Debra Lynn Baker was a young, attractive woman with the modest career of bookkeeper. Her boss, Jerry Sternadel ,however, was anything but modest. He was a millionaire plumber who led the high life and his wife, conveniently, happened to be Debra’s best friend. Debra’s beginnings in Wichita Texas were quite ordinary. She married Tony Baker, her high school sweetheart and in 1975 and in 1976, gave birth to Charles Baker. They remained married for 20 years. In 1982 her best friend Lou-Ann married Jerry Sternadel. He owned and raced quarter horses very successfully, making a significant amount of money with his hobby.
Jerry needed a bookkeeper at his beck and call. He offered the position to Debra and sweetened the deal by offering Debra and her family a residence down the road from his ranch. Debra was seldom there, since she was constantly at Jerry and Lou-Ann’s estate. Debra and Lou-Ann were especially close, perhaps a little too close. They shared lunches together and worked out of the same office in Jerry’s home. The two couples often travelled together. It wasn’t long before the two women confided to one another that Jerry was driving them both crazy. Jerry could be a brusque, insensitive man. He was “extremely hard on his family.” In the spring of 1990 however Jerry had reason to be angry: cheques on his business account were returned to him as non-sufficient funds. Jerry checked his accounts and discovered $30,000.00 was missing. Right away, he blamed Debra and Lou-Ann.
Jerry swore he would figure it out, but before he could turn his attention to his finances, he developed a sick and aching stomach. He was hospitalized, but he developed paranoid delusions and confusion, believing the doctors and nurses were trying to kill him. Finally he was allowed to go home and within weeks he was dead. At his funeral, Lou-Ann was in high spirits, laughing and chatting with friends. The coroner insisted on an autopsy and discovered Jerry was given lethal amounts of arsenic until it killed him. By nightfall, news reporters swarmed the Sternadel ranch. Investigators set out to discover the source of the poison. It was traced to a bottle of cranberry juice on the Sternadel ranch.
Clearly, Jerry had been poisoned but the question remained, whodunnit? In 1991, Debra and Tony moved to San Marcos with Lou-Ann and started a trucking business. In June 1992, someone stopped paying rent on a storage shed in Wichita Falls. When the manager opened the unit, he found documents belonging to Jerry Sternadel. The police attended the unit and found the bottle of arsenic poison. The shed was rented under a fictitious name but the address was Debra’s. That was all the police needed and Debra was arrested on May 14, 1993.
Debra refused to point fingers at Lou-Ann, in spite of police pressure. Even knowing that going to trial for murder in the first degree, namely poisoning Jerry Sternadel, could result in life in prison, she refused to roll over on her friend. On January 18 1994, Debra’s trial began. The prosecution claimed Debra had the arsenic that killed Jerry; she stole the $30,000.00 from Jerry’s account; and finally that she was constantly in Jerry’s home and was a close friend with his wife. Further, it was suggested that poison is usually a female’s method of killing. Poisoning is an indirect, hands-off method that allows the murderer to feel “I haven’t killed him; the poison has.”
The defence insisted there was no proof the storage shed was Debra’s and her prints were not on the arsenic bottle. However Debra’s motive to kill Jerry was that she had stolen $30,000.00 from Jerry. It was discovered soon after that Debra did not steal the money from Jerry, but someone else who had access to his money had. The defence played against Jerry’s dubious character, bringing forth several witnesses to testify against him. His sex life was outrageous: he was a womanizer and he had mistresses. Worse, Jerry had slept with his stepdaughter, an act of incest in many people’s view.
The jury found Debra guilty of murder in the first degree. Pandemonium broke loose in the courtroom. Charles Baker became irate and the deputy’s sheriff had to hold him down. At the sentencing hearing the next day, the jury suggested 10 years probation and a $10,000.00 fine. Ten years later, people were still discussing the Jerry Sternedal case. It frightened people that two women could carry out a murderous plot. In December 2003, Debra violated parole and is currently serving her sentence in a women’s prison in Gainesville, Texas. She has yet to pay the $10,000.00 fine.
For an in-depth look at the Baker case, award-winning author, Jeannie Walker, has written “Fighting the Devil” – A True Story of Consuming Passion, Deadly Poison, and Murder.” Worth a read.