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When asked if she had any proof, Tracy said she remembered one thing about Oscar Baker: "He wasn't circ.u.mcised."
When Crowden asked why Owens didn't remember having to be taken to hospitals for infections from all the s.e.xual abuse she claimed, she said she didn't remember needing treatment, "but I remember that it hurt."
If Oscar Baker was circ.u.mcised, the opposing attorneys never put on anyone to testify to that to dispute Tracy Owens's account. And later, with another witness, Obenoskey brought in information that appeared to corroborate at least part of the former foster child's account, that the minister in question, the friend of the Bakers who Owens named as one of her abusers, was questioned in the midseventies regarding an attempt to lure a small child into a car by promising candy. The information had come from the former Kerrville detective who'd investigated the case, Pat Wertheim. Within a week after the minister was questioned, he'd packed up and moved out of Kerrville. "The minister had a big youth outreach program in Kerrville, and if it was true, I never believed that child was the only one," says Wertheim.
On redirect, Maguire put into evidence a medical record from his witness's 2004 hospitalization. Owens's physician noted on her chart: "Patient admits she has gone through s.e.xual abuse from her foster father."
The following Monday proved a long, complicated day in the courtroom. The first witness Obenoskey called was the court-appointed social worker, who had prepared a report recommending that sole custody be given to the Dulins. There was a glitch, however, as Crowden and Henneke objected, charging that the woman hadn't followed procedures by not notifying all the attorneys of communications and evidence she'd had on the case. There was a lot at stake, and the arguments went on for more than an hour before Judge Barton ruled that the woman would not be allowed to testify before the jury.
Instead, the expert in the witness chair that morning was Joann Murphey, an attractive, middle-aged redhead, stylishly dressed in a crisp white summer skirt and a blue, green, and white sweater set. A psychologist, Murphey had been appointed by the court to interview all those involved: Jim, Linda, Barbara, Oscar, and Kensi and Grace. Once done, she'd supplied all of the attorneys with a 116-page written report. Her recommendation: "That Jim and Linda Dulin be given sole managing conservatorship of Kensi and Grace Baker."
"Did you find that the current environment they're in is unhealthy?" Maguire queried.
"Yes, I did," Murphey said. "Every child needs a peaceful and loving family . . . I felt that Jim and Linda Dulin were the people best suited to do that."
Pulling together her decision, Murphey said she hadn't spent a lot of time considering either the s.e.x-abuse charges leveled against Oscar or the murder. While she'd interviewed the others, she hadn't talked with Matt, saying it wasn't necessary since he wasn't one of those being considered as the girls' custodian. On some matters, she found the Bakers and Dulins both able to handle the responsibility, including stability and being able to provide a home and support.
What differed, Murphey said, was the emotional health of the two households. After interviewing both sets of grandparents, the psychologist had come to the conclusion that the Bakers were, as the Dulins charged, disparaging Kari's memory and waging a campaign to drive a wedge between Kensi and Grace and their dead mother's family. "The girls hold their maternal grandparents solely responsible for their father's situation," Murphey testified. "They have unrealistic views of the court system and the power of their grandparents."
The Bakers, including Matt, Murphey said, fostered that opinion by maintaining that the Dulins had forced the murder case through to conviction. "Rather than that a jury of their father's peers made a decision." That, the psychologist testified, forced the girls to live in an unrealistic world, one in which a successful appeal would quickly bring their father home.
"You heard the girls' desire, that they want to stay with the Bakers?" Maguire asked.
"I heard that," Murphey said. "And I felt empathy for the girls. Who would wish this on anyone? It is horrific . . . I do hear their voices."
"Should that be the determining factor?" he asked.
"No," she replied. "I don't know any adolescents who know what's best for them."
Maguire then asked about the girls' school, their friends and church. They appeared to be doing well in Kerrville. Shouldn't that be a factor? Murphey said that with professional help, the girls would adjust to living with the Dulins and that it was their best opportunity to live happy lives. Although it appeared the girls were doing well on the surface, the therapist said that didn't always reveal what was truly going on.
"Did you have concerns that the girls are being manipulated?" Maguire asked.
"Yes," Murphey said. "By their paternal grandparents." There were also indications that the girls were being talked to about the case as if they were adults, given information they didn't need that increased their stress and made them feel more torn. "The most disastrous and horrific effects from high conflict are where children become p.a.w.ns . . . asked to take a side."
