By Joe Johnson
A grim anniversary is several months away of a crime that occurred two decades ago but still reverberates today in the Athens and University of Georgia communities, and beyond.
On the morning of Jan. 19, 2001, firefighters responded to a report of a fire at a duplex at 160 Fawn Drive in east Athens, and upon extinguishing the blaze they discovered the body of 23-year-old UGA School of Law student Tara Louise Baker.
The student from the small Clayton County town of Lovejoy would have turned 24 the day after the fire.
But Baker hadn’t died from the fire. She had been stabbed, beaten and strangled. She also possibly had been sexually assaulted. Sources close to the investigation believe the fire was set to cover the killer’s tracks by destroying evidence.
Athens-Clarke police to this day will not discuss details of the crime, and like others who have come before, Athens resident Cameron Jay is hoping to find answers that might possibly bring the killer to justice.
To that end he made the Baker case the first instalment in a planned series of podcasts about unsolved Athens murder cases, called Classic City Crime.
Jay came to Athens in 2013 to study political science at UGA, but left school two years later to work at the Lord & Stephens Funeral Home on Lexington Drive which, coincidentally, is in walking distance of the Deer Park subdivision where Baker lived and died.
Jay said that working as an apprentice funeral director and embalmer “opened my eyes to the sad realities of loss and yes, murder.”
Today, Jay dabbles in several endeavors, including marketing and leasing for a student housing group, serving as vice president and spokesperson for Athens PRIDE and running Marrying Athens, a small business that connects couples with wedding officiants.
He also is intrigued by true crime stories.
“You know, I like to think of myself as less of a true crime junkie and more of a fighter for justice and seeker of answers,” Jay said. “My second cousin, who was my mother’s best friend, was murdered in the mid-1990s. Our family got justice. In 2008, my best friend was killed at the hands of a distracted driver. His family got justice. Yet through my work in the funeral home and my admitted addiction to Dateline with Keith Morrison, I learned that justice is not always achieved. And, as the old saying goes, ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’”
Jay also dabbles in politics, and always finds other ways to keep busy.
“I had grown bored with a few aspects of life, especially after the election ended,” he said. “I wanted to find ways to keep giving back to the community. Quite literally, I woke up one morning and exclaimed to my partner, ‘Babe, I’m going to start a podcast.’”
That revelation occurred just over a month ago.
“When I was in the beginning stages of planning, I thought I would cover one new story of crime in Athens on each episode. That is, until I started reading, for the second time in my time here in Athens, about the murder of Tara Louise Baker,” Jay said. “I knew I could not possibly tell Tara’s story, nor find answers in just one episode. So, the story continues each week with a new episode released every Thursday.”
As he researched the unsolved murder case, Jay realized that he was dealing with two investigations.
“One is into what happened to Tara Baker,” Jay said. “The second is an investigation of the investigation itself.
“Another intriguing factor is that on the list of suspects, there are things about each of them that could point to motive or involvement. This has proved to be a challenging part of the case as I continue to talk with, learn more about, and research those closest to Tara, who might’ve been involved,” he said. “It’s also been intriguing to see so many people come forward, some anonymously and some on the record. People are, even after 20 years, remembering new things or are contacting the podcast about things they felt went ignored or under-investigated by the police department.”
The more he learned, the more perplexed Jay said he became about why Baker’s murder remained unsolved, especially “where you have 20 years for scientific advancements, people to slip up and say something, or new details to come to light. By all accounts, none of that has really happened. It’s frustrating to try and decipher between what was true and what was not, especially as it relates to statements from the police to the media and the family. Conflicting statements were often given. Words once spoken were later retracted. This cycle of abuse continued for the Baker family for years after Tara’s death.”
Jay said that when he began working on the Baker case, his goal was to work as closely as possible with law enforcement in an ongoing investigation.
“Well, I regret to say that this has proved to be another disappointing avenue,” he said. “I have had current PD officials agree to interviews only to back out of the interview. I have had former investigators on the case say how excited they are to help, only to shut down the interview at the last minute.
He added, “It begs the question: Why is everyone so quiet after 20 years? Why won’t they say something, if anything, to bring some transparency to the Baker family, to myself, and to the Athenians and listeners who demand to know who killed Tara?
Even without the help of law enforcement, Jay said he has learned new things about the Baker case.
“Every day new leads come forward,” he said. “Some are people who point the finger at other individuals, others come forward with things they remember Tara doing or saying around the time of the murder. Most days I have at least one interview, and while many of those are anonymous tips and sources, most have agreed to speak on the record out of frustration for the lack of movement on this case. There are investigative failures at multiple levels of our criminal justice system as it relates to Tara’s case, which is so ironic, as she was such an advocate for justice for all.”
After having produced six episodes of the podcast, with more in the works, Jay is convinced that the Baker’s killer can still be brought to justice, and he hopes his podcast can help that come about.
As of Thursday, the podcast had 11,500 plays and Jay said more listeners are joining every day.
“I do believe this case is solvable, and I believe I am moving in the right direction. That is all I will say for now. Stay tuned.”
When asked how many more episodes of the Baker podcast were planned, Jay responded, “The answer here is quite simple: However many it takes to find #JusticeforTara.”
Listeners can choose their preferred podcast platform or visit the podcast’s website at https://linktr.ee/ClassicCityCrime