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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