife. I did not hurt my wife. I loved her," Matt said.

But did Matt have a secret life that may have led to his wife's death?

Lora Wilson was a freshman at Baylor University along with Matt in the early 1990s. They both worked in the athletic department as trainers where she says Matt assaulted her in the locker room at Floyd Casey Stadium.

"He didn't stop with the kiss," Wilson said. "He didn't stop with the touching until he was ready to stop. Till he had gotten whatever it is he got."

Matt remembers the incident, but denies assaulting Wilson. He says it was the fantasy of a hysterical coed.

"There was a group of us working and when we finished, I don't know what happened to her. All I can tell you is when she left the facility, was in tears, but nothing I did," Matt said.

"20/20" documented six other complaints against Matt: from a female custodian from the First Baptist Church of Waco, who says he grabbed her sexually; a teenage girl from the same church who claimed he spoke to her in a sexually provocative manner; and at the YMCA where he supervised the day camp, four young women complained to management of improper sexual conduct.

Matt denies all of this, including any claims of assault.

"I can say this and I'll say it again that ... never once did I solicit sex from anybody," Matt said. "But can there have been things that have been said that [were] misconstrued? Possible, but never once did I solicit sex from them."

What really turned Kari's family against him was the revelation that Matt had given Kari's cell phone to a young woman from his church whom he called every day. The police affidavit outlining Matt's arrest accuses him of having an affair with this woman and even claims they were seen shopping for engagement rings together. The affidavit states Matt's motive for murder was to continue this new relationship.

Matt claims the relationship was platonic and he and the young women were buying earrings for his daughters.

The Sleeping Pills

The police affidavit also claims Kari may have suspected her life was in danger. The affidavit says Kari believed Matt was having an affair and that she told her counselor she found crushed pills in his briefcase and was afraid he was going to poison her because he was having an affair. Police say they found evidence on Matt's computers that he was searching the Internet about sleeping pill poisoning.

Matt says that he has no idea where the crushed pills came from and that he searched the Internet because he was trying to protect his wife who he says was increasingly dependent on sleeping pills.

"I did research to see can you overdose, is that even a possibility that I need to worry about, my wife overdosing on sleeping pills," Matt said.

And Matt asked that if Kari's counselor really believed he would hurt Kari, why didn't she do more to protect her?

"She [Kari] never looked me in the face and said I think you might hurt me," Matt said.


In his interview with "20/20," Matt seemed to contradict himself when discussing who found the suicide note.

On the phone with the 911 operator, he said he found the suicide note, but during his interview, he said a police officer found it first and gave it to him.

And there are other troubling details about what Matt told police and "20/20" about the events leading up to that night.

"It's 11 o'clock. She goes, 'well, go get this movie for me and gas up cause we have a busy tomorrow,'" Matt said.

Matt's 45-minute trip was confirmed by surveillance cameras and receipts. When he got home at midnight, he found his wife dead and nude behind a locked bedroom door.

Tom Bevel is a former Oklahoma City homicide detective hired by Kari's family as a crime scene analyst. Bevel says paramedics told him that lividity, a reddish rash that normally forms an hour to three hours after death, was just forming on Kari's body when they arrived. He says this indicates that Kari must have died long before Matt left the house for a movie.

Circumstantial Evidence

Bevel points to other red flags like the locked bedroom door and the typed suicide note, which are rare in suicide cases. He also finds it suspicious that the first thing Matt did before calling 911 or attempting CPR was to try and put Kari's clothes back on.

"I knew my wife well enough, that would've been embarrassing for her. I did not want the EMTs to come in and see her naked," Matt said.

Although there is a lot of circumstantial evidence, the biggest roadblock to a conviction is answering how did Kari die?

The prosecution's theory is that Matt drugged Kari with sleeping pills and then suffocated her with a pillow. In an autopsy performed months after Kari's death, there was no sign of sleeping pills in her stomach. There was, however, evidence of sleeping pills found in her tissues, though that does not determine how many sleeping pills she actually took. The autopsy also failed to reveal any evidence of suffocation or choking.

"I think it is something that in our society, we hang that hat with the jury and let them look at all of the physical evidence that is there, those issues that you're bringing up and it is up to them to make that decision," said Bevel.

When asked, Matt repeatedly denies killing his wife.

"I loved her. She's the mother of my children," Matt said. "We struggled after the death of our child and like every marriage you have your ups and your downs, you have your good days and your bad days. But I loved her and I miss her and I did not hurt my wife."