Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

From Botched Morton Case, Hope Emerges in Cold Inquiry

Almost everything that Caitlin and Jesse Baker know about their mother, who was mysteriously murdered 23 years ago when they were small children, comes from memories shared by relatives and from fading family photos of the smiling, petite brunette.

Over the years, aunts and uncles told them stories about their protective and generous sister. Their father recalled the loving wife who seemed to live in her pink sweat suit. Their grandmother shared pictures of their mother’s favorite horse, Molly, and tattered newspaper clippings of articles she wrote as a student journalist.

But no one has been able to answer the question that has tormented the Baker children for years: Who entered their North Austin home on Jan. 13, 1988, and beat Debra Masters Baker to death?

“I’ve never really seen an investigation happen,” said Jesse Baker, now 31. “It’s sort of just been fits and spurts over the last 20 years.”

This month, in a courtroom in Williamson County, just north of Austin, the siblings learned of the most dramatic development in the case in two decades. DNA from hair retrieved at the scene of their mother’s murder — evidence that the Bakers did not know existed — matched a biological sample found near the home where another young wife and mother, Christine Morton, had been murdered in August 1986. Her husband, Michael Morton, had been convicted in her death in Williamson County and sentenced to life in prison, but was exonerated last week.

“Not only was there something in our case, but there was maybe another case,” Jesse said. “It was shocking.”

The night before their mother’s body was found, Jesse and Caitlin, then 7 and 3, had spent the night with their father, Phillip Baker. Their parents were married in 1977, but at the time of her death they had lived apart for more than a year.

The police initially focused on Phillip Baker as a suspect. The couple had struggled financially, he said, but were devoted to the children and remained best friends. After six weeks, the police decided that Phillip Baker was not the killer, but they had no other leads.

And they have not had any since, the Baker family said. Over the years, Caitlin, now 27, and Jesse would press investigators for information.

Detectives would patiently show them the cold case file room and explain that their mother’s murder was one of many that they needed to solve.

“Until now that’s all it’s been, a file gathering dust,” Jesse said.

Then this summer, cold case investigators with the Austin police again started asking questions about their mother’s death.

This time was different.

Morton’s lawyer, John Raley of Houston, and lawyers with the Innocence Project had been searching for evidence to exonerate him. They had won a long court battle to have DNA tests done on a bandanna found near the scene of his wife’s murder, and it was discovered in August that it matched the DNA of a man with felony arrests in multiple states.

When researchers for the lawyers looked for similar unsolved crimes in places where the new suspect had lived over the years, they found the Baker case on the Austin Police Department’s website.

The man, who is identified only as John Doe in court documents because he is not in custody and has not been charged in either case, lived near the Mortons and only blocks from the Bakers in the 1980s.

Morton’s lawyers alerted Travis County officials, who quickly matched the DNA sample from the bandanna in the Morton case to a pubic hair found at the scene of Ms. Baker’s murder.

The Baker family learned all of that in the Williamson County courtroom earlier this month; they had gone to a hearing for Morton after learning of the connection to their mother’s case. “It took that hearing to know this was maybe something real,” Jesse said.

Morton was released from prison on Oct. 4 after nearly 25 years, and last week the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals officially exonerated him. But his case is not over: two inquiries are under way into how his case was handled.

Morton’s lawyers say that the Williamson County district attorney’s office withheld a transcript in which Christine Morton’s mother told a sheriff’s investigator that the couple’s 3-year-old son saw a “monster” brutally attack his mother.

The defense lawyers also say prosecutors withheld information that Christine Morton’s credit card was used and a check cashed with her forged signature days after her death.

Ken Anderson, who was the district attorney at the time of Morton’s trial, is now a state district judge in Williamson County. He did not respond to requests for comment, and his lawyer has moved to quash a subpoena ordering him to answer questions about the case.

The current district attorney, John Bradley, fought to prevent the DNA testing that led to Morton’s exoneration and opposed the release of other evidence to his defense attorneys. Bradley, in an email, said “ethical rules and investigative standards” prevented him from answering questions.

This week, Bradley asked the Texas attorney general to take over as special prosecutor to find Christine Morton’s killer.

Jesse Baker said he needs to know what happened in Williamson County and whether officials there allowed the man who murdered Morton to escape justice and kill his mother.

“The thought that they may have some responsibility in all this and they might not be held accountable is too much to think about,” he said.

Jesse and Caitlin said that after decades of disappointments they worry that their mother’s case will be shelved again. The family has received little information about the new investigation.

Buddy Meyer, a Travis County assistant district attorney, said he could not reveal details that might jeopardize the inquiry.

“It is a priority,” he said, and “will not fall by the wayside.”

Brandi Grissom joined the Tribune after four years at the El Paso Times, where she acted as a one-woman Capitol bureau during the last two legislative sessions. Grissom won the Associated Press Managing Editors First-Place Award in 2007 for using the Freedom of Information Act to report stories on a variety of government programs and entities, and the ACLU of Texas named her legislative reporter of the year in 2007 for her immigration reporting. She previously served as managing editor at The Daily Texan and has worked for the Alliance Times-Herald, the Taylor Daily Press, the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung and The Associated Press. A native of Alliance, Neb., she has a degree in history from the University of Texas.