AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Relatives of a Texas woman beaten to death in her bed 25 years ago long feared her killer never would be caught. Now, they worry he'll never go to trial for her slaying.
Debra Masters Baker's husband, sister, son and daughter gathered around a kitchen table recently for their first public interview since a man already serving a life term for a high-profile murder was charged last November with Baker's death.
Sometimes breaking into tears, they discussed their quest for justice since the 34-year-old property manager — remembered for her infectious laugh and boundless generosity — was bludgeoned to death before dawn on Jan. 13, 1988, in her Austin home. The family remains haunted by thoughts that if authorities hadn't wrongfully pursued and convicted an innocent man in an eerily similar case 17 months earlier, the real killer never would have been free to take another life.
"We know she didn't have to die, that if (prosecutors) had done their job right, they would have looked for the right murderer and hopefully she would have still been alive," Baker's sister, Lisa Conn, said during the nearly three-hour interview with The Associated Press.
Baker's daughter, Caitlin, said it was like a punch in the stomach when the district attorney told her family there was a possibility Mark Allan Norwood, eligible for parole in 15 years in the other case, wouldn't be tried in her mother's death. Prosecutors have since insisted they are still pushing for a trial.
"When something horrific like this happens, you deserve certain things, you deserve a day in court," Caitlin Baker said. "There's no reason why she shouldn't be entitled to that also." Norwood, 59, a former dishwasher and construction worker, was convicted in March of killing Christine Morton on Aug. 13, 1986, in her home, about 12 miles from where Baker lived.
Morton's husband Michael was originally convicted of the crime and spent nearly 25 years in prison. DNA evidence helped exonerate him in 2011, and the case gained national attention when the district attorney who prosecuted it was indicted on charges he hid evidence from the defense that could have helped prove Morton's innocence.
Hairs on a comforter and bathroom towel in Baker's home were linked to Norwood, leading to his indictment in that case as well. Dayna Blazey, a Travis County assistant district attorney and lead prosecutor in the Baker case, said all parties are waiting for the completion of the transcript from Norwood's first murder trial before they can proceed. She said it's not unusual for the process to take months, adding that a long prison term against a suspect in one case doesn't "automatically preclude" prosecutors from charging him in another.
"I can say that, to the best of my knowledge, the (case) is going to be prosecuted," Blazey said. Patrick Metze, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at Texas Tech University, said "at some point, the question becomes, 'How many life sentences does this person really need?'" However, he predicted prosecutors wouldn't turn back after going this far against Norwood: "You can take it to the bank."
But Baker's brother Jesse, who was 7 at the time of her slaying, said family members remain troubled by their meeting last year with Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg that led them to believe Norwood might not be tried in her death.
"I can see where (Lehmberg's) coming from, I can," said Jesse Baker, now 33. "She has a budget and she has to set priorities. But it just tears you up, and it makes it clear that it's not about justice."
Through a spokesman, Lehmberg declined to comment. Caitlin Baker, now 29, was three days shy of her fourth birthday when her mother was killed. She spent years hounding cold case investigators for new information. At one point, she recalls a detective be quoted as saying: "I wish I had a crystal ball or magic wand, but we don't have it."
But, once Norwood emerged as a suspect, investigators found striking similarities between the Baker and Morton killings. The two women were both mothers, and had long brown hair. Both had been beaten with blunt objects while alone in their waterbeds on the 13th of the month. Each time, the killer likely entered through an unlocked sliding door and stole little except cash and one other major item.
In Morton's case it was a handgun; in Baker's, it was a VCR with "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" inside. Although they originally believed Baker was killed in a 10-minute struggle, investigators since have concluded she likely was sleeping and never regained consciousness. There was also no evidence of sexual assault.
"Getting these answers, finally, means the world. It means so much more than a conviction," Jesse Baker said. Conn said she was at her sister's home until nearly midnight the night of the slaying and remembers hearing something in the bedroom closet.
"I really, honestly, believe he was in the house the whole time," said Conn, now 53. "He was just waiting for us to leave and for her to go to bed." Norwood lived just a few hundred yards away from Baker. He had previously been arrested for burglary in their neighborhood after he tried to sell stolen items at a garage sale, but wasn't sent to jail for it until three months after Baker was killed.
Instead, investigators focused on Baker's husband Phillip, then 39. The couple had married in 1977, but he came out as gay and moved out around late 1984. They remained friends, however, and the kids were staying with him the night of the slaying.
"I was their guy for about six weeks," said Phillip Baker, now 64, who even took a lie-detector test. Caitlin Baker only has snatches of memory about her mother, a blazing-fast typist and devoted fan of TV's Dallas. Her brother recalled his undefeated tee-ball team, which his mother coached.
Phillip later made Caitlin a scrapbook of her mother's life. It ends with a tuft of yellow police tape from the crime scene. The family says that could be her lasting image — unless the case goes to trial.
"She does have a story that needs to be told," Caitlin Baker said. "Nobody wants to be forgotten, or only remembered in her body bag."