MODESTO — Some crimes involve details so strange they are difficult to forget.
The case involving Russell David Baxter is one of those.
In April 1997, a San Joaquin County judge found Baxter guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced him to 15 years to life in prison.
Baxter was 33 when he met 28-year-old Stacie Housewright of Modesto through a personal ad in The Bee in May 1996. He took her to his family's 800-acre cattle ranch off Keyes Road near Snelling in Merced County, where he killed her.
Baxter has a genetic condition that gave him enlarged breasts. He told investigators in a videotaped confession that Housewright mocked him by saying, "My God, your breasts are as big as mine."
He said he clubbed her with a flashlight and then told her she could drip hot candle wax on his thighs to get even. When she did, he snapped and strangled her with a piece of rope. He said he then fell asleep. He claimed he forgot about killing her until he woke up, stood up and tripped over her body.
Authorities said Baxter looked near Hughson for a pipe large enough to stuff her body into, but couldn't find one. So he drove to the Delta-Mendota Canal near Tracy. Someone found House- wright's body floating in the canal there, making it San Joaquin County's case.
Baxter opted for a court trial, meaning that a judge not a jury of his peers would determine his fate. I covered parts of it, including the verdict, when Judge F. Clark Sueyres (pronounced "swear-es") concluded that Baxter's version of what happened didn't mesh with the facts, including the part about Housewright mocking his breasts. Baxter had breast reduction surgery in 1990.
Allowed to stay in the courtroom during recesses, Baxter chatted and joked with spectators. But the moment the judge returned, Baxter would bury his face in his hands and begin rocking back and forth.
Sueyres ruled that Baxter's crime rose above voluntary manslaughter but lacked the premeditation to be first-degree murder. Hence, the second-degree conviction and a chance for Baxter to get out of prison someday.
Earlier this month at the state prison in Vacaville, Baxter appeared for his second parole hearing. Housewright's sister, Kristy Ibarra, contacted me because even though the commissioners denied his freedom, she fears they'll let him out when his next parole date arrives in 2018.
In fact, Ibarra said, they told him he'd been a model prisoner and, if he continued to make progress, could request another hearing in three years instead of five. After what he did to her sister in May 1996, Ibarra finds that possibility very disturbing.
"He's a monster," Ibarra said. "He should never get out."
I've sat in on a couple of parole hearings. Two commissioners attend each one. The district attorney's office is there to contest it. The inmate can hire counsel or use appointed counsel.
The panel tends to play good commissioner, bad commissioner in these hearings. It wants to determine the essence of the person convicted. The commissioners generally are very good at determining whether the inmate truly is remorseful for taking a life. They want him to admit what he did and talk about it honestly. They encourage the inmate to accept counseling and take self-improvement courses in prison.
But in the end, it comes down to whether he remains a danger to society if released.
Baxter's family paid for a mental health assessment to counter the state's, said Kevin Mayo, the deputy district attorney who represented San Joaquin County.
Baxter used a walker to get to the hearing room. He also wore a helmet, claiming he needed the protection because he's been having seizures.
When describing the crime to the commissioners, Baxter told a different story than the one he told investigators 17 years ago the evidence that now-retired prosecutor Chuck Schultz used against him in court.
Mayo said what Baxter told the commissioners only strengthens the case to keep him behind bars.
The part about the hot wax and then falling asleep next to Housewright after killing her? Didn't happen that way after all, Baxter told the panel.
"He said he was awake the whole time," Mayo said, adding that Baxter had the rope handy for a reason.
"He basically admitted premeditation," May said. "You lied to the court, to probation, to the psychiatrists. Now you've got a new story?"
"This new statement to me is far more heinous and torturous," Ibarra said.
And adds a new twist to a strange old case.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.