Is murder or suicide to blame for an oil tycoon’s mysterious death?

Ed Baker

Ed Baker

On November 8, 1985, flames ravaged an expensive Jaguar in a remote field 20 miles outside Houston, Texas.  Inside, sheriff’s deputies found a charred body, so disfigured, that even the gender was not apparent.  The car was registered to millionaire oil well promoter, Edward Gerald Baker.  Forensic tests indicated that the body was, indeed, his. 

Ed Baker personified Texas in the 1980s.  He was powerful, bold, and rich.  A onetime shoe salesman and insurance agent, he built a multi-million dollar oil investment business, seemingly overnight.  Then, in 1985, Baker’s world came to a fiery end.  Some believe he took his own life; others were certain he was murdered.  Incredibly, a few people even think Ed Baker may still be alive.

Ed Baker seemed an unlikely person to be at the center of such a deadly puzzle.  His company, Vanguard Groups International, was one of the fastest growing businesses in the United States.  Ed’s second wife, Mary E. Walker, watched him build the company from the ground up:

“He always knew he had the potential to have a very successful business.  And I think he tried his best to manage that business honestly and with a great deal of integrity.”

When Baker started his oil well business, his timing was perfect.  Houston was booming.  After his first oil wells came in, Ed had no trouble selling his clever tax shelters to wealthy investors.  According to Mary, people tended to trust him:

“He was acknowledged as a pretty brilliant strategist when it came to developing… shelter programs at that time.”

Someone set fire to his car

Someone set fire to his car

Four years after Baker started Vanguard, its sales reached $19 million.  But Baker’s sudden wealth brought on many changes in his life.  In March of 1984, he divorced Mary, his wife of ten years.  Soon after, he began to indulge in high stakes gambling.  Baker also underwent two face-lifts, took disco lessons, and purchased a flashy new Jaguar.  In September of 1984, Baker remarried, only to file for divorce five months later.  Just four days after the dissolution was final, he married Sandy Hoff, one of his employees at Vanguard.   All the while, Baker’s financial empire was disintegrating.  And in order to support his extravagant lifestyle, Baker was taking his client’s money.  Ward Busey was Ed Baker’s personal attorney:

“He was looking at some serious charges from a lot of his investors.  He was looking at… serious tax problems.  It may have been very true that he was about to go to jail.”

By October of 1985, Baker’s investors were clamoring for money, but Vanguard was on the edge of bankruptcy.  Baker apparently arranged to borrow money from a highly suspect source.  He brought in his private investigator, Bob Gale, to run a background check on the source:

“I got information from Ed that he was talking big money, such as millions.  And he thought maybe we’d have to do a little background on these individuals that he was preparing to have some financial dealings with in Florida, because he’d heard that… they had some sort of Mafia connections.”

Ed Baker seemed unable to reverse his downward spiral.  On November 6th, at around 7:30 PM, he showed up at his ex-wife Mary’s house in a state of emotional disarray:

“I was really kind of shocked because he was real pale and he was afraid he was being followed.  And this was very unusual.  It didn’t fit what I normally knew.  He told me that he had received death threat letters at work.  Within the past two weeks.  And that that day he had received two telephone calls at his unlisted home number, telling him this is your day to die… and that was the last time I saw him.”

Does this letter prove it was suicide?

Does this letter prove it was suicide?

Ed’s new wife, Sandy, said her husband sent her to Austin as a precaution.  She said she spoke to Ed at around 1 AM.  He was holed up in their bedroom because he had received yet another death threat.  Two days later, on November 8th, investigators found the charred remains in Baker’s burned out Jaguar. 

Terry Byrd was an arson investigator for the Harris County Sheriff’s Department at the time of the discovery:

“Somebody obviously was trying to burn the car… it was a rather crude effort.  We found three gallon cans of gasoline inside that vehicle, and around that vehicle, more than enough to sufficiently burn it up.”

That same day, a letter from Baker arrived at the office of his attorney, Ward Busey:

“It said, Dear Ward, if you are reading this letter, it means that I am dead.  I’ve had some threats on my life.  You’ve been a good friend to me.  Please take care of Sandy and the kids and do what you can for them.  And enclosed is another letter that I would like you to take out to Sandy and give to her for me.”

In the weeks that followed, the fate of Ed Baker became the subject of intense speculation. His wife, Sandy, was convinced that he was the victim of a Mafia hit.

A gun was found inside Ed’s car

A gun was found inside Ed’s car

Although Baker had told a number of friends about the threats to his life, law enforcement investigators believed he had committed suicide.  They learned that in the days prior to his death, Baker had called his life insurance agents.  According to Ronnie Phillips, a detective for the Harris County Sheriff’s Department, he specifically asked if his policies would pay in the event of his suicide:

“I believe it’s a possibility that Mr. Baker shot himself, committed suicide and then he had an accomplice that set the car on fired to make it look like a homicide so that all of the insurance policies would pay off.”

Sandy Baker refused to accept the idea that her husband had taken his own life.  She hired Keith Lyons, an independent private investigator:

“If you’re… professional like a mafia or syndication type thing, I don’t think so.  I don’t know why they would burn the car.  It seems to be somebody was paid to kill Ed Baker and that’s exactly what they did.  Ed Baker did not commit suicide.”

However, Baker’s attorney, Ward Busey, disagreed:

“The letter I got said if you’re reading this, I am dead.  How did he know he was going to die that night, unless he planned to kill himself.  I think Ed decided that he was about to probably go to jail and decided to get Sandy out of town so that she wouldn’t be implicated.  Said goodbye to everybody that he loved, went out to this field that he knew about, set his car on fire and shot himself.”

Bob Gale proposed an even different scenario.  He believed Ed Baker staged his own suicide:

“I feel the possibility that Ed could arrange something like this with a different body in that vehicle.  Ed was a very intelligent man.  A man who took in as he told me himself, $66 million the last year that he was in business.  And a man capable of faking his own death.”

Bob Gale and others believe that, despite conclusive evidence to the contrary, Ed Baker faked his own suicide.  They are convinced that Baker fled to an unknown location, perhaps the Caribbean, to live in luxury on funds embezzled from his investors.  While this theory may seem unlikely, the fate of Ed Baker has become something of a myth in parts of Texas.  If it was Ed Baker in the front seat of the Jaguar, did he commit suicide, or was he murdered?  And if so, by whom?