By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Ben DuBose
The first hint of trouble that was to invade their idyllic life came in the form of a phone call that November from Carolyn Oatis, Brandi's mother.
"She called up and said the adoption was illegal and she was coming to get the boys," says DeAnne Fitts. "We didn't believe her." (Both Brandi's mother and Brendon's mother would file petitions to obtain custody of the boys; Oatis later dropped her action, while Donna Camblin's claim was rejected by the jury that denied her son's custody petition. )
A few days after the phone call, the Fittses learned there was indeed a problem with the adoption. When Brandi Baker first filled out Blessed Trinity's paperwork, she neglected to inform the agency that she had filed for a divorce from Brendon Baker in Harris County earlier in 1993. Unaware of the pending divorce, Blessed Trinity had sought to terminate Brendon Baker's parental rights in Fort Bend County. Brandi's earlier divorce action, however, meant that Harris County held jurisdiction over decisions involving the children. Thus, the Fittses' Baylor County adoption of Justin and Jacob was voided.
The loophole seemed trivial, but the consequences were serious.
When the adoption was nullified, Brandi and Brendon's parental rights were automatically restored. If the Fittses wanted to keep the boys, they would have to go back to court -- this time in Houston -- to have the Bakers' rights terminated before seeking to adopt Justin and Jacob a second time. It would have been simpler, of course, if the Bakers had wanted the Fittses to adopt the boys again. But shortly after Brendon Baker was released from prison last March, he filed a custody petition, claiming he had never authorized Blessed Trinity to put Justin and Jacob up for adoption, setting off a custody battle with the Fittses. Brandi Baker soon petitioned the court to have her parental rights restored.
By the time their claims came to trial in Henderson's court this past November, Brandi Baker had recanted much of what she previously had said to the Fittses and in depositions about her husband's violent temper. Outside the courtroom, she told reporters that the violence she saw in Brendon Baker was understandable. He smashed out the windows of her mother's car only because he was concerned about seeing his kids; his intent was to wreck the car so she couldn't drive off with the children.
Brandi now says she lied when being deposed before the trial because she wanted to work with the Fittses, hoping they would agree to visitation rights she believed the couple and the adoption agency had promised her.
But portions of her deposition were read to the jurors during the trial. They also heard how Brendon Baker had been in prison for much of the children's lives and had failed to support them. His mother testified she once had him arrested when he was drunk and disruptive.
And the jury was read the transcript of the threatening phone message Brendon Baker had left for his wife and her boyfriend, which was part of the evidence police used in filing a harassment charge against him: "You better call me and get this motherfucking shit straight or I'll find your bitch ass and come over there and I swear to God, I'll kill [Brandi's new boyfriend] behind this shit. You better get my motherfucking kids where I can see them." Then he said to Brandi's boyfriend, "I swear to God, I'm gonna blow your motherfucking head off."
Henderson had ordered Brandi and Brendon to undergo psychological evaluations, and the psychologist who performed them, Edward Silverman, strongly urged that Justin and Jacob continue to reside with the Fittses. The boys, he said, had forged a strong, healthy bond with the couple and thought of them as their parents. Removing Justin and Jacob from the Fittses would be disruptive and detrimental to their well-being.
Silverman found both Brendon and Brandi to be unfit caretakers. Brendon, he said, had demonstrated little if any ability to live independently, sustain consistent employment or conform to the law. If the boys' needs conflicted with his, he would have difficulty meeting his children's needs. Silverman determined that Brendon's level of hostility and potential for antisocial behavior was considerable. If the Fittses or Brandi were granted custody of the boys and Brendon were permitted visitation, the children would be at "an increased risk for kidnapping," Silverman said.
The psychologist also noted that Brandi had acknowledged giving up the children because she had a number of deficiencies as a mother and couldn't give them a stable home. He found no evidence she had made any effort to improve her parenting skills.
Neither Brandi nor Brendon did much to help their case after they filed for custody. Silverman's report on Brendon noted that he was extremely irresponsible about even keeping his appointments for the psychological tests Henderson had required and had expressed no concern about the consequences of canceling appointments. There was more. Henderson had ordered both biological parents to undergo drug testing before the trial, and both had tested positive: Brandi for cocaine and Brendon for marijuana.