Murder of pizza shop co-owner shocks Freeland

Greenbank resident Kathie Baker was hit in the head, possibly with a ball-peen hammer, and strangled with a ligature before her body was wrapped in a tarp and dumped in a ravine, according to court records.

A framed photo of Kathie Baker sits next to candles and flowers left in memorial to the murdered pizzeria owner in Freeland.

Greenbank resident Kathie Baker was hit in the head, possibly with a ball-peen hammer, and strangled with a ligature before her body was wrapped in a tarp and dumped in a ravine, according to court records.

Her husband, 61-year-old Robert “Al” Baker, was arrested Saturday in connection with the brutal and bizarre case. A judge in Island County Superior Court set his bail at $5 million Monday after finding that there’s probable cause to believe he committed first-degree murder.

The couple owns Harbor Pizzeria in Freeland and were known to work there together since opening it last year. They both also worked for Raytheon Corporation, a major defense contractor. Senior Deputy Prosecutor Eric Ohme said in court that Al Baker is a scientist and travels internationally through his work, including spending part of each year in Antarctica.

Detective Ed Wallace with the Island County Sheriff’s Office said Kathie Baker was last seen alive on June 2. Investigators discovered her tarp-covered body in a ravine in her backyard June 9.

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown praised his deputies and detectives for quickly getting to the bottom of the mysterious disappearance, but he said they are scratching their heads at the unusual facts of the case. The Bakers appeared to be a happy couple and it seemed that little effort was made to clean up after the murder.

“It just doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said.

Kathie, 53, was a high-level computer programmer and telecommuted from her home on Silver Cloud Lane in Greenbank. Kathie’s boss at Raytheon reported to police on June 7 that he couldn’t contact her and asked for a welfare check.

Deputies went to the Bakers’ home and spoke to Al Baker, who claimed his wife had flown to Denver for her job; he said he dropped her off at the airport June 3. But a deputy again contacted her boss, who said she wasn’t scheduled to do any work at the facility.

During the investigation, deputies discovered that another woman was staying at the house. The 52-year-old woman had flown from Alaska and had arrived June 3. She said she knew the Bakers through their work in Antarctica. The woman said Al Baker had made it clear that he wanted a romantic relationship with her and had claimed his marriage with Kathie was over, according to a report by Detective Mark Plumberg with the Island County Sheriff’s Office.

Based on inconsistencies with his story, the deputies and a detective returned to the house and interviewed Al Baker again on June 8. He gave “improbable stories about the whereabouts of his wife” and then stopped answering questions, Plumberg wrote.

Al Baker gave the deputies and detectives permission to search his home. As he entered the house, Plumberg immediately noticed “a vivid stain,” later identified as blood, on the living room carpet.

“The stain was long and consistent with something being dragged over the carpet,” Plumberg wrote.

The deputies followed the drag marks to the kitchen, down a flight of stairs and to the garage. They found what was later identified as blood stains on the cement floor of the garage. Upstairs, a deputy also found a small pool of blood on the master bedroom carpet, according to Plumberg’s report.

Based on the evidence, the detectives obtained a search warrant. Members of the state patrol’s Crime Scene Response Team arrived at the house June 9 to help process the scene.

Wallace said the drag marks led in the direction of a small ravine behind a woodshed in the backyard of the house. The investigators searched the ravine and found Kathie’s body at 10:15 a.m. Saturday. She was wrapped in a blue tarp and bound with rope and bungee cords.

A member of the response team found a ball-peen hammer inside a garbage can in the garage; the hammer had hairs attached. The next day, the autopsy team compared a circular wound on Kathie’s head to the hammer. Plumberg observed that the wound was consistent with a single blow from a hammer.

Island County Coroner Robert Bishop said the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head with ligature strangulation.

“Both of the causes are lethal,” he said. “We are not going to split hairs over what came first.”

Bishop said Kathie Baker had been dead more than 72 hours, but it’s not possible to be more accurate beyond that.

People in the South Whidbey community who knew the Bakers are expressing shock at the turn of events. They were seen as a happy couple and Kathie was universally considered a very nice person.

Harbor Pizzeria was closed Monday. A printed sign on the door read in blue letters, “Sorry for the inconvenience But we will be closed for the day in Memory of Kathie Baker.”

A small memorial was set up on a 2-foot high metal table with a glass top. A couple of photos of Kathie stood with a few flower bouquets.

Business at the nearby Midway Cafe was nil during the lunch rush, and employees said it was unusually slow that morning, too. Midway Cafe has only been open since January, but the employees said they met Kathie and she came in frequently for lunch and was “super nice” and “sweet” and ordered hot chocolate with extra cocoa.

The pizzeria was open around 7 p.m. Sunday, according to one of Midway’s employees.

Ron Eaton, a loan officer with People’s Bank in the building next to the pizzeria, said the Bakers were “normal folks.” He said his co-workers and he ate at the restaurant often.

Eaton said when he arrived at work, “Al” Baker’s truck would be out front and Al would be working inside by 8 or 8:30 a.m., but “Kath” Baker worked every day at the pizzeria.

“She was a really nice gal, always had a smile,” Eaton said.

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