”I’ve always been able to think like a criminal,” says Jeff Baird, who has prosecuted some of King County’s highest-profile murder cases.
The bulk of Jeff Baird’s 36 years in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office was spent anticipating killers’ motives, figuring out how they tried to cover their tracks and expecting the most likely defenses that would be offered up to a jury.
“He has become, in our office, the guru of homicide prosecutors. He is a brilliant man and he has a disturbing insight into the criminal mind,” Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said of Baird, 65, whose last day was Monday.
On Friday, prosecutors, detectives, pathologists, forensic scientists and other crime-scene investigators will honor the newly retired Baird at the King County Courthouse for his three decades of prosecuting some of the county’s most heinous crimes while helping hone the skills of a generation of trial attorneys.
“It’s not just prosecutors — he has trained a generation of homicide detectives. Every detective in this county who has worked with Jeff is a better detective because of it,” said Rolf Norton, a Seattle police homicide detective who has worked with Baird on a number of cases over the past 17 years.
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“Jeff Baird has just an impossible combination of genius, tenacity, compassion and humility. He’s always the smartest person in the room but he never wants anybody to know that,” Norton said.
The son of a soil scientist, Baird — who was born in Colombia and grew up in India — graduated from Ohio’s Oberlin College with a degree in philosophy, then spent a couple of years working on oil rigs and doing land surveying to finance rock-climbing trips in Wyoming, Utah and California.
In 1978, he began law school at the University of Washington, and during summer breaks worked for the prosecutor’s office trying cases in district court.
“I’ve always been able to think like a criminal and this seemed like a reasonable way to put those talents to use,” said Baird, who prosecuted his first murder case in 1984.
A decade later, Baird started his office’s Most Dangerous Offender Program, known as MDOP, by single-handedly overcoming the resistance of the county’s law-enforcement agencies and persuading them to allow deputy prosecutors to respond to homicide scenes, Satterberg said.
“When we started it, the police weren’t very excited about having lawyers show up at crime scenes. Through Jeff’s intelligence and his force of will, he was able to show how much value we could add in the course of an investigation,” he said.
Before the program’s existence, prosecutors wouldn’t be notified of a homicide until a file was “plopped on their desk and they would have to get to know the case through the paperwork,” said Senior Deputy Prosecutor John Castleton, an 11-year member of the Most Dangerous Offender Program.
And chances were, a case would cross the desks of several prosecutors before making it to trial.
By going to a crime scene, prosecutors gain deep knowledge of the evidence, help detectives write warrants and avoid legal mistakes, prioritize evidence for forensic testing, make smarter decisions about when to file murder charges and can better relate the facts of a case to a jury.
“His brain works in a different way than anyone else I know, and that’s a compliment,” Castleton said of Baird. “He’s the most unassuming person you’d meet when it comes to ego. He doesn’t have one … He comes across as very confident, very knowledgeable, but he’s not doing it to impress anyone. He’s doing it to do the job.”
Dr. Richard Harruff, King County’s chief medical examiner, recalled an autopsy Baird attended more than a decade ago. The victim had been stabbed but before Harruff could begin the procedure, Baird looked at the victim’s body and said he thought the man’s pulmonary artery had been hit — and he turned out to be right, Harruff said.
“He wants to know the real truth,” Harruff said of Baird. “He wants to win (cases) based on scientifically valid, credible evidence and I like to think all the (MDOP) prosecutors have that.”
By Monday afternoon, Baird had nearly cleared out his corner office on the fifth floor of the County Courthouse. A cardboard box sat in one corner, containing files from the 1994 unsolved homicides of a young cocktail waitress and her 3-year-old son, who were both fatally shot on a Renton roadway.
“I’m passing this one on to a colleague and hoping she can put the case together,” Baird said, adding that his unsolved cases are sometimes more disturbing than those he’s successfully prosecuted.
Still, the list of killers — including at least three serial killers — Baird helped put away is impressive. Among them is George Russell, who killed three Eastside women in summer 1990 and Matias Bachmeir, a county police sergeant who killed a man in his patrol car and torched his own house as part of an insurance scam six years later.
Baird successfully prosecuted Guy Rowan for the 1985 murder of Kelly Ray Huff — even though Huff’s body wouldn’t be found for another decade and Baird’s key trial witness was Huff’s then 4-year-old daughter.
There was a pair of killers who wiped out a Bellevue family of four, two brothers who raped and killed a woman they’d abducted in Tacoma and an escaped murderer from Montana who fled to Seattle and shot a woman here.
According to Satterberg, Baird was responsible for persuading the late Prosecutor Norm Maleng to agree to a plea deal with Green River Killer Gary Ridgway, taking the death penalty off the table so Ridgway would lead police to the remains of his victims and bring closure to dozens of families. Baird also earned the trust of Ridgway’s defense team, including the late Tony Savage, he said.
With Castleton, Baird successfully prosecuted Christopher Monfort, who was convicted in 2015 of aggravated first-degree murder for the ambush killing of Seattle police Officer Timothy Brenton on Halloween night 2009. Monfort died in prison last year.
Baird described Ridgway as “a perfect psychopath” and said Monfort was “a self-centered narcissist.”
Baird is a lifelong opponent of the death penalty. During Monfort’s trial, for instance, he questioned and cross-examined witnesses during the guilt phase but did not participate in the penalty phase when jurors decide punishment.
“I was relieved when he (Monfort) was convicted and I was relieved when the jury declined to put him to death,” said Baird, who believes the death penalty glorifies murderers and turns them into martyrs and celebrities.
“The state should not be in the position of killing its own citizens,” said Baird, who believes death-penalty cases “delay the final judgment in murder cases for an unconscionably long time.”
Though Baird doesn’t have “any bold plans” for retirement, he wants to spend more time with his wife, Dr. Anna Daniel, and their two sons — and spend more time mountain biking and snowboarding. He might take some classes at the University of Washington or try his hand at writing crime fiction.
“It’s somewhat threatening because a large part of my sort of sense of self is centered around the work I’ve done. I’m going to have to reinvent that and reacquaint myself with myself,” Baird said. “I’m looking forward to it, but there’s a certain apprehension involved.”
Information in this article, originally published May 3, 2018, was corrected May 4, 2018. In a previous version of this story, Dr. Anna Daniel’s surname was misspelled.