One fact is certain: Kerry Baker’s 20-year-old son died of a gunshot to the head at a Jefferson County hunting lodge on Oct. 24, 2015.
But Baker simply couldn’t believe the sheriff’s official version of events — that his boy, James “Luke” Baker, put a revolver to his head and pulled the trigger in a solo game of Russian roulette.
Luke “was trained in gun safety,” Baker said in a 2019 court deposition. “He would not harm himself in any form or fashion.”
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series.
Baker’s zeal for satisfactory answers about what happened to his son on that bowhunting trip led him to file a lawsuit in 2018. That litigation, in turn, has pitted lifelong friends against each other and set off a complex and heated three-year odyssey through two county courthouses and a litany of allegations including:
- Claims that a long-delayed “secret” autopsy was conducted without proper permission;
- Questions about the motivation for actions by the Jefferson County coroner; and
- The presiding judge’s candid conclusion that some of the Baker family’s lawyers were “greedy.”
Jefferson County Circuit Judge Alex Guynn suggested in court last month that in his grief over losing his son, Baker had been “going to the extreme” in the legal battle.
“Greedy lawyers also hurt people,” the judge said during a hearing.
But Baker said that suing was his only way to find the truth.
That search for truth, which eventually put Baker himself under scrutiny, included a wrongful death suit against Luke’s companion on the night of his death, Skylar Wilson of Conway, as well as Wilson’s father, Bryan Adams of Faulkner County, and uncle, Brandon Adams of Washington County.
Bryan and Brandon Adams are part-owners of the hunting lodge but weren’t present at the shooting. Notably, the Adams brothers also own dozens of long-term care facilities in Arkansas, according to records at the Arkansas Department of Human Services.
At the hearing on June 2, Judge Guynn described the Adamses as “loaded” and suggested that their prominence had propelled the legal actions. “I don’t think [we would] be here if the defendants worked at UPS,” Guynn said. Instead, he said, the defendants have “got some cash and people want to get … them some.”
Guynn said he allowed the Baker family and Luke Baker’s estate to pursue discovery in the wrongful death case, “and I think it backfired on them. And it’s not funny now when the rabbit got the gun.”
Last month, Guynn dismissed the Bakers’ lawsuit against the Adamses and other defendants. The wrongful death allegation hinged on a theory that Luke’s death wasn’t self-inflicted, but rather a homicide that required a cover-up. The judge found otherwise, citing instead an abuse of process, fraud and other misconduct in the plaintiffs’ case.
A lawyer for Luke Baker’s estate, Kenneth Gregory Stephens of Monticello, was hit with fines in two separate courts and voluntarily exited the case in 2019 after he said Guynn called him a liar. He told Arkansas Business that he did nothing wrong, nor did other attorneys for the plaintiffs.
Still, the court wrangling continues.
Attorney Luther Sutter of Benton, in a court filing days after Guynn dismissed the case on June 22, said he did nothing wrong and is seeking to set aside the dismissal. Sutter and his firm began representing Luke’s mother, Gena Downey Baker of Conway, after the wrongful death complaint was filed in October 2018. He and his firm exited the case in February 2020, but now he wants to intervene.
Sutter said Guynn’s order last month “has no basis in fact or in law,” and he filed the response to “expose a fraud on the Court and prevent a miscarriage of justice.” Sutter also said that he, his firm and his law partner, Lucien Gillham, never had a chance to be heard on the judge’s allegations of wrongdoing.
Sutter’s motion to intervene in the case is pending.
At the June hearing, Guynn said not all the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the wrongful death suit were greedy. “But I can tell you for sure, I think Mr. Stephens is, and Mr. Gillham.”
Gillham didn’t return a call for comment. Stephens said he was motivated not by greed but by a desire to help a longtime friend.
Sutter told Arkansas Business there were limits on what he could say about the case. “This is what happens when you make tall-building law firms and rich people mad,” he said.
In April, while the Bakers’ wrongful death suit was still pending, the Adamses and Wilson filed their own lawsuit in Faulkner County Circuit Court against more than a dozen defendants, including Kerry Baker; attorneys Stephens, Sutter and Gillham; Coroner Chad Kelley; and others involved in the wrongful death suit, which they called an abuse of the legal process that cost them more than $1 million to defend.
They also say the plaintiffs and their attorneys engaged in negligence and fraud in connection with their handling of the suit. The 110-page amended complaint, including 90 exhibits, was filed by attorneys Judy S. Henry of Wright Lindsey Jennings of Little Rock, Efrem Neely Sr. of Pine Bluff and Thomas Williams of Quattlebaum Grooms & Tull of Little Rock.
“Kerry Baker and Luke were lifelong friends of our family,” Bryan Adams said in a statement to Arkansas Business. “To have such a malicious and fabricated lawsuit filed in Jefferson County against us, our friends and colleagues three years after Luke’s death, and the tactics used by the Bakers and their attorneys, have been devastating.
“False accusations like these, motivated by greed, are extremely damaging personally, professionally, and financially, and our family has been no exception. Respect for the judicial process and resolve for the truth are what kept us defending this case for the last two and a half years.”
Defendants in the Adamses’ lawsuit have asked that the case be dismissed.
‘Then He Laughed’
On Oct. 24, 2015, Luke Baker, Wilson and two other young men were at Prairie Wings Duck Lodge in Altheimer on a bowhunting trip for deer. Here’s what the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office report says about that evening:
After their friends had gone to bed, Luke Baker and Skylar Wilson finished playing a video game, Call of Duty, when Wilson asked Baker if he wanted to play poker.
Baker said it was too late to play poker. Instead, he pulled out a revolver and suggested playing Russian roulette.
In a statement he wrote for the sheriff’s office, Wilson said he told Baker to put the gun away, saying “that’s not funny bro.” Baker pointed the gun at the ceiling and pulled the trigger. It didn’t fire.
“Then he laughed and put it to his head and fired,” Wilson wrote.
Wilson and the two friends took Luke to Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff, where he was pronounced dead.
Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Kaleisha Wise said she “observed burn marks from what appeared to be gunpowder residue on the right side of Baker’s head.” Wise said she didn’t notice any signs of a struggle or defensive wounds on Baker’s body.
Jefferson County Deputy Coroner Kimberly Phillips, who had been trained as a crime scene technician by the Pine Bluff Police Department and the coroner’s office, also said she saw the gunpowder residue called stippling around Luke’s wound, suggesting the gun was fired at close range, a key factor in the wrongful death lawsuit.
The death certificate listed Luke’s death as an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Kerry Baker decided not to send his son’s body to the Arkansas State Crime Lab for an autopsy. It was, instead, sent to Roller-McNutt Funeral Home in Conway, where Luke’s body was prepared for a funeral.
What happened to the body almost three years later — a secret exhumation of dubious legality — became one of the most macabre elements of the case and a central point in the lawsuit by Wilson and the Adamses.
In January 2016, a probate estate was opened for Luke in Faulkner County, and his father was appointed special administrator. In the petition to open the estate, Baker said his son was killed by an accidental gunshot wound. Baker received $500 in accidental death benefits from a homeowner’s insurance policy.
Baker, a general property manager at Rush Hal Properties of Conway, said in his deposition that he contacted Greg Stephens in the spring of 2016 for help looking into his son’s death.
“I didn’t know who to go to ... ,” Baker said. “I didn’t know who I could trust, who I couldn’t trust.”
Stephens, 63, is an attorney who later became a medical doctor. He told Arkansas Business that he had known Baker for about 50 years and he took the case “as a favor.”
Stephens told Arkansas Business that when Baker contacted him he was no longer practicing law and was going to let his law license go inactive and “just be a doctor.”
Starting around August 2018, Baker paid Stephens $100,000 over a period of several months.
In September 2018, almost three years after Luke had been buried, Stephens arranged for Luke’s body to be removed from Crestlawn Cemetery in Conway for a private autopsy.
Steve Nawojczyk, a former Pulaski County coroner, was hired to witness the autopsy by Dr. Frank Peretti, an associate medical examiner at the Arkansas State Crime Lab, who also performs private autopsies through his company, Forensic Autopsy Consulting Services. Nawojczyk said he warned Stephens that a court order was necessary for the exhumation and examination, according to his sworn deposition taken in February 2020. (Nawojczyk declined to comment for this article.)
Stephens didn’t get a court order. He told Arkansas Business that he talked to the legal department at the Arkansas Department of Health “and I asked them how to go about this, and they told me.”
He said he consulted with three funeral directors and they told him he didn’t need a court order.
The Adamses’ lawsuit says the body was exhumed illegally, which under Arkansas law would constitute abuse of a corpse, a felony. The complaint further says that Kerry Baker and Stephens used false information to exhume the body under a ruse of “disinterment,” typically used for moving a body to a different burial spot.
Stephens told Arkansas Business that he thought the autopsy was going through the State Crime Lab. “I talked to the [state] medical examiner’s office, and I confirmed in writing that he was doing this and it was going through the crime lab,” he said.
Instead, after workers opened the grave on Sept. 7, 2018, the casket was moved to a warehouse at the cemetery, and the body was removed and placed in a plastic bag before being transported in a van. The body was delivered to Ruff Mortuary Services in North Little Rock “for the secret autopsy that night,” the suit said, claiming that the unusual disinterment was part of preparations for the wrongful death lawsuit the Baker family would file weeks later.
“They knew that secretly exhuming a body, conducting a private autopsy on a heavily decayed body, … would yield the corpse essentially useless” to the defendants for testing. “These actions amount to blatant and intentional spoliation of evidence,” the suit said.
Stephens said the eventual defendants weren’t involved in the case at that point and didn’t have a right to be.
Search for Sanctions
The day before the autopsy, Stephens opened a second probate case on behalf of Luke Baker’s parents and adult sister, Savannah Baker Case, to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit. Stephens said he didn’t know about the first probate case when he opened the second one.
But the Adamses allege that opening the second probate case was an abuse of process and designed to hide the estate’s settlement with the homeowner’s insurance policy, in which Luke’s death was referred to as an accident.
Stephens began issuing subpoenas and discovery requests in the Faulkner County probate case to several people who would soon be named as defendants in the wrongful death case in Jefferson County Circuit Court.
The targets of the subpoenas, including Skylar Wilson, and their attorneys asked Faulkner County Circuit Judge David Clark to terminate the subpoenas after the attorneys agreed they would accept service for their clients if a wrongful death suit was filed. Clark agreed to cancel the subpoenas. But in November 2018, after the wrongful death case was filed, Stephens filed a motion for Rule 11 sanctions against Wilson, accusing him of lying about whether he was served with the subpoena that Clark had later terminated in the probate case.
Rule 11 sanctions “are typically reserved for matters of great importance,” Clark wrote in a subsequent order. At a hearing on Stephens’ motion in February 2019, Clark warned the attorneys that he would be awarding attorneys’ fees if the proceeding was a “complete waste of my time.”
Still, Stephens wanted to go forward. “I didn’t feel like I had any option, Your Honor,” Stephens said at the hearing. Skylar Wilson “said he wasn’t served and then we’re being accused of lying about it, and we want to clear that up,” Stephens said.
At the hearing, one of Wilson’s attorneys, Judy Henry, asserted that, “Mr. Wilson did not lie and he was not served.” Wilson’s attorneys presented evidence that Stephens’ subpoena was instead left at a residence where Wilson no longer lived.
After three hours, Clark declared the hearing to be a waste of his time since the question of whether Wilson was served didn’t further the job of probate court: to determine assets, collect assets and distribute assets.
“Everything you tried to use was improper use of this case,” Clark told Stephens.
In a subsequent letter to attorneys, Clark said that Stephens’ motion for sanctions “had NOTHING to do with this case.” Instead, it seemed designed to help in the wrongful death case that was pending against Wilson and others in Jefferson County, the judge said.
“It appears the hope and plan would be for the Court to make a finding that Mr. Wilson had materially misled the Court,” Clark wrote. “Although such a finding would in no way benefit the administration of the estate, it would provide the plaintiffs in the wrongful death suit a club to bludgeon Mr. Wilson every step of the way. After every answer the plaintiffs did not like, Mr. Wilson would be hit over the head with the findings of this Court that he had materially misled the Court.”
Clark ordered Stephens to pay Wilson’s $33,344 in attorneys’ fees in connection with the “frivolous and unnecessary action.” Stephens appealed the decision, but it was upheld by the Arkansas Court of Appeals.