"Are the girls being used as p.a.w.ns in this case?" Maguire asked.
"Absolutely . . . by the paternal grandparents," Murphey testified.
One of the indications, she said, was the way the girls saw everything the Dulins did as wrong and everything the Bakers did as above reproach, a common symptom in what Murphey called Parental Alienation Syndrome. "It is absolutely a form of child abuse," she said, and on a scale of one to ten, with ten the most severe, she judged the alienation of the Baker girls as between "eight and ten."
On cross-examination, the Baker family attorneys worked hard to turn Murphey's testimony to their advantage. King voiced her argument that Jim and Linda's wrongful death suit and their efforts to have Kari's death investigated were to blame for the estrangement, not anything the Bakers had done. And she argued that there was nothing wrong with the girls believing their father was wrongly convicted and that he'd be exonerated. Murphey disagreed: "To think something is a reality before it's a reality, my granny used to say, 'don't count your chickens before they hatch.' "
When Henneke challenged the contention that the Bakers were denigrating their dead daughter-in-law's memory, Murphey said that she had personally heard them attacking Kari in front of the girls. "The tones, the words were not positive."
At one point, Henneke suggested that the Dulins' best option was to just walk away since that was what the girls said they wanted. Rather than an irrational dislike of the Dulins, he argued that it was logical for the girls to be angry with their grandparents since they blamed them for their father's incarceration. "Couldn't the girls stay in Kerrville and have counseling?" Henneke asked.
"It's possible, but . . ." Murphey began before Henneke cut her off. Maguire asked her to finish that thought. "It's possible, but in my opinion, it's not in the best interest of the girls."
After Murphey, the Dulins' attorneys called another psychologist, William Lee Carter to testify more in depth about Parental Alienation Syndrome. Like Murphey, Carter, a thin man with mostly white hair, described Parental Alienation Syndrome as a campaign to discredit a parent or grandparent in the eyes of a child. Reinforcing what the jurors had already heard, he talked of how such emotional and psychological pressure on a child could make a child turn away from family, even alter memories so that they fell more into line with the alienating parent. Children in such situations were sometimes treated as confidants and encouraged to think and feel negatively about the other parent. "They're told things like the other parent never loved them?" Obenoskey asked.
"That's a good example," Carter answered. Like Murphey, he then reviewed Matt's letters and pointed at examples of just that type of thing, including Matt's saying that he knew the girls' visits with the Dulins would be horrible.
What was the harm? "The child ends up living in a world based on a false reality. It dredges up negative feelings that create tension . . . and it emotionally harms the children." Although the problems often weren't evident until adulthood, Carter said they ranged from feelings of betrayal to an inability to trust and problems with emotional intimacy.
When it came to the girls' friends, the ones they'd leave behind in Kerrville, Carter said that while that might hurt, there was something more important: "You're only born into one family. Friends come and go."
There were those instances where the Bakers' attorneys found Carter agreed with them, as when King described a situation where events built, adding one to another, until they resulted in alienation. She included the day the girls were with their father when he was served with the wrongful death suit. "Yes, that makes sense," Carter said. When Beverly Crowden asked if taking a fifteen-year-old away from home, school, and friends could foster anger and resentment, even acting out, there, too, Carter agreed.
In the end, however, Carter indicated that for severe cases of parental alienation, common therapies rarely worked. Like Murphey, he described the syndrome as a form of abuse.
Once the experts had finished, Obenoskey put Matt back on the stand, and for the next hour snippets of phone conversations were played in the courtroom. Some were between Matt and Barbara, many of which were focused on the Dulins and how to win the custody case. Many sounded manipulative, as when Barbara said that Kensi was old enough to "play the game," but Grace wasn't.
"She'll learn," Matt replied. What game were they talking about? It appeared the game of keeping the Dulins at bay.
The conversations between Matt and Kensi were particularly disturbing, when he discussed testimony at hearings with his daughter, in one saying that Linda Dulin had lied on the stand. He referred to the Dulins as "idiotic and weird," and Waco as "that place from h.e.l.l," and Kensi responded, one day saying, "Good news. I don't have to go to Waco."
