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Baxter Death Ruled Suicide; Probe Goes On

January 27, 2002|RONE TEMPEST and JEFF LEEDS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SHORE ACRES, Texas — Strung from the yardarm of an old wooden sailboat, the flags were at half-mast Saturday at the Houston Yacht Club.

One of the members, former Enron Corp. executive J. Clifford Baxter, had been found shot to death in his new Mercedes-Benz the day before near his home in Sugar Land, an affluent Houston suburb. On Saturday, the Harris County medical examiner ruled the death a suicide, but Sugar Land police said they will continue their investigation into the circumstances of the case, which came amid mounting questions about Enron's finances.

"We are not in any way saying we disagree with the medical examiner's findings," said Police Chief Ernest Taylor. "We are simply saying we want to make sure that we cross all the Ts and dot all the I's in order to be absolutely sure that nothing is overlooked in this investigation."

A CNBC television report Friday said a suicide note found by police cited Baxter's disturbance over the Enron debacle and his concerns he would have to testify against colleagues, but police Saturday declined for a second day to release the note.

Until recently, Baxter, 43, had been a regular weekend figure at the 105-year-old yacht club in this modest Galveston Bay shore community adjacent to the heavily industrial Houston Ship Channel. His 72-foot Viking power boat Tranquility Base was docked in slip No. 38, surrounded by smaller, sleek sailboats.

As the boat's name implied, friends said this was the place that Baxter came to get away from the pressures of Enron. He was vice chairman of the company until his resignation in May. Enron Vice President Sherron S. Watkins had identified Baxter in an August memo to then-Chairman Kenneth L. Lay, saying Baxter was one of several executives with serious reservations about the company's accounting maneuvers.

"When he came here on weekends," recalled yacht club general manager Ross Tuckwiller, "it was always with family and friends. I can't remember ever seeing him with business types."

Yacht club members had gathered Friday night in the upstairs bar of the two-story pink stucco clubhouse and tried to make sense of Baxter's death. Mounted on one wall of the clubhouse was the Baxter family's signal flag, which was designed by the executive and his two children. The triangular flag shows a B note surrounded by four stars and four quarter notes, representing the guitar-playing Baxter's interest in music.

Most of the club members remembered last seeing Baxter on Dec. 19, the night of the club's Christmas party. Some thought his salt-and-pepper hair had turned whiter, but most thought he seemed in good spirits, particularly after the precipitous decline of his former company.

"He seemed happy and jovial but concerned about the Enron thing," said club commodore Chuck Buckner, a Houston accountant. "He was concerned about the bad publicity the company was getting. He worried that the reputation of the company he helped build was in tatters."

Despite the Enron troubles, Tuckwiller said Baxter recently traded in Tranquility Base for another, more powerful boat. "He said he ordered a new boat with great big engines capable of 40 knots on the open sea," Tuckwiller said.

Friends dropped by the Baxter home throughout the day Saturday to offer consolation.

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