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Baker guilty of Jennifer Smith murder

Editor’s note: The following news story covers the trial of Stephen Dewayne Baker, who along with his girlfriend, Kari Diane Speck, were charged with the murder of former Johnson County resident, Jennifer Jo Smith. Smith moved to Cookeville in the summer of 2006 and was killed in 2010. Friends and family still live in Johnson County. The trial began earlier this month on June 7th and concluded the 9th. The Tomahawk extends thanks to the Herald-Citizen for granting permission to reprint the story in Cook’s former hometown at the request of her son, Christopher Smith.

by Mary Jo Denton
Herald-Citizen

COOKEVILLE — Stephen Dewayne Baker was this morning (June 7, 2011) found guilty of first degree murder and other crimes in the killing of his neighbor, Jennifer Jo Smith, at her Buck Mountain Road home last year.
The murder conviction carries an automatic sentence of life in prison, and Baker could get more prison time for the other crimes: arson, aggravated robbery and tampering with evidence.
The jury of seven women and five men took the case about 9:45 a.m. and returned their guilty on all counts verdict around 11 a.m.
Baker sat still and showed no emotion as the verdict was read.
The case began Tuesday and featured lengthy testimony yesterday from Kari Diane Speck, who was Baker’s girlfriend and who was also charged with murder in the case. She has been sentenced to 30 years in prison.
At the trial on Wednesday, Speck told the story of the murder.
The victim, Jennifer Smith, opened her door that day and invited her neighbor, Stephen Baker, in and was showing him to a seat when he grabbed her from behind and stabbed her in the neck with a screw driver, Speck said.
A short time later, as she lay dying on her floor, she told her attacker, “I’ll pray for you.”
Kari Diane Speck gave this and other details of the murder, having become the state’s star witness, by trading her testimony against Baker for a 30-year prison sentence.
As Speck, who once worked as an aide in Putnam schools, sat on the witness stand dressed in an orange jail suit telling her version of the murder and sobbing at times, Stephen Baker sat between two defense attorneys listening and showing no emotion.
The two had been living together and stealing whatever they could to finance their addiction to Dilaudid pills back in 2009 and 2010, Speck testified. They lived next door to Jennifer Smith, a 55-year-old home health nurse, on Buck Mountain Road and had become friends with her, Speck testified.
Smith had made candy for them at Christmas — just a couple of weeks before the murder — and had presented Speck’s young son with a candy cane gift, Speck testified. Smith had also allowed the couple to carry water from her place to theirs when their water pipes were frozen for days.

But as their drug habit got more expensive, Stephen Baker was looking for more stealing opportunities to pay for pills when he came up with a plan to murder their neighbor, Speck said.

Speck said Baker told her she would be “the lookout” while he would do the rest. She said she did what he told her to do because he had been abusive to her in the past and she feared him.

She said Baker told her to go over to Smith’s house that day (Jan. 8, 2010) and ask to use her phone and to be ready to stand watch after he got there.

She went over and asked Smith for use of her phone and was sitting in a chair pretending to call someone on that phone when Stephen Baker knocked on the door, Speck testified.

“She let him in, and he said ‘Hi’ and then grabbed her (as she walked toward the couch telling him to have a seat) and stabbed her in the neck with the screwdriver.”

Baker also stabbed Smith with a knife he had brought from home, but found it was too dull and then got a knife from Smith’s kitchen and began stabbing her with that, Speck said.

But Smith, lying on the floor bleeding, was still breathing after that and Baker then searched around the house and found a small hatchet and used that to “hit her over the head a couple of times and she quit breathing,” Speck testified.

After that, the two gathered Smith’s TV set, took $80 from her purse, and left in her car, Speck said.

They went to a pawn shop and pawned a gift card Speck had, but saved back the TV they had stolen, hoping to sell it to someone for more than a pawn shop would pay, she said.

They went to a store and used the victim’s credit card to buy a carton of cigarettes, then went to a drug dealer and bought pills, then to another drug dealer and tried to sell him the TV and the car, but were turned down, she said.

After that, they drove to East Lake subdivision and threw the murder weapons into the old city lake there, then went back to the victim’s house and searched for more loot. In a closet, they found the victim’s bank card PIN number, which they used to remove money from her bank account, Speck said.

They then pawned the stolen TV set, bought more Dilaudid pills, and went home and went to bed, she said.

The next morning she woke up when Baker, who had gone out, returned to their house and told her “he had taken care of everything,” she said.

“I got up and looked out and I could see huge flames coming through the roof of Ms. Jennie’s house. I suggested that we call 911, and Stephen said he would. I went back to sleep.”

Firefighters soon arrived on the scene and began fighting the blazes. Jennifer Smith’s body was found in the burning house, and the Putnam Sheriff’s Department began an investigation which soon led them to Stephen Baker as a suspect.

He was arrested at the time on an outstanding warrant relating to a previous offense, but Speck remained free until a couple of months later.

During that time, a relentless TBI agent, Billy Miller, continued to question her and Sheriff’s Detective Red Golden, State Bomb and Arson Agent Greg Whittaker, and Sheriff David Andrews kept on investigating and building a case against both Baker and Speck.

Kari Diane Speck admitted that she lied over and over during the investigation, claiming she was afraid Stephen Baker would get out of jail and harm her or her family.

But by March of 2010, she was indicted in the case and after making a deal to testify against Baker, she told the investigators everything, she said.

The investigators recovered the alleged murder weapons during the course of the investigation and they were introduced as evidence in the trial yesterday.

Deputy District Attorney Tony Craighead and Assistant DA Beth Willis prosecuted the case, and attorneys Randy Chaffin and Michael Giammo defended Baker. Judge Leon Burns presided over the case.

Read more: Herald Citizen – Baker guilty of murder