Meredith Baker is 22 going on 40.
She walks into a coffee shop Tuesday evening, sporting a pink T-shirt and plaid pants, a casual combo she immediately apologizes for.
There is a soothing ambiance to the room interrupted by the occasional grinding of caffeinated delight.
None of this distracts Baker.
Not the student aimlessly searching for a power outlet, nor the couple at the next table recording our conversation with prying glances.
Her voice is quiet, steady. Her eyes never waver but look tired, almost sad, as if they are too washed-out to produce any more tears.
"My friends say I act like I'm 30," she said. "Sometimes they'll even call me 40."
Who can blame her?
To the nosy duo probing for juicy bits of information, the conversation may have seemed like another run-of-the-mill chat heard at any other coffee shop.
But for Baker, this is all too commonplace.
It's seven years later and here she is - again - answering questions about the unsolved murder of her only sister, 23-year-old University law student Tara Louise Baker.
And to think, she started the conversation with an apology.
'Never heard a sound so awful'
On the rainy morning of Jan. 19, 2001, authorities responded to a fire at Tara Baker's rented house at 160 Fawn Drive in the Deer Park subdivision off Lexington Road.
After kicking in her bedroom door, firefighters found Tara amidst the flames. In a civilian casualty report, Athens-Clarke County firefighters said Tara was "incapacitated prior to ignition" and suffered injuries to "multiple parts" of her body.
Whoever killed Tara set fire to her home, possibly to cover their tracks, police said.
She was murdered on the eve of her 24th birthday.
Now here sits Meredith, a middle child in a family that includes her father Lindsay, mother Virginia, 27-year-old brother Adam, and youngest brother, Kevin, 18. She was told by her father to speak on behalf of the immediate family.
"I've come to the realization that my sister's killer may never be caught," she said. "But we owe it to Tara to keep pushing her story. That's the only way we have a chance for justice."
Meredith recalled her desire to buy Tara a birthday card on the day of her death. After all, the next day would be her birthday.
It wasn't until later that day the 15-year-old learned there would be no more birthday cards for her sister.
She remembers a reluctance to divulge any feelings about Tara, at least until she wrote about the experience in her senior year of high school.
Of that fateful day, she writes, "There sat my sobbing mother, my father, my uncle and I down at the table in the center of the room. The detective looked at us and said with a soft, gentle voice, 'We believe that foul play was involved.' At that moment I heard my uncle make a sound so horrible and heart twisting that it echoed throughout the station. It was a loud shrill. I had never heard a sound so awful in my life."
Who was Tara Baker?
Tara Baker grew up in Lovejoy before attending Georgia College and State University, where she graduated cum laude in 1998 with a dual degree in political science and paralegal studies. Baker was also an officer in the Alpha Delta Pi sorority.
She moved to Athens in 1999 to enter law school while working at Fortson & Bentley, a local law firm.
Fresh off her first semester at the University, Tara was murdered.
"She really was that Southern Belle," Meredith said, but in a stroke of bitter irony Tara was also "obsessed with justice" and aspired to be a judge.
Fascinated by her heritage, Tara traced her roots back nearly four centuries, and encapsulated that charm of the ladies throughout the family bloodline.
She was a debutante for the Children of the American Revolution, and in one of the few moments of levity in the interview, Meredith quipped, "Any revolution you can think of, Tara was a part of."
Kate Lahnstein is seven years and 620 miles removed from Tara Baker, but she still can remember meeting her for the first time in law school.
Now a lawyer in Washington, D.C., Lahnstein gravitated toward Baker's irresistible, infectious persona and labeled her as one of the most generous people she ever encountered.
"The most lasting image I have of Tara is the way she would always crinkle her nose in a cute-offbeat way," she said. "It's like she knew how to laugh better than the rest of us."
And with such a loss comes great pain.
Meredith pointed to a letter addressed to Tara's killer written by her uncle, Matthew Patrie, as representative of the rage the family feels.
"You can pray all you want, but until you confess this crime and accept your punishment for it, your prayers will only go down to the devil," he writes. "He's delighted with you. You've brought even more pain and despair into the world, and taken out a big chunk of the good. You are his boy, and I'm sure he can't wait to meet you in Hell."
'Not your average case'
Tara Baker is not officially dead.
Check the county coroner's office, and you will not find a death certificate for the deceased 23-year-old.
It is protocol for the county not to release a death certificate for a victim involved in a pending investigation. Doing so would make the cause of death public record.
ACC Coroner Bobby Tribble said he has not received requests to release Tara's death certificate since he took the post in November 2004.
"I don't want to stir the apple cart on the issue," he said. "As long as there is a pending investigation, we won't release that information. This is not your average case."
Heightened media attention, which has waned in recent years, was devoted to the insistence of law enforcement officials to keep all information relevant to the case under wraps.
The thinking, according to police, was they didn't want to release anything that would allow the perpetrator to distance him or herself from the crime.
Tara's parents supported the method.
"The last thing they wanted was the killer to get away thanks to some information made available to the public," Meredith said.
