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Most people who knew Michael Baker thought he'd never get his due in this life.
Over a span of two decades beginning in the mid-'80s, he'd nuzzled his way into Richmond's social sanctum and allegedly extracted thousands of dollars from some of Richmond's older as well as shinier pockets.
Somehow Baker, a man of insubstantial means from Covington, glided into Richmond's social scene with the smoothness of silk, impressing dowagers and emerging socialites with his knowledge of how to tastefully crowd a dining room table with Meissen and Baccarat.
He had an innate talent for arranging flowers. And he was, if not charming, obsequiously pleasant and accommodating. In his favor, he lacked some obvious earmarks of the stereotypical social climber: He didn't seem overtly ambitious. And he was never pushy, never presumptuous, both glaring nubs in the fabric of society.
Whether he was working as a fabric manufacturer's rep, a design-store salesman or a personal consultant, the line between friends and customers was just a fuzzy thread. Because he'd cultivated the trust that comes with friendship, money issues often weren't realized until much later, or they were brushed off.
"When it's a couple of grand, you don't question it; you just move on," said one former acquaintance of Baker's, who wished to remain anonymous.
But when Baker hastily moved from Richmond to Charleston, S.C., about three years ago, it was under a cloud. Items that Baker's customers at Plaid & Stripes on Libbie and Patterson avenues had ordered and paid for often didn't arrive. If they did, there were usually additional, vague charges that amounted to more than retail costs. And Baker had checks made out to him personally.
Carolyn Meares, a West End businesswoman, filed and won a civil lawsuit against Baker in Richmond Circuit Court in 2003. The suit alleged unauthorized use of her credit card and failure to deliver more than $100,000 in fabrics and interior design work.
After news of his arrest on embezzlement charges blared from the pages of the Charleston Post and Courier Sept. 26, you could almost hear champagne corks popping in some of the best-appointed homes around Richmond. By the next day, talk of "incarceration parties" was being tossed about.
Baker's wife, former Richmonder Susan Hawkins Reynolds Baker, did not return phone calls to be interviewed for this story. Her marriage to Baker has since been annulled, sources say. Baker is behind bars. It was unclear at press time whether he'd hired an attorney.
For 20 years, Baker had been able to schmooze and wheedle his way through the party circuit, and in his wake were seemingly countless agitated former clients who were either too busy or too embarrassed to file any charges. In Charleston, however, Baker conned two people too many.
Mitch Mitchell and Debra McKinley of Charleston Gas Light fixture company, Baker's former employers, stopped Baker mid-con, unlike so many before them who simply closed their doors to Baker, allowing him to continue what one former co-worker calls "skimming and scamming."
Mitchell and McKinley documented the hours leading up to Baker's sudden disappearance on April 26, 2005. (See timeline on page 13.)
At the time, Baker was working as a sales manager at the light-fixture company in the center of Charleston's historic district. Initially his bosses thought he was a great find. Sales flowed. "If I needed a $5,000 sale in thirty minutes, he could do it," Mitchell says. Anytime he needed to sell something, he did. He was that good."
So when business took a sharp drop around March 2005, Mitchell became suspicious. One weekend, he took home Baker's company-owned laptop to see if there were any hints of what was wrong. He found a lot of answers, he says enough to build a solid case for firing Baker. It was easy. Apparently, Baker didn't know how to erase the computer's history. And everything Mitchell had wondered about was suddenly there in front of him.
Mitchell determined that Baker had spent about 150 hours accessing gay porn sites, downloading as many as 3,000 X-rated photos. Occasionally punctuating the laptop's history list was the Web site for First Presbyterian Church in Richmond, where Baker had sung in the choir for years. Furthermore, the petty cash box, solely Baker's responsibility, had consistently been missing money without explanation. Only Baker and Mitchell had keys. Armed with the petty cash box, a long list of Web sites and some samples of the downloaded photos, Mitchell went to the office early on Monday, April 25, prepared to fire Baker.
Here's Mitchell and McKinley's account of what happened:Monday, April 25
7:15 a.m.: Baker arrives in the offices of Charleston Gas Light an hour and a half early. Mitchell is waiting in Baker's office. A clearly surprised Baker volunteers to Mitchell that he's "done something very bad." Mitchell is shocked when Baker states that he's stolen $12,000 from the company.
Porn sites and petty cash aside, a stunned Mitchell phones McKinley, the company's president. She favors calling police. Mitchell then calls the company's accountant and its attorney, whose advice is to first take the matter to Baker's wife, former Richmonder Susan Hawkins Reynolds Baker, to determine if she would repay the missing funds.
8 a.m. Mitchell and Baker drive to the Baker home to inform Susan Baker that unless the money is repaid, Michael Baker will be criminally charged. Throughout the hour-long discussion, according to Mitchell, a weeping Baker promises repeatedly to pay back the money. At the conclusion of the meeting, Susan Baker refuses to help her then-husband.
11:30 a.m. A priest from Grace Episcopal, the church Baker attended in Charleston, calls Mitchell and pleads for mercy for Baker. The priest says Baker has promised to stay in Charleston. Mitchell remains unswayed in his intention to charge Baker criminally.
5 p.m. Susan Baker calls Mitchell to see if he knows Michael Baker's whereabouts.Tuesday, April 26
8:30 a.m.: Susan Baker places a second similar call to Mitchell.
4:30 p.m.: Susan Baker calls Mitchell a third time to say that Michael has cleaned out her investment account, taken his passport and disappeared.Mid-September
Police in Florida pick up Michael Baker during a routine traffic stop and extradite him to Charleston to face embezzlement charges. SClick here for more News and Features