Texas Ranger Bill Gerth talks about the investigation of the arsenic poisoning murder of Texas Millionaire
"Had a big trial-it was like an Errol Flynn movie!"
A secretary poisoned her boss over a period of time ... her and the wife were doing it.... It was an arsenic poisoning case.
Sheriff Bogard called me ...he said, "I've got something here ... the hospital called me and said there's a man that died in Wichita Falls from arsenic poisoning and he's from Clay County.
We went out to the murdered man's ranch in Clay County and talked to the secretary and the wife ...the murdered man had made three visits to the hospital in Wichita Falls and nobody in the world ever snapped on that arsenic poisoning. But we went through the records and they knew about it two or three weeks before he died, you know? Every time the wife and secretary would visit Sternadel in the hospital, he'd have a relapse. He'd get sicker and sicker. I think they were giving it (arsenic) to him in the hospital. So he finally died. He died of acute arsenic poisoning.
Well, we went out one day, this was kind of funny. We went out and talked to the grieving widow and we're talking... said do you mind if we search out here and see if we can find any arsenic or anything? She said no, you just search to you little heart's content. We got a consent to search so we went out.
Most of the people living in the country throw all their garbage and trash in a pit. Well, Bogard... [says] since I'm the sheriff of this county and you're assisting, you need to get in that pit and dig around (laughter). I said yeah, I kind of figured that's why you brought me along you know. So I jumped in the pit... being like I was. And I found an Ocean Spray Cranapple jug... had the cap on it. And it had about oh... a quarter inch of water in it. I said you know all the cranapple juice I ever saw was kind of a different color. Somebody washed this out. So we just seized that and we sent to forensic. The Institute of Forensic Science in Dallas did the autopsy... And that water in that bottle contained enough arsenic to kill half the people in Jolly. And I said my god, Bogard, do you know what we've found? We have found the smoking cranapple jug (laughter). And of course we had a little humor there. And I said by god, this is a bad deal. They, they poisoned him and killed him. He was worth several million dollars.....
We worked on this case and uh we never could come up with the arsenic and that was one of the key things... we didn't have enough evidence to indict either one of them (the secretary or the wife).
So the case rocked along... we waited two years. And uh Jake got a call one day from a storage locker out there on the Seymour highway. He said I just got a locker out here that hadn't paid their rent. And uh I opened the door and there's a bunch of articles in here from a lady in Holiday. And the, the secretary's name was Debbie Baker. And the lady that rented the locker used a fictitious name but she used her righteous address in Holiday, the real Debbie Baker's address. That was a clue. I said oh, I smell a rat here, Bogard.
So we got a search warrant. We went back in there and we inventoried everything in that storage locker. And we found a little bottle of Cowley's Rat and Mouse Poison, which contains arsenic. And it had about three quarters of it gone. And I kind of laughed... this will help us. This is a smoking Cowley's arsenic poison bottle. And that's what got her indicted.
And the funny thing about this... because uh she had completely forgotten to pay the rent on this thing. That's what got us in there. And somehow this guy that owned the locker had called his attorney which was an associate of her attorney. And I guess they got to talking about it. Said they got a damn deal out here that's got Debbie Baker's stuff in it. So he hot foots it and calls Debbie Baker who was living in San Marcos and he said have you rented something... a storage locker? And she said uhhhh, oh my god. She picked up the phone in San Marcos and calls the storage locker and I'm sitting in there with him. And she said I'll send you an express money order right now. He said oh, Mrs. Jones...I'm afraid it's too late. The officers are here and they're inventorying this stuff. She just panics. Well she hangs up the phone and I said who was that? He said that's the lady whose name is on this thing. And I said oh... we got her now. We got a subpoena for the phone records and that call from her home in San Marcos was the one that tied... the tie that binds... went right back to that storage locker. That's her. That was enough to get her indicted.
And the jury... they did the old flim flam. We didn't have enough to indict the wife but we had enough to indict the secretary. And they had mismanaged a bunch of money. I subpoenaed records for a year from the bank. They had to go back and get all these checks and stuff. And we went through all that and we found out all this stuff you know.
The defense played it great here. They made it look like Debbie Baker was just a helper and the wife was the one that did the murder. The widow got all the money and everything. And the jury came back and gave her ten years probation for homicide. And of course we all liked to have died. I said oh Lord, ten years probation for a murder... oh... Jesus...
But she got probation and she rocked along there for about four or five years and she quit paying her fees. You know you've got to pay a fee to the clerk and all this kind of stuff. Well she just quit. So they just went down there and revoked her probation and yanked her back into court. Said hey, you've gotta serve ten years in the penitentiary.
She is down in prison right now. She just failed her first parole. She won't get out until 2012. So it took a long time. But I've still got everything in that file. I've got four volumes about that thick (he indicated the size), and every statement we took from the 75 recorded statements on this. Everything that I had was in there and ... there were four copies made: one for the DA, one for me, one for Lubbock, and one for Yates' Sheriff's Office. But I got one of the original ones.
If Debbie Baker ever decides she's tired of taking this load by herself. She might just tell what the widow did on this... so we're back in business. (laughter) And I've got it all in there. There's no statue of limitations on homicide. I'm still waiting on the grieving widow.
Excerpt from 2008 Oral History Interview with Texas Ranger Bill Gerth
©2009 Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum