Nearly three years after a gunshot to the head killed his 20-year-old son in a Jefferson County hunting lodge in 2015, Kerry Baker of Conway started the machinery to dig up his boy’s body for the autopsy he had initially declined.
James “Luke” Baker’s exhumation — and a lawsuit against one of the young man’s best friends and his well-heeled relatives — flowed from Baker’s insistence that his son could not have died, as a Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office investigation concluded, in a solo game of Russian roulette.
Dr. Frank Peretti, the medical examiner hired to conduct the private autopsy, delivered a written report that found no evidence contradicting a deputy coroner’s finding of an accidental self-inflicted injury.
Editor’s Note: This is the end of a two-part series. Read part one: Lawyers Called Greedy in Fatal Gunplay Case
But his written report didn’t matter; Kerry Baker’s attorney claims Peretti made a verbal finding that supported the family’s theory of homicide.
Weeks after the autopsy, Baker’s family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Skylar Wilson, the only witness to the fatal gunshot, and his father, Bryan Adams of Faulkner County, previously a longtime friend of the Bakers. Another defendant was Bryan Adams’ brother, Brandon Adams of Washington County.
The Adams brothers have an ownership interest in the hunting lodge where Baker suffered his fatal injury on Oct. 24, 2015, but were not present when the single shot was fired. They also own dozens of long-term care facilities in Arkansas, making them one of the biggest players in that industry in the state.
“The circumstances of Luke’s death indicate he did not die freely of his own hand,” Monticello attorney Kenneth Gregory Stephens, who represented Kerry Baker and the estate of Luke Baker, wrote in the complaint he filed a day before the three-year statute of limitations expired in October 2018.
But the wrongful-death lawsuit blew back on Kerry Baker, his relatives and lawyers, triggering a vigorous lawsuit against them in Faulkner County Circuit Court. They have also been accused of misconduct by the Jefferson County Circuit Court judge who last month dismissed the Bakers’ wrongful-death case.
Judge Alex Guynn found much to criticize: fraud, abuse of process, misrepresentations and spoliation of evidence, a result of the irregular autopsy for which no court order was sought or received. The judge also called some Baker family lawyers “greedy” and suggested that the Adamses’ wealth had helped fuel the litigation.
While the attorneys deny any wrongdoing, the judge’s findings echo claims that Wilson and the Adams brothers made in their own civil complaint, filed in Faulkner County in April before the wrongful-death claim was dismissed in Jefferson County in June.
Now the Bakers and three of their lawyers are defendants, and Jefferson County Coroner Chad Kelley has been accused of perjury and tampering with a public record.
“And it’s not funny now when the rabbit got the gun,” Judge Guynn said.
Skylar Wilson, Luke Baker and two friends were on a bowhunting trip for deer when the shooting occurred. Wilson told authorities that after their friends turned in for the night, Baker was talking about playing Russian roulette when he produced a revolver, pointed it at the ceiling and pulled the trigger. The gun clicked and Baker laughed, Wilson said.
Next, Wilson said, Baker put the barrel to his head and fired.
The sheriff’s investigators and the deputy coroner who worked the case found no evidence to dispute Wilson’s version of events. But Kerry Baker refused to believe that his son, “an all-around personable kid who loved life,” would ever harm himself, even recklessly. So Baker hired Stephens, a longtime friend, to represent him.
Stephens, 63, an attorney who later became a medical doctor, said he took the case as a favor to Baker, who paid him approximately $100,000.
In September 2018, almost three years after Luke was buried, Stephens arranged for the body to be removed from Crestlawn Cemetery in Conway for an autopsy by Dr. Peretti, an associate medical examiner at the Arkansas State Crime Lab who also performs private autopsies.
The autopsy was done on Sept. 7, 2018, and Peretti issued his report a week later.
Luke’s wound was so decomposed that Peretti couldn’t determine the presence of gunpowder residue around it, an indicator of whether the gun had been close to Luke’s head at the time it was fired, Peretti said in a deposition taken in 2019. “There was no conclusion” as to the manner of death, he said.
Yet in the wrongful-death lawsuit filed for the Bakers on Oct. 23, 2018, Stephens wrote: “The gunshot wound is believed to be a distant wound.”
Stephens told Arkansas Business that Peretti had told him after the autopsy that there was a distant wound, indicating the gun was fired from a distance of 2 feet or more. Such a finding would support the plaintiffs’ claim, but Peretti didn’t say that in his written report. Asked about the distance in his deposition, Peretti responded: “I said it was inconclusive.”
Peretti declined to comment to Arkansas Business.
The Adamses and Wilson would later assert that no medical professional had reached the conclusion that was central to the Bakers’ wrongful-death suit. They would also discover “vivid photographs” of Luke’s wound taken at the time of death by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office that showed “stippling on Luke’s right temple and face around the gunshot wound.”
In this context, stippling refers to a pattern of gunpowder residue burned into the skin that results from proximity to the firearm.
But the Adamses and other defendants didn’t get a glimpse of the photos until June 2019 and didn’t get Peretti’s autopsy report until July 2019.
Stephens told Judge Guynn during a hearing in February 2019 — about five months after the autopsy — that “we don’t have a written report,” and he said Peretti “gave us a very brief oral report,” according to court transcripts.
That was untrue, the Adams suit says. The lawsuit also notes that Benton attorney Luther Sutter, representing Luke’s mother, and attorney Marion Humphrey of Little Rock, representing Luke’s sister, were at the hearing “and neither corrected the statements of Stephens, including the most critical lie of all — that there was no written autopsy report.”
Sutter told Arkansas Business that Peretti’s report was not final at that time, contradicting Peretti’s sworn deposition. Plus, Sutter suggested, Peretti’s findings didn’t negate the Baker family’s claim.
“It was inconclusive on whether or not there was stippling,” Sutter said. “I mean, you do recognize that ... inconclusive does not mean stippling was or was not [present]. … It’s just inconclusive.”
Humphrey didn’t return calls for comment. While Stephens, Sutter and Sutter’s law partner Lucien Gillham are named as defendants in the Adamses’ lawsuit, Humphrey is not.
Steve Nawojczyk, a former Pulaski County coroner paid to witness the autopsy, saw no evidence to dispute the official account of Luke’s death, according to his deposition taken in February 2020. He agreed with Peretti’s findings that “there was no way you could assess the manner of death with the information that we had.” (Nawojczyk declined to comment for this article.)
Nawojczyk said that Stephens had several theories about what happened to Luke. “You have to take your facts that you have and fit your theory into those facts,” Nawojczyk said he told Stephens.
Stephens did find one backer for his homicide theory: the Jefferson County coroner.
Chad Kelley, who has been coroner since 2008, has worked at the office since 2000. But on the night of Luke Baker’s death, a deputy coroner, not Kelley, handled the case.
In November 2018, more than three years later, Kelley amended the death certificate to say it was pending further investigation. He said in a July 2019 deposition that he made the change after learning through social media that the sheriff’s office had reopened the Baker case.
Maj. Gary McClain, spokesman for the Jefferson County’s Sheriff’s Office, told Arkansas Business the case was reopened after the Baker family “had come here with some questions and theories” about Luke’s death. He said the private autopsy had recovered a bullet, which was sent to the Arkansas State Crime Lab.
Tests on whether the bullet matched the gun found at the scene were inconclusive, McClain said. Once the Crime Lab report was received in December 2018, “there was nothing that … changed the outcome of the case” and it was reclosed, McClain said. But Kelley did not amend the death certificate at that time.
In his deposition, Kelley acknowledged that Stephens was routinely calling him for updates in the case, but he insisted Stephens had not pressured him “in any way, shape or form or fashion.”
Over the course of the wrongful-death lawsuit, he and Kelley became friends, Stephens told Arkansas Business. But Kelley testified at a second deposition in March 2020 that he had no relationship with Stephens. They exchanged about 510 calls totaling nearly 60 hours of conversation between Nov. 9, 2018, and Oct. 29, 2020, according to an exhibit filed in the Adamses’ lawsuit.
A New Cause of Death
In July 2019, nine months after the wrongful-death suit was filed, Kelley once again amended Luke Baker’s death certificate and declared, for the first time, that the fatal gunshot wound was “non-self-inflicted.” In a deposition, the coroner said he had examined all photographic evidence in the case and noted in his conclusion: “No stippling, muzzle impression, burn mark consistent with self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head; leads one to believe distant wound and … not self-inflicted.”
When attorneys for the Adamses quizzed the coroner about the amended death certificate and handed him the photos of Luke Baker’s body taken just after death, Kelley conceded that the photos showed stippling around the wound.
Asked why he would report “no stippling” on the death certificate, Kelley said, “A mistake on my part.”
Kelley said in his deposition in March 2020 that he would again amend Luke Baker’s death certificate to say a gunshot wound to the head was the cause of death and remove the section that says “non-self-inflicted.” He also said he planned to remove the section about how the injury occured. But as of last month, he had not done so, the Adamses’ suit said.
The Adamses also accused Kelley of perjury when he repeatedly denied in a deposition that he used notes prepared by plaintiffs’ attorney Stephens to prepare his addendum to Luke Baker’s death certificate.
In truth, the Adamses’ suit said, Kelley’s findings were “virtually identical” to notes marked “Greg Stephens Work Product” that Nawojczyk said Stephens had given him days earlier.
Stephens told Arkansas Business that he had mistakenly put “work product” on notes that Kelley had written in November 2018.
The Adamses’ lawsuit alleges that the coroner’s actions were part of a conspiracy “to turn an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound into a homicide.”
Kelley insisted otherwise. “I don’t have anything against these people,” he said in his deposition. “I don’t even know them. I mean, what would I have to gain from this lawsuit?”
The Adamses’ lawyers suggested one possible motive: a sexual harassment suit against Kelley, individually and in his official capacity as Jefferson County coroner, filed nearly a year before Luke Baker’s death.