At other times, Kensi seemed the only one with common sense, as when she sounded reluctant to write the convicted murderer her father was urging her to form a relationship with. "Write back to him . . . He's diabetic. You can ask him how he's doing," Matt urged.
"That's awkward," Kensi responded, sounding disgusted. "I'm not going to do that."
One of the most disturbing phone calls was one in which Matt and his mother discussed the upcoming custody trial. During it, Matt said sarcastically that Linda Dulin could use drama to sway the jury. Mocking her, he whined, "Boohoo. I lost my daughter."
As the trial wore on, it became increasingly evident that the children, especially Kensi, were being manipulated and used, so much so that at one point Matt asked Kensi to take pictures inside the Dulins' house. One was of the inside of their medicine cabinet. Was he looking for Ambien, to prove Linda had some? Did he think this could be useful in his appeal? Is that why he had his teenage daughter spying?
The Bakers' attorneys took over the trial, and off and on, Matt and Barbara were again on the stand, denying that he'd taken pictures of Kari out of the house within a week of her death or that he'd put one of Vanessa Bulls in their place. The phone calls, e-mails, and letters the Dulins' attorneys submitted, they suggested, were culled from thousands of minutes on the phone and hundreds of letters, a small sampling. Yet on redirect, Obenoskey brought a bigger stack, putting them into evidence, and had Matt read from them. "They're representative, aren't they?" he asked. After some prodding, Matt agreed that they were.
In other e-mails, Kensi chastised Jim and Linda for attacking Matt. Linda denied it, but Kensi said Linda had "talked bad on Mother's Day with me . . . and Paw-paw said something bad about daddy the day I was sick." In another e-mail, she said, "When will you stop calling my daddy bad names. I will always protect my dad and my sister. This is from my heart."
"If it were up to me, I don't want to see you at all," Kensi e-mailed in 2008, two years after her mother's death. Were her memories true or were they distorted by what she was hearing from her father and his parents? Once after the girls visited, Linda found a note left behind: "I hate Jim and Linda." It was signed, Kensi Baker.
"Have you grieved for your daughter?" Fred Henneke asked Linda.
"Yes," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "I know that I am going to see my child again for eternity. I think that's a good promise."
The one thing Pam King agreed with Linda about was that the wrongful death lawsuit hadn't started the alienation. Instead, it had begun months earlier, on the night in April 2006 when Kari Baker died.
"Do you think it's in their best interest to put them through this pain?" Henneke challenged.
"Because I want them to grow into healthy adults . . . Sometimes, short-term pain is necessary for long-term happiness," Linda answered.
The attorneys asked if the Dulins could live with the girls' belief that their mother had died of suicide, and Linda said she could, but the debate continued, witness after witness. Many were respected members of Kerrville's community, who testified that Oscar and Barbara Baker were good people, solid members of the church who reached out to help others, and that they were good to Kensi and Grace. Some talked about how well the girls performed in school, while others maintained that they'd visited the foster home when the Bakers ran it and that they'd never seen any indication of abuse.
Early on, there'd been speculation that the Bakers would present their own former foster children to refute the charges made by the four women who claimed that Oscar abused them, but in the end only one of the nearly fifty the Bakers estimated they'd cared for came to defend them, Jamey Hodges. Explaining that he worked at Walmart and that he still called the Bakers Mom and Dad, he said, "They're my parents. They helped me grow up." When it came to the allegations of the others that testified, Hodges insisted that not only didn't he see anything inappropriate at the foster home but that it simply didn't happen. As he framed it, the women who'd testified were all lying; there was never any physical, emotional, or s.e.xual abuse.
On cross-examination, Obenoskey asked, "How can you be so sure?" He questioned if Jamey was always present, if he ever went to school or church, perhaps out with friends, if he could have been out of the house or even in a different room when the things the women testified to happened. "You can't say it never happened, can you?"
Defiant, Jamey insisted, "It never happened."
"You were always right there with them?"
"Correct," he said.
Of the remaining witnesses, two would later stand out. The first was Matt's sister, Stacie Segars, a heavyset woman with long dark blond hair, who lived in Denton, Texas, north of Dallas. At the murder trial, many had wondered where Segars was, why she hadn't come with her mother to defend her brother. When she testified, she began by backing up her parents' contention that the abuse never happened. "If Tracy says she was s.e.xually abused by your father, did that happen?" Henneke asked.
