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Cold Justice Investigates 1998 Murder of Eric Baxter

The more episodes of TNT's Cold Justice I watch, the more I really love this show. In the last episode, former Texas prosecutor Kelly Siegler, former Las Vegas CSI Yolanda McCleary and retired Houston detective Alan Brown traveled to Dickson County Tennessee to look into the August 20, 1998 shooting death of Eric Baxter.

Eric Baxter
Eric Baxter and his mother Joy owned and operated several local convenience stores. By all accounts they were happy and successful, Eric had no known enemies. Eric's body was discovered by his mother in the hallway of their home on Jones Creek Road. The home was somewhat remote, with lots of open space in front of and in back of the house. The house had glass french doors that opened to a patio in the back yard - which backed up to a large open field that wouldn't have been difficult to enter.  Paved roads near the property made for an ideal parking spot for the killer to hide his/her car and sneak up to the back of the property undetected. The Baxter's had two dogs, and during a phone conversation between Eric and his longtime friend Rhonda, he told her he believed somebody was outside because the dogs would not stop barking.

Rhonda was the last person to have talked to Eric on August 20, 1998. His mother arrived home less than 40 minutes later and made the horrible discovery. Eric had been shot at least 6 times with a .38 caliber handgun, the last shot was at point blank range to the right temple. Little evidence was left behind by the killer, but an unfired round was found near Eric's feet and a bullet was found lodged in the base of a large plant stand in the hallway. The Cold Justice team went to the scene and played out what they believed happened, based on the crime scene photos and the home's layout. They believe that Eric encountered the intruder in the hallway, grabbed or blocked the killer's outstretched arm and a shot was fired straight down into the base of the plant stand.

Eric was backed into the hallway with nowhere to run, no escape route existed. It is unlikely Eric would have fled to that spot knowing there was no way out from that area. That led investigators to believe the killer more than likely watched Eric from the relative safety of the backyard, and waited for him to get off the phone in the back bedroom. He likely entered from the back of the house, the sliding glass doors may have been left unlocked since Eric had put the barking dogs outside in the dog run on the side of the house, where they still were when police arrived at the home.

There were two main suspects back in 1998. Eric had a long term intimate relationship with a man named Jerry Ragsdale. Jerry was believed to have a key to the home, and he also worked for Eric and Joy at their stores. Ragsdale caught the attention of law enforcement during the original investigation because he lied to them about the true nature of his relationship with Eric. I can understand why he lied. Back in the late 90's, gay relationships were not as accepted as they are now, and this likely would have been kept a closely guarded secret. Other than the fact that he initially lied, police had no reason to believe Jerry had any reason to want Eric dead. During the Cold Justice investigation, they interviewed Jerry again and they were convinced that Jerry was not the killer. For one thing, Jerry has never owned a gun of any kind, has no knowledge of guns. Eric's killer had to have been skilled at firing a gun, only the shot fired into the ground missed the killer's target. A person with no experience with guns likely would have had many wild shots fired and there would have been evidence of that. This killing was clean and methodical, little evidence was left behind and all but one shot hit the killer's target - Eric.

The other suspect from 1998 was a man named Tommy Wortham. Wortham was leasing one of the Baxter's convenience stores in town and was attempting to buy it from them.  The deal fell through, the Baxter's did not sell the store to Wortham and according to many witnesses he was very upset about the deal falling through. Another twist to Wortham as a murder suspect: he was a former Dickson County Sheriff's Detective.  Someone who certainly had a lot of knowledge and experience with guns, knowledge of how crimes are investigated and someone who would have known how to remove all evidence from a crime scene. Former law enforcement personnel can be dangerous murder suspects because of their knowledge of how investigations are conducted.  Back in 1998, Wortham's alibi was that he was home all night with his wife Scarlett Wortham. 

The team interviewed former colleagues from the sheriff's office who worked with Tommy Wortham to see what kind of cop he was. These were people he worked with - so their opinions would hold a lot of water. Officer Chuck Talley described Wortham as "lazy", and during the time he was employed at the Sheriff's office, evidence was stolen from the evidence locker - narcotics seized during drug busts and money was missing. Many people within the department suspected Tommy Wortham was the culprit, mostly because he was known to use cocaine and marijuana and he was having financial problems after the store deal fell through. Tally and the other officers believed Wortham was a dirty cop, and they recalled an incident where they went to a bar for drinks and Tommy had a snub nosed 38 caliber gun with him that night. They saw the gun sticking out of the back pocket of his pants, they told him to put it away, and not to bring it into the bar. Wortham removed it from his pants pocket and tucked it into the waistband of the back of his pants.

