When firefighters responded to a building fire in Athens, Georgia at 11:20 am on Friday, January 19, 2001, they thought it was just a routine call. When they arrived at the scene, they could see heavy smoke and flames coming from the back of the building. The front door was locked; unsure if anyone was inside, firefighters kicked the door down and made entry into the residence. As soon as they got inside, they saw that all four burners on the stove were on and turned all the way up, leading them to realize that they were likely dealing with arson.
As they cleared the residence room-by-room, checking to make sure there was no one in the home, firefighters found two locked doors that they had to kick open. One led to a bathroom, while the second was to a bedroom. The bedroom was completely engulfed in flames; once the fire was knocked back, firefighters found the body of 23-year-old Tara Baker. It was quickly determined that Tara hadn’t been kil*led by fire or smoke inhalation; she had been beaten and st*abbed. Her kil*ler had then set her home on fire in an attempt to cover up the crime.
An autopsy was conducted the following day, which should have been Tara’s 24th birthday. Athens-Clarke County Assistant Police Chief Mike Wallace declined to discuss the results but did confirm that Tara had been dead before the fire was started. “We’re certain that the fire was started to conceal the homicide.” It was unclear how the ki*ller had gained entry into the home.
At the time of her de*ath, Tara was a first-year law student at the University of Georgia. Originally from Lovejoy, Georgia, Tara graduated from Georgia College in Milledgeville in 1998, earning degrees in political science and legal assistance. In a post on her high school’s website, Tara wrote, “I took a couple of years off and worked in various law firms as a real estate paralegal, trying to get up the nerve to go back to school. Apparently, it worked, because I just started my first semester of law school at the University of Georgia.”
Tara had been thrilled when she was accepted into law school and was determined to do well in all her classes. She spent much of the night before she was ki*lled studying; a friend spoke with her at 9:46 pm, and Tara was at the law school’s library at that time. She told her friend she planned to leave around 10:00 pm to return to her home, which was about 12 minutes from campus.
Paul Kurtz, the associate dean of the law school, taught Tara the previous semester. “She was very confident, very bright, and always prepared for class…she was in my criminal law class last fall…many people felt very close to her. She was so outgoing and effervescent.” Her murder had shocked the law school’s tight-knit community.
Tara’s former classmates at Lovejoy High School were also shocked when they learned about her murder. Tami Blake was stunned when she saw Tara’s picture on the news. “When this happened, I said, ‘Who in the world would murder her?’ It couldn’t be someone who knows her because she doesn’t have an enemy in the world.”
Tara, who moved to Athens in 1999, rented a house with two roommates, but neither of them was at home on the day of the murder. The neighborhood they lived in was populated mainly by University of Georgia students, and while it saw its share of property crimes, murder was rare.
Detectives continued interviewing Tara’s neighbors and classmates throughout the weekend but made little progress in identifying a suspect. On Monday morning, they stopped cars that drove through the Deer Park neighborhood and questioned occupants about anything unusual they might have seen in the area.
The Office of the Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John Oxendine and Georgia Arson Control announced that they were offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for k*illing Tara and setting her house on fire. They hoped the offer would bring in some new tips for detectives to investigate.
In March 2001, the reward was increased to $26,000 as detectives struggled to develop solid leads in Tara’s murder. At a press conference, Mayor Doc Eldridge noted, “This crime has shaken our community. We need the help of the general public. Someone has valuable information regarding this crime, and we are appealing for their help.”
Detectives were tight-lipped about the case, saying only that they had brought in an FBI profiler to help them determine likely traits of the k*iller. Unfortunately, this would only be of real use if investigators were able to identify a suspect to compare to the profile.
Months went by and the case appeared to stall. Despite investing thousands of hours into the investigation, detectives were unable to identify a suspect or a motive for Tara’s brutal de*ath. It was hard for her loved ones to accept. As the first anniversary of his daughter’s murder approached, Lindsay Baker admitted, “I’m beyond the grief now — I’m angry. I want some justice…it’s just frustrating because we have no closure.”
