A man pardoned in the homicide of a drug dealer had planned a robbery of the victim and told a witness he had to shoot the man in self-defense, a federal agent testified Friday.
However, defense attorneys for Patrick B. Baker pointed to inconsistencies in the accounts witnesses gave of the crime.
The testimony came at a hearing on whether Baker will be detained until his trial.
Baker, 43, was convicted in state court in 2017 in the 2014 shooting death of Donald Mills, a large-scale pill dealer in Knox County. Baker was convicted of reckless homicide in that case.
His case has gotten considerable attention because in December 2019, Matt Bevin, then governor of Kentucky, commuted Baker’s 19-year sentence after two years and pardoned him in the homicide.
Bevin said he thought evidence in the case was sketchy.
Prosecutors argued there was plenty of evidence against Baker, however, and the Kentucky Court of Appeals said in a decision that evidence of Baker’s guilt was overwhelming.
Baker’s pardon was among hundreds of pardons and commutations Bevin granted late in his term, many of them controversial.
Baker’s case also drew attention because his brother and sister-in-law had held a fundraiser for Bevin in July 2018 that raised $21,500 to help Bevin pay off his 2015 campaign debt.
Some questioned if that played a role in Bevin’s decision to let Baker out of prison, but Bevin strongly denied that.
Last week, a federal grand jury indicted Baker on a charge of killing Mills with a 9mm pistol during the commission of a drug offense. Baker has steadfastly maintained his innocence and pleaded not guilty on the new federal charge.
The death penalty is a potential punishment in the case if Baker is convicted.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jenna Reed asked to keep Baker locked up until his trial. Friday’s hearing on that request played out as a preview of the trial.
One of Baker’s attorneys, Rob Eggert, asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Hanly A. Ingram to dismiss the indictment because Baker had already been tried for murder in state court, and the jury did not convict him on the charge, but rather the lesser offense of reckless homicide.
The federal prosecution violates the ban on trying someone twice for the same crime, called double jeopardy, Eggert said.
“Right now this man’s being charged with murder when he was acquitted of murder,” Eggert said.
The investigating officer on the federal case acknowledged the new charge arises from the same crime, and that the evidence authorities have against Baker is “pretty much” the same as in the earlier case.
However, Todd Tremaine, a special agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the federal indictment charges a different offense — not just murder, but murder committed in the commission of a drug crime.
Ingram said he could not dismiss the indictment at this stage, but the argument could resurface in the case.
Tremaine testified that a witness told police Baker bought drugs from Mills on May 7, 2014, so knew he was a drug dealer.
Baker allegedly came up with a plan to rob Mills with another man while posing as police officers.
Among the things witnesses told police was that Baker and the accomplice, Christopher Wagner, went to a Dollar General store in London late on May 8 and bought plastic handcuffs and a Dr. Pepper, and that Baker had a Google Earth aerial view of Mills’ mobile home on his iPad and asked about details of the layout of his home.
Wagner said he and Baker got guns and and masks from Baker’s house before the robbery, Tremaine said.
Wagner also said Baker kicked in the door of Mills’ mobile home, that he heard shots from a back room where Baker went while Wagner waited in another room, and that he went to a site in Bell County with Baker after the shooting and they burned clothes and buried parts of a gun.
Wagner later showed police where the gun was, and the serial number on it matched the number on a case where Baker was staying, Tremaine said.
Tremaine said the man who initially took Baker to buy pain pills from Mills, Elijah Messer, was nearby the morning of the shooting and said Baker told him afterward “that Donald Mills pulled a gun on him and he had to shoot him.”
In questioning Tremaine, Eggert pointed out there are inconsistencies in witness accounts, evidence that does not point to Baker and that some witnesses against him initially lied to police.
For instance, DNA on a set of plastic handcuffs police found at Mills’ house didn’t match Baker’s, Tremaine said.
Mills’ mother, who lived next door to her son, said a man she saw leaving the house after the shooting had brown eyes, but Baker’s eyes are blue. And an 11-year-old child who was in the house during the robbery said he saw a tattoo on one of the men, but Baker doesn’t have a tattoo like the one the child described.
The woman to whom Baker was married at the time of the shooting said he confessed to her that he shot Mills, but she didn’t tell that to authorities until three years later.
Melinda Mills, sister of the slain man, asked Ingram to keep him locked up until the trial.
“We fear for our safety,” she said of Mills’ family members.
A federal probation officer, Brittney Crisp, testified that Baker had no violations while he was out on bond for three years awaiting trial in the initial state case.
But when Ingram asked Crisp if Baker seemed forthcoming with answers when she interviewed him, she said no.
“Just seemed like I had to pry for information . . .” Crisp said.
Another of Baker’s attorneys, Patrick Renn, said Baker answered all the questions, however.
Ingram said he would make a decision on whether to release Baker as quickly as possible.