It took nearly two years for police to release specific leads in the investigation.
Here is what they said:
- A witness spotted a white male wearing jeans and a T-shirt running from the scene the morning of Jan. 19.
- A Compaq Presario Model 1200 XL 1800 laptop was the only item missing from the scene.
As of now, that is the extent of all leads released by police.
In the following years, the Baker family became frustrated with the authorities' lack of progress.
"It got to the point where we felt like they had given up," Meredith said.
In 2004, an anonymous source told the Athens Banner-Herald Tara could have been murdered by an acquaintance, since there was no sign of forced entry at the scene.
The source told the paper Tara had been "beaten, stabbed and strangled."
A crime of that nature, according to the source, increases the likelihood the killer was emotionally involved with her.
Could justice have been served if this information were released earlier?
Possibly, Meredith concedes.
She also has theories but is keeping them to herself.
"Everyone in my family has one, but we don't really share them," she said. "What would be the point?"
A new dawn?
Meredith is more encouraged by the recent efforts of ACC police, saying there has been increased communication between the two parties.
But yet another development threw a wrench in the investigative process.
The lead investigator in the case, Sgt. Courtney Gale, was stabbed and critically injured last month at the Kroger on Alps Road.
She is recuperating, according to colleagues inside the police force.
Until she returns, Sgt. Christopher Nichols will handle the case. Even with the marathon tenure of the process, Nichols said he applies the same mindset to the Baker case as any other.
Even with the elapsed time, information continues to come to police. Nichols said he received a lead Monday.
"You just have to put yourself in their shoes," he said. "If something like this happened to a member of my family, I wouldn't rest until the person was caught."
Perhaps the most stinging inhibitor of progress can be attributed to the transient nature of the Athens community.
The current freshman class was in the sixth grade the year Tara was killed.
Because of this, many students have never heard Tara's story.
To combat this unfamiliarity, Meredith encourages downtown business to display fliers of Tara in their store windows.
The reward for providing information leading to the arrest of her killer can now fetch one as much as $30,000.
As the years continue to pile on, the fliers become more sporadic.
"It's like my sister is just some kind of rumor or urban legend," Meredith said. "Sometimes I just want to shake people and scream 'this actually did happen.' "
An assortment of ads located on College Avenue is a glaring personification of Meredith's frustration.
Peel away the plethora of advertisements for bands, restaurants and apartments and you'll find Tara's smiling face beaming back at you - an illustration of a town that has moved on.
Sense of Community
A memorial will be held in Tara's memory 1 p.m. Saturday at the stairway of the Arch.
As the infamous date looms, some can't forget Tara.
Doc Eldridge, former Athens mayor and president of the Chamber of Commerce, never met Tara but labels her murder as the "saddest local tragedy" during his tenure as the town's executive.
In a phone interview Thursday, he vividly remembered arriving at the police station at the same time as the Baker family seven years ago.
"I can't remember anything as traumatic as that day," he said. "I wouldn't wish that type of pain on my worst enemy."
Baker is not the first unsolved murder involving a University student.
In April 1992, Jennifer Lynn Stone was found dead in her downtown apartment at the age of 22. Authorities recovered DNA from the scene, but more than 15 years later are unable to find the culprit.
The Baker and Stone families speak by phone to this day.
"There are only so many people you can talk to about something like this," Meredith said. "It's comforting for both sides."
And recently, the Bakers attended the memorial of Meredith Emerson, the University alumna who was found murdered in the North Georgia mountains.
Return to Deer Park
There are no remnants of the tragedy at Deer Park today, but Tara still lingers through the property, at least in the form of a story amongst neighbors.
A series of small duplexes, houses and townhouses still occupy Fawn Drive.
Tara's former house is now an office. The owner of the property, Scott Hancock, said he doubts he will ever rent the property again.
"It was just a horrible, isolated incident," Hancock said. "Since it happened, we've hired a security guard to patrol the neighborhood."
When first asked if she knew of Tara's story, graduate student Ashley Seamon said she did not. Seamon lives next door to Baker's former house.
But when told the details of the story, her memory of the event came back into focus.
"Is that the girl who was burned inside her house?" she asked, representing a testament to the staying power of Tara's story in Athens.
Even with the rekindled information, Seamon said she is not concerned about her safety in the neighborhood.
Though a sense of normalcy has returned to the residents of Deer Park, such a sentiment continues to evade the Baker family as long as Tara's killer remains free.
For Meredith, her biggest regret was an inability to "act like a stupid teenager."
"Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like when I got my driver's license or when I graduated high school if this hadn't happened."
Although Baker's story has permeated across the national landscape through television specials and an array of press clippings, Meredith says the story has yet to reach its ultimate conclusion - Tara's grave in Fayetteville.
With no official cause of death, there is no epitaph to grace Tara's memorial.
Meredith began to smile, ever so slightly, as she discussed Tara's affinity for graveyards, particularly those who died young.
"Tara was always fascinated with the stories," she said. "I just pray that we'll have the proper story for her grave one day."