Assistant Chief Wallace was frank about the state of the investigation. “Police lack the ability to identify a suspect. We don’t have a witness, and we don’t have sufficient physical or circumstantial evidence to identify a suspect at this time.” The fire had destroyed any potential evidence that the ki*ller might have left behind, and though detectives had interviewed all of Tara’s relatives, friends, and classmates, they hadn’t been able to find anyone who had anything bad to say about her.
Lindsay said that detectives had been polite when dealing with the family but hadn’t shared many details about the investigation, which was frustrating for Tara’s parents. It was also hard on Tara’s three younger siblings, who had looked up to her as a role model, as well as other family members. Barbara Patrie, Tara’s grandmother, stated, “If Tara had been ki*lled in a wreck, or had gotten sick and died, that would have been easier to take than for someone to come in and brutally murder her. It’s just difficult.”
In November 2002, detectives made another public appeal for help finding Tara’s k*iller. Although they still refused to discuss many details about the murder, they said they were trying to identify a white man who was seen running away from Tara’s residence around 7:30 am on the day she was murdered. They didn’t provide a description of the man but noted that he hadn’t been wearing a coat despite the cold weather. Detectives also said that Tara’s laptop — a Compaq Presario Model 1200 XL 188 — was missing from her home and they believed it was taken by her k*iller.
The University of Georgia honored Tara in January 2004, awarding her a posthumous law degree at a ceremony held in the university’s chapel. Tara’s mother, Virginia, was grateful for the gesture. “I guess it will be both painful and bittersweet. I’m delighted so many in the community remember after all this time. I feel very good toward the school. They showed they do care, but they can’t do anything to investigate.” The fact that Tara’s k*iller was still on the loose was hard for Tara’s loved ones to handle.
Years went by and the investigation into Tara’s murder stalled and then went cold. By 2017, Tara had been dead for 16 years and her parents were still waiting for her ki*ller to be caught. In February 2017, Capt. Jerry Saulters announced that police had received a tip that identified a viable suspect in the murder, though he declined to name him.
Even after almost two decades, investigators were reluctant to discuss specific details about the case. Several retired officers agreed to speak with reporters on the condition that they remain anonymous, and the press learned for the first time that Tara had been beaten, sta*bbed, stra*ngled, and possibly sexually assaulted before her home was set on fire. The crime seemed personal, and some detectives believed Tara’s laptop was stolen because it might have contained potentially incriminating emails that could identify the ki*ller. They speculated that she had been k*illed by someone who had been infatuated with her, perhaps after she rejected his advances.
In the early days of the investigation, detectives identified three potential persons of interest: a man Tara had been dating, an attorney at a local law firm where Tara had worked, and a law school classmate. Tara’s boyfriend was quickly ruled out; he had a firm alibi for the time of the murder and he passed a polygraph examination. It was unclear how — or if — the other two men were eliminated as suspects. In 2010, detectives were given the name of a new potential suspect and were still working to connect him to the crime.
Detectives admitted that the investigation wasn’t an easy one. The fire and the gallons of water used to extinguish it had eliminated any trace of the k*iller. Everything in the home was coated in a layer of soot that made it impossible to obtain fingerprints. Alex Morrow, a former University of Georgia police officer who assisted in the initial investigation, said that they had done everything they could to find the ki*ller. “We explored every possible avenue with the information and evidence we had…the fire damage was so extensive it destroyed the crime scene.”
Tara’s father, Lindsay Baker, died in 2019 without learning who was responsible for Tara’s d*eath. Her mother and siblings continued to push for justice, doing everything they could to remind the community that there was still a ki*ller on the loose. In January 2023, Virginia Baker said she was praying for the day her daughter’s case was solved. “It won’t bring her back, but it will give us some answers…we need answers.”
Tara Louise Baker was just 23 years old when she was brutally murdered in Athens, Georgia, in January 2001. Tara was a first-year law student at the University of Georgia and had a bright future ahead of her, but it was stolen by a k*iller who remains unidentified after more than 22 years. Police believe she may have known her k*iller, but so far they have never publicly named any suspects in the case. If you have any information about Tara’s murder, please contact the Athens-Clarke County Police Department at 706–613–3330 or the GBI’s Athens Regional Office at 706–552–2309.