"No, sir," Segars answered.
Henneke repeated the other s.e.xual allegations, and Segars refuted each one.
"Would you have any reservations about leaving children in the care of your parents?"
"No," she answered.
When Pat Maguire began asking questions, Segars said that she and her brother didn't communicate, either by telephone or in letters. "Do you have any understanding why these women would come into court and say that your father was s.e.xually inappropriate with them? Any motives?"
"None whatsoever," she answered.
"It's possible that things happened, and you didn't know about them?"
At that, she paused just a moment, then said, "It's possible."
From the beginning, the witness the Dulins' attorneys worried the most about was Kensi Baker. "That was really their star witness," says Maguire. "It's pretty convincing putting a teenage girl on the stand who says please don't make me move to Waco."
After Matt's sister, the older Baker daughter walked into the courtroom and took the stand. Kensi's long dark blond hair was braided in the front and pulled back, and she wore a navy blue top with ruffles. Before the questioning began, Crowden asked her witness to take a deep breath. Then they discussed the lives of the fifteen-year-old and her sister, Grace, who was set to turn eleven on the coming Monday. At Tivy High School, Kensi was following in her father's footsteps, working as a trainer under his old mentor in the sports department.
In many ways, Kensi's testimony was heartbreaking. At times, it appeared that the teenager was determined to discredit her maternal grandparents, sometimes in ways that conflicted with prior testimony, as when she complained that the Dulins made her and Grace sleep on pallets on the floor in their bedroom during visitation. The problem was that the psychologist, Murphey, had testified earlier that Kensi and Grace had told her that they'd insisted on the arrangement in order to reinforce for the Dulins that they were guests, and that they weren't moving into the two empty bedrooms in the house.
Then Crowden played an audiotape Kensi made on their first visitation after their father's conviction. Unbeknownst to the Dulins, when they sat down to talk with their granddaughters, Kensi set her cell phone to record. At first many in the courtroom a.s.sumed that there had to be something awful in the recording, something the Dulins said that explained why a granddaughter would go so far as to secretly tape record her grandparents. But there wasn't. "We can't pretend like nothing has happened," Linda could be heard saying on the tape. "We've prayed and prayed that G.o.d could put wisdom, the right words to say."
No one, Linda said, should have to go through what the girls had suffered. "I would do anything if things were different . . . You are our children. You are our hearts."
As the tape played, Kensi cried, and Linda rested her head on Jim's shoulder, while Oscar and Barbara stared at their granddaughter's profile. "We want to be part of your lives," Linda pleaded. Over and again, she said that what they wanted was for the girls to heal and for them to have good lives. "To make you whole . . . Your mom loved you. She would never leave you."
Confused, some wondered what point Crowden hoped to make with a tape that ill.u.s.trated both the Dulins' love for their grandchildren and the alienation they claimed at the root of their suit. When it was finished, the girls' attorney asked Kensi how she interpreted what her grandmother had said, that she wanted the girls to heal and become whole. "She believes that we haven't grieved properly, and we're broken and unhealthy," the teenager said.
"How does that make you feel?"
When it came to her father, Kensi said, "I believe that he's innocent."
What about those unrealistic beliefs the psychologist said the girls had? Earlier, Crowden had told jurors that they'd hear Kensi say that she understood and accepted that her father could be in prison for many decades to come. Yet when Crowden asked the teenager that question, Kensi replied as the psychologist said she would, stating that she believed her father would not only be freed but that it would be soon.
Yet there was no mistake about what the teenager said she wanted. Not only did she want to remain in Kerrville with her sister and paternal grandparents, but Kensi wanted even less time with the Dulins than the one weekend a month. Moving to Waco? "It would be terrifying."
Darren Obenoskey's voice was soft, not confrontational, when he took over questioning the teenager on the witness stand. Kensi said she did remember a happier time, before her mother died, when the Dulins were a big part of her life. As evidence, the attorney gave her a note to read, one she'd written the year before her mother died, in which Kensi referred to the Dulins' home as her favorite place. Then he asked her to read the note found just months later: "I hate Linda and Jim."
"What happened?" Obenoskey asked?
"They took my dad away from me."
"Who did?" When she answered Jim and Linda, the attorney said, "Why do you believe that?"