David Westbrook, who had been a deputy coroner, filed a lawsuit in November 2014 accusing Kelley of sexually harassing him and eventually firing him.
Westbrook paid $5,000 to retain Luther Sutter, who would later represent Luke Baker’s mother, to represent him in the lawsuit against Kelley. But after an answer to the suit was filed in January 2015, little action was taken in the case until more than four years later.
Then in early April 2019, three months after Sutter and his firm entered the Bakers’ wrongful-death case, Sutter served Kelley with a notice that he was going to take his deposition in the sexual harassment case.
The deposition was never taken. Instead, Westbrook settled for $16,250, according to information Arkansas Business obtained under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
“This settlement prevented Westbrook’s harassment case against Kelley from going to trial, and Kelley avoided the embarrassment and humiliation of the graphic and public disclosure of the allegations of sexual advances asserted by Westbrook,” the Adamses said.
Westbrook’s case against Kelley was dismissed in May 2019, leaving the coroner “poised to assist” the plaintiffs and their attorneys, the Adamses’ lawsuit said.
Westbrook later learned about Kelley’s role in the wrongful-death suit and questioned it. In a July 2020 deposition unrelated to the Baker case, Westbrook said Sutter had encouraged him to settle with Kelley, even though Westbrook didn’t think the settlement offered was reasonable.
In response to Westbrook’s criticisms, Sutter’s law firm, Sutter & Gillham, sued his client in September 2019 in Saline County Circuit Court and asked a judge to rule that the law firm didn’t breach its fiduciary duty. “When a client accuses you of doing something wrong, you can try to talk to him about it,” Sutter said. “And if he won’t talk to you about it and you still want to resolve it, all you’ve got is a lawsuit left.”
Special Circuit Judge David Laser ruled in favor of Sutter & Gillham in September 2020.
Kelley referred questions to his attorney, Jason Owens of Conway, who declined to comment.
Stephens, Kerry Baker’s attorney, landed in trouble with Judge Guynn of Jefferson County after Baker was scheduled to give a deposition in May 2019. Attorneys for Wilson and the Adams brothers said Baker stated his name and left without answering any questions.
At a hearing the next month, Stephens explained that Baker had not been feeling well and had a relapse of shingles. “I did not want his stress exacerbated,” Stephens told the judge, and asked for a three-week delay in the deposition.
Attorneys for the Adamses pointed out that Baker was well enough to continue working as a general property manager at Rush Hal Properties of Conway on the day he was supposed to be deposed.
Guynn was having none of it and denied Stephens’ request.
“Mr. Stephens, I really think you lied to me,” Guynn said at the hearing. It was this comment, Stephens said, that prompted him to leave the case less than a month later.
The judge said Stephens misled the court and “failed miserably” in his duty to cooperate with opposing counsel. He ordered Stephens to pay $2,471 in attorneys’ fees and costs associated in preparing the deposition, making it the second time Stephens paid a financial penalty in his representation of the Baker family. In a Faulkner County probate matter, Stephens was ordered to pay $33,344 in attorney fees for Skylar Wilson after the judge found that Stephens had made an improper motion for sanctions.
Kerry Baker ultimately sat for a deposition that totaled more than 30 hours. But when asked for facts or information to support his claim that Luke’s death was a homicide, Baker would say: “That would be information from my attorneys and investigators,” which he said was privileged.
‘Hurt People Hurt People’
In a complaint that fills 110 pages, not including 94 exhibits, Skylar Wilson, his father and uncle said they have spent more than $1 million defending against the “unfounded allegations” of homicide and coverup that were “abusive, malicious, and designed for an ulterior purpose including to extort a settlement from” the Adamses.
They are represented by attorneys Judy Simmons Henry of Wright Lindsey & Jennings of Little Rock, Efrem Neely Sr. of Pine Bluff and Thomas Williams of Quattlebaum Grooms & Tull of Little Rock.
The defendants — the Bakers, their lawyers, Coroner Chad Kelley and others — have asked that the case against them be dismissed.
Stephens, the lawyer-doctor who originated the wrongful death case, told Arkansas Business that he did nothing wrong, nor did the other attorneys for the plaintiffs. As the court fighting continues, he maintains that Luke Baker’s death was a homicide.
Sutter & Gillham, which represented Luke Baker’s mother, withdrew from the case in February 2020, but Sutter now wants to revive the wrongful-death case that Guynn dismissed because he, his firm and his law partner never had a chance to be heard on the judge’s conclusions of wrongdoing.
Sutter’s motion has not been ruled on, but Guynn sounded firm when he dismissed the Bakers’ complaint with prejudice, meaning the case can never be refiled.
In a hearing last month, Guynn said he was “tired of theatrics. A young man died. A father deserves answers.”
He said he had been patient because he would want answers if what happened to Luke Baker had happened in his family, but both families have been damaged by the accusations.
“It goes to that old adage, ‘Hurt people hurt people,’” he said in court.