Accuracy in Media

Carol Baxter may regret having fought so hard to keep the police from releasing the suicide note allegedly written by her husband, Cliff Baxter, the former Enron Vice Chairman. The note was released in spite of her efforts to keep it secret, and copies were published in papers around the country. Dan Nagao, who became friends with Baxter when they were students at Columbia University, saw a copy of the note, and his suspicions about the cause of death were immediately aroused.

He could not visualize Cliff Baxter printing a note like that entirely in block letters, including his name at the end. Nagao had received letters from Baxter at Christmas time every year until last year. He said that all those letters had been written in longhand. He was not the only one who found it hard to believe that a graduate of the Columbia University School of Business Management would block print his handwritten notes and letters. This may explain why Mrs. Baxter did not want the note made public. The expensive lawyers she hired to block its release had argued that it contained “intimate, personal family facts” that should be kept private. That turned out to be false, leaving the possibility that the note was forged as a plausible explanation of why anyone would spend a lot of money to have it suppressed.

After releasing the note, the Sugar Land police closed the Baxter case, declaring his death a suicide. That means they think Baxter wrote it. If Baxter customarily wrote notes and letters in cursive, the police should not have authenticated the suicide note solely by comparing it with a known sample of Baxter’s block letters, which would be easy to copy. His fingerprints have to be on the note, and good handwriting experts should be consulted.

The police and the medical examiner who performed the autopsy have overlooked an even more critical clue than the note. That is the quantity of Ambien, a hypnotic drug found in Baxter’s blood and stomach. Dr. Joye Carter, the chief medical examiner for Harris County, ruled Baxter’s death a suicide before the toxicology report was completed. Nearly all the news media began calling Baxter’s death a suicide with no evidence to support it. When the toxicology report was issued on February 1, it didn’t get the attention it deserved.

The police had informed the medical examiner’s office that on January 23, two days before he died, Baxter bought 30 ten-milligram. Ambien tablets. The prescription was for one a day. Patients are told to go to bed immediately and warned not to drive a car. If they don’t follow those instructions they may experience a hypnotic trance in which they can be easily controlled by others. The police found only 25 tablets in the bottle. In 24 to 30 hours Baxter apparently took five Ambien tablets, three more than the number prescribed. Dr. Ronald Graeser, a forensic pathologist familiar with Ambien, says that in that case Baxter would have been so heavily drugged that it would not have been possible for him to drive his car to the spot where it was found with his body slumped over the steering wheel.

His body was found at 2:27 a.m. on January 25, probably less than 30 hours after he took the first tablet. He probably took another tablet on the night of the 24th and either went to sleep and was later awakened or remained awake and experienced a hypnotic trance, during which he ingested three additional tablets, enough “to drug him out of his mind” according to Dr. Graeser. If he could not drive, the suicide scenario collapses, being based on the assumption that he drove his car to the location where it was parked.

This hypothesis could be proved or disproved by an analysis of the quantity of Ambien. found in Baxter’s blood. The toxicology report says only that it was present. The chief toxicologist says it was not calculated. The toxicology group leader said she thought it was, but she also said that because the death had been ruled a gunshot suicide (by Dr. Carter, her boss) it may have been skipped because it was not considered important. When told that it might prove that the death was a homicide, she said, “That’s probably the reason we didn’t quantitate it.”

Accuracy in Media has asked the commissioners who oversee the medical examiner’s office to ascertain and disclose how much Ambien was found in Baxter’s blood. They have forwarded our request to the chief medical examiner, Dr. Joye Carter.




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