"They didn't have to take it to court," she said.
Obenoskey pointed out that the state of Texas prosecuted the case, but Kensi had seen Internet news articles, including the ones that said Linda had testified against Matt at his trial. "I don't feel they love me anymore. They don't show it like they used to," she said.
That day, so much of what the psychologist had testified to was evident in Kensi's testimony. She talked of having gotten over her mother's death quickly and putting the grieving behind her, so much so that she saw little reason to talk about Kari, who'd been such a big part of her life. And her certainty that her maternal grandparents were to be blamed for her father's conviction didn't waver. "I don't love them . . . they've caused me so much pain. I don't want to be around them," she said.
"Did they kill your mother?" he asked.
"No," and she conceded that they hadn't convicted their father. Yet she insisted that the Dulins had gone after Matt without evidence. "Because he didn't do it."
"If something happened to Grace, wouldn't you want to know what happened to her?" Obenoskey asked.
"Yes," Kensi said.
"Do you blame a parent for wanting to get to the truth about what happened to their child?"
"No, sir," Kensi said, tears spilling from her eyes.
There would be more testimony with Linda and Barbara, but in truth the trial felt over as Kensi walked from the stand sobbing. The following day, a Thursday, the attorneys made their closing arguments, reiterating all they'd said throughout the nearly two weeks of the custody trial. They each pointed at exhibits and testimony to back their arguments. After a one-day deliberation, the jurors entered the courtroom one last time.
In the audience, Kensi sat with her friends in the gallery, while Grace waited between Barbara and Oscar. Both began crying when they heard the jury's decision: As the psychologist recommended, both girls would be moving to Waco and living with the Dulins.
In their seats, the Dulins cried, too, but softly, tears of relief and sadness at all they and the girls had been through. There were tears for their daughter, who'd been stolen from them, for the girls, who'd lost their mother, then their father. Linda and Jim Dulin had won, but had they really? There would be a long road ahead, a painful journey, one they hoped would finally take them to a peaceful and brighter future.
It was earlier, before that final chapter unfolded at the custody trial, when I went to the Dulins' house outside Waco. Seated in the kitchen, I interviewed Jim, Linda, and the angels, Lindsey, Nancy, and Kay. It was a spirited conversation, one in which they talked of the dark suspicions that had led them to take the actions that eventually brought Matt Baker to justice. But more than that, they wanted to talk about Kari. "Kari was an extraordinary woman and mother, and we loved her. We still love her," said Nancy. "She should be here with her children. She should be here with her mom and dad."
Many of the women said they'd been inspired by her memory. Lindsey had gone back to college, determined to become a teacher. "I knew Kari would have whomped me if I dropped out," Lindsey said with a laugh. She thought about Kari, the strong woman they all knew. "The hardest thing at the trial was hearing how Matt had left Kari defenseless. But if he hadn't, she would have kicked his a.s.s."
Vanessa's name came up often, and everyone at the table agreed that they still wondered if Matt's ex-mistress had told everything on the stand. Could she have been involved in the actual planning? No one knew, but like so many others, they had little sympathy for her. "I don't see Vanessa as a victim," said Lindsey. "It blew my mind that she didn't think she'd done anything wrong."
What had all of them learned from what they'd been through? "We made a pact," Nancy explained, reflecting on all the years they'd kept Matt's secrets by not telling Linda what they'd seen and heard. "No matter how mad someone will get, how upset, we tell each other the truth."
My interview with Matt Baker took place the fall before the custody trial, ten months after his murder trial ended. On that November day, I left my Houston home and drove north to Livingston, Texas. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Allan B. Polunsky Unit is off a quiet rural road, and I drove past hole-in-the-wall restaurants, ramshackle wooden houses on stilts, and a trailer park to get there. I also pa.s.sed a sprinkling of small, clapboard churches, some with spires reaching toward the heavens. At least two were Baptist, and they reminded me of Pecan Grove, the historic church where Baker began his ministerial career.
At the prison gates, I identified myself and was waved through. The prison houses approximately three thousand inmates, including TDCJ's death row in a two-story, boxy-looking building, detached from the main facility. Like most prisons, Polunsky is a concrete building with slits for windows, watched over by armed guards in high towers, enclosed by a razor-wire-topped fence.