Interesting. The Cold Justice team made contact with Wortham twice during their investigation. During their first informal talk with him, he stuck to his alibi that he was home all evening the night Eric was murdered. He voluntarily agreed to give a DNA sample. But he told them a number of things that directly contradicted what they learned through the interview of his former colleagues at the sheriff's office. For one, Wortham swore he never owned a 38 caliber gun. He flat out denied ever owning one or being in possession of one. The next person they wanted to interview was Wortham's (now) ex-wife Scarlett, but they couldn't initially reach her. They did reach Scarlett's sister, who agreed to come to the station for an interview. She didn't say much, but what she did say would also call into question Tommy Wortham's alibi.

According to Scarlett's sister, Scarlett told her that Tommy was not home the night Eric Baxter was killed. Tommy allegedly came home and woke Scarlett up and told her "I was here all night" if anybody asks. Scarlett would later deny having made that statement to her sister. When the investigators asked Scarlett's sister if she thinks Tommy could have had anything to do with the murder, she said "I really don't know". It was clear she had her concerns, she definitely didn't jump to his defense and say there was no way he could have killed someone. 

Next up was Scarlett Wortham. She came in to speak to investigators, and she was immediately defensive and nearly walked out of the station after only a few questions were asked of her. She denied ever having told her sister that Tommy asked her to say he was there all night. Her body language was closed off, but some of what she disclosed was telling. She told them about the problems the couple was experiencing at the time of Eric's murder. She admitted they were both involved with drugs and she was pregnant! She says that their relationship was further strained when Tommy lost his job at the Sheriff's office, and soon after they lost the store they were leasing from the Baxters. They were definitely in financial trouble, no income coming in and expecting a child - and with a drug habit to support.

Tommy Wortham told the Cold Justice investigators during that first interview that he didn't know where Eric Baxter or his mother lived. Not the case, says Scarlett. One of the most telling things Scarlett revealed is that Tommy Wortham did in fact know exactly where Eric Baxter lived. During a drive in the country, Tommy pointed out the Jones Creek Rd. house to Scarlett - "that's where they live". This directly contradicts what Tommy told the investigators during their first talk. Tommy reportedly told Scarlett "stop talking to them (the police), you are going to get me into trouble".  Tommy told the investigators that he wasn't upset about the convenience store deal falling through. Officer Chuck Talley said that was simply not true. He was reportedly very angry and upset about the deal falling through, and he told colleagues he lost a great deal of money as a result of the deal falling through.

When the evidence that had been submitted to the lab for DNA analysis came back, there was not enough to build a profile. The murder weapon was never recovered, there were no known fingerprints lifted from the scene, this would be a circumstantial case - but all circumstantial evidence was pointing towards the former Sheriff's Detective Tommy Wortham.  To recap:


  • Tommy Wortham's alibi fell apart, and could not really be verified
  • Tommy Wortham had been known to have a .38 caliber snub nosed revolver, seen by other officers first hand.
  • Tommy Wortham lied about having ever owned or been in possession of a .38 caliber gun.
  • Tommy Wortham lied about knowing where the Baxter's lived. He showed his wife the Baxter's home during a country drive.
  • Tommy Wortham was upset at the Baxter's when the convenience store deal fell through.
  • Tommy Wortham lied about being upset about the deal gone bad.
  • Tommy Wortham had knowledge of guns and knew how to fire them. He likely would have hit his target. Eric's killer was a good shot.
  • Tommy Wortham had the knowledge of homicide and crime investigation techniques, and likely would have known to wear gloves and leave the crime scene with little evidence behind.
  • Tommy Wortham had lost his job at the Sheriff's office and the store. He had no income and was suspected of having a drug habit to feed.
Tommy Wortham was asked to come to the police station for another interview. Approached at his home, he told the investigators that he needed to first consult with his family - he was afraid that he could be falsely accused, referring to the old saying "they can indict a ham sandwich" if they want to".  He promised to call the next day, but was a no show and he never called to reschedule.  He was looking like a man with something to hide. 

