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1977 Murder of Napa Car Salesman Remains Unsolved

“According to everyone we talked to, everything was pretty normal in his life,” said Napa County cold case detective Pat McMahon. “We believe this could be a random crime.” But nearly 35 years later, modern evidence technology could turn up the killer.

 

On a late Friday afternoon in September, 1977, Napa auto salesman Richard Baker left a Soscol Avenue Chevy dealership on a test drive with a potential customer.

Baker, 43, was hoping to take home a commission as a result of the drive.

Instead, he lost his life. Baker's body was found two days later, on Sept. 18, 1977, on a rural east Napa road. He had been shot to death.

Nearly 35 years after Baker's murder, his killer is still unknown.

The sequence of events

Around 6:30 p.m., the night Baker disappeared, a black man in his early-to-mid 20s walked into Valley Wood Chevrolet and asked Baker if he could test-drive a 1977 two-door, gold Buick Royal, according to cold case sheriff’s detective Pat McMahon.

Baker agreed, and the two took off with the customer — the alleged suspect in Baker's murder, McMahon said — at the wheel of the Buick.

They never returned to the dealership that night, McMahon said.

“However, when the alleged suspect came into the the car dealership, they were just about to close,” he said.

“Everyone went home a very short time later, believing Mr. Baker would return from the test drive and lock up the business.”

The next morning (Sept. 17) a co-worker called police after Baker failed to show up for work. She also reported the Buick Royal was missing.

On Sept. 18, a resident in the 5000 block of Wild Horse Valley Road found Baker’s body alongside the road next to a fence, cold case detective Todd Shulman said.

“He had been shot by a small caliber handgun,” he said. “His wallet was missing.”

The firearm was never found.

Later that day, Napa police recovered the Buick by on Soscol Avenue.

“His wallet was also found with the car,” McMahon said. He declined to say if any money was found inside Baker’s wallet.

"Fishing" for a victim on auto row

During the investigation, immediately after the discovery of Baker’s body, police detectives talked to workers at other auto dealerships on Soscol Avenue.

“Three other dealerships told detectives a man matching the description of the suspect had come into their businesses asking to take a test drive in a car,” Shulman said.

The suspect was "fishing" for a crime of opportunity and Baker was in the wrong place at the wrong time, Shulman said.

Investigators believe Baker was killed where his body was found: “We don’t believe he was murdered some where else, and his body was dumped on Wild Horse Valley Road,” Shulman said.

Detectives believe the motive for the murder could have been robbery, since Baker’s wallet was missing when body was found.

McMahon said no evidence was found to suggest Baker had any known enemies or had been recently threatened.

“According to everyone we talked to, everything was pretty normal in his life,” he said. “We believe this could be a random crime.”

New lab technology could identify a killer

After the Buick was found, it was processed by law enforcement for fingerprints and returned to the dealership, McMahon said.

“We sure wish we still had the vehicle. But back then, fingerprints were what they were looking for. They didn’t have DNA (testing) then,” he said.

However since the advanced technology of using DNA in solving crimes has become the norm, Napa’s cold case unit has taken on the task of solving cold cases that have remained unsolved for decades.

“We were able to get some DNA from the evidence found at the scene and in the Buick,” McMahon said. “It has been sent to state crime lab for processing. We haven’t heard back yet from the lab.”

Anyone with information about the Baker homicide is asked to call the cold case unit at 707-299-1521 or Napa Valley Crime Stoppers at 1-800-459-9543.

Baker's death is one of 42 unsolved homicides from 1963 to 2007 that are being investigated by the Napa County cold case unit. For more about Napa County's unsolved disappearances, homicides and rapes, please see our Cold Cases topic page at napa.patch.com/topics/cold-cases.

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john s. mccullough June 06, 2012 at 10:56 PM
42 deaths/murders unsolved from 1963 to 1977 is about 3 per year. It would be nice if some of these get solved. It sends a great signal to the public that law enforcement never gives up. Same signal, but different message to the victims family and friends AND to the guilty parties. Two neighbors of mine went missing back in the 60's. Bodies were found quite some time later. Case is still unsolved. From time to time Sonoma Co. Sheriffs Dept. still makes contact to see if anyone might remember anything helpful.
Trina Robinson July 16, 2012 at 04:18 AM
Thank you for your support to solve these cases. Richard Baker was my dad I was 12 and im 46 today and my son 11 missed having a grandpa as much as I miss him as a dad. I pray they investigate using DNA.
Roger K. September 26, 2012 at 10:19 AM
Detective Todd Shulman is a man of integrity and a good peace officer. I enjoyed his books and his latest on this subject "Murder and Mayhem in the Napa Valley." Thanks Detective Shulman for working hard on these cases and trying to put closure to these victims and their families. Our chats at the PD were awesome!

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