Kelly Siegler, Yolanda McCleary, Alan Brown, Dickson County Detective John Patterson and TBI Special Agent Joe Craig met to discuss where they were in the case and how to move forward. The case was completely circumstantial, some argued. Siegler pointed out that many cases are just that - and that sometimes a good circumstantial case can be more powerful than an eye witness. She took a pencil and broke it in half. She then held a pencil in her hand, adding another pencil with each new piece of circumstantial evidence they found in the case. By the time she was finished, she had a fistful of pencils and demonstrated how difficult it is to break a handful of pencils. This was her analogy for how putting the pieces of evidence together can paint a strong and powerful case pointing to a suspect. The pencils were the facts. They all appeared to point towards one suspect. They all agreed it wasn't a perfect case, but they may never find the murder weapon, the Wortham's were divorced and Tommy's wife may be less inclined to cover for her ex-husband 15 years after the murder. They concluded that now was as good as time as any to bring the information to the District Attorney's office to see if he would present it to a grand jury.

Siegler is a natural born leader. She is a confident and very competent attorney, yet she couldn't be more down to earth. She's humble for a woman who has reached the professional she has reached. I can't say enough about how much I admire Kelly Siegler's tenacity. She wrote the case up, the team went to District Attorney's office and discussed their findings on this case. The DA said this case has bothered him since it happened, and he always believed it could be/should be solved. With that, he said he believed a grand jury should hear the case. In August, a grand jury did hear the evidence, but as of the shows airing they had not taken any action to indict. That doesn't mean it's closed, it just means they need to keep working to gather more evidence to strengthen their case. It could be that one more piece of evidence or one more witness could make all the difference in this case. Although there hasn't been an indictment, I don't believe we've heard the last of this case. Eric's mother Joy died some years ago, but the people in Dickson County have not forgotten about Eric Baxter's murder. I hope to one day read about an arrest being made in connection with the case.

I guess it has to be said, there's always the chance that this was a random murder - a robbery gone wrong. But since there was nothing taken from the residence and no signs of forced entry, it's hard to believe it was random. This murder had all the earmarks of a killing that was up close and personal. The multiple shots to Eric's body, including the point blank range shot to the temple indicate the killer wanted to make sure Eric was dead. It was classic overkill.

Another great show, Cold Justice team. I was surprised to recently learn that the idea for this show came from Kelly Siegler. She says the idea came to her many years ago, alarmed by the number of unsolved homicides across the country - in particular, she felt focusing on those murders committed in small or rural towns without the big city resources might be a place they could make a difference. She was right. I don't know what their criteria is for the cases they take. I know there is an application process. Siegler pitched the Cold Justice idea and Dick Wolf liked it. That's how Cold Justice was picked up by TNT. At first, I thought Cold Justices' concept seemed to be based on Dateline's old "Cold Case Squad" which was a similar idea. This show is much better than the Dateline version in my opinion.  The pairing of Siegler, McClary and Johnny Bonds works. They definitely seem to have a chemistry between them, they seem to genuinely care about helping to solve unsolved homicides not for TV ratings, but for the victims and their families. 

Mary Ann Holmes
Next week's episode looks good. The case involves the murder of a young woman in front of her young children. Does it get any worse than that? 29 year old Mary Ann Holmes was killed on July 9, 1995 in Thatcher Arizona. Holmes had managed to escape an abusive ex and start over with her two young daughters. She seemed to be thriving in her new community, the way the killer left her for her children to see is unthinkable. I hope this case gets solved. Tune in next Tuesday!

Comments

  1. Beautiful article. Was a very sad ending to what I thought was a slamdunk circumstantial case. Hopeto hear some good news soon. I'm so happy they brought this show to life. Its amazing. I had a cousin that was raped and bludgeoned to death in Wyoming in the 80's and there has never been a suspect. So I know how this feels but am happy someone is taking the time to reopen cold cases and help solve them. Again, thanks for the article, will be looking at what you write next week.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm watching this now, but I don't think they should present to the Grand Jury. I would not convict, based on their "evidence". I also wonder about the gay lover. Do we know if either maybe had HIV/AIDS (since it was during the time that many gay people were contracting the disease)? As far as Tommy, I just don't feel they have any evidence that can't be refuted. Also, if Eric had one gay lover, surely he had more; did they work that angle? So much work to be done on this case before presenting to a GJ!

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