Editor’s note: This story is about a case of domestic violence. If you or someone you know needs help, see the resources at the end of this story.
LITHIA — A neighbor heard her gasping for air.
It was Kay Baker’s last day of school. The 3rd-grade math and science teacher at Cypress Creek Elementary in Ruskin had gone out to a bar that night with her boyfriend, Matthew Terry.
“I saw you dancing with that guy,” Terry said to her angrily before they left for home in a Lithia subdivision at about 11:30 p.m. on May 27, according to court documents.
An hour later, Baker was dead. The neighbor who heard her screams found her body in his yard. The 43-year-old mother of two had been stabbed multiple times in the neck. The deep wounds indicated someone had tried to sever her head, police said.
Hillsborough sheriff’s deputies discovered a knife missing from the kitchen butcher block. They found Terry, 47, hiding in nearby bushes, wearing a T-shirt and underwear soaked with blood, according to an affidavit. A grand jury indicted him on a charge of first-degree murder in June, and the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office is considering whether to seek the death penalty.
There was one other person who knew what it was like to face Terry and the tip of his knife — to be hunted down in your home by the man you trusted enough to let in.
Five years earlier, it was Michelle Rogers lying on a neighbor’s lawn, her blood mingling with Michigan snow. Terry had bitten, beaten and stabbed Rogers multiple times, leaving the mother of his child in intensive care for five days.
“It was as close to a homicide as you could get without it being a homicide,” Lansing police Detective Matthew Krumbach said of the scene in an audio recording obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.
After Terry was charged with attempted murder, his lawyer argued his client acted in self-defense and called Rogers’ testimony an “impossible and implausible story,” court records show.
“If he gets out, I fear for myself and my family, and for his next victim,” Rogers pleaded in a 2020 letter to the Michigan Parole Board. “Society is in danger.”
But Terry did get out after serving three years on a reduced charge. He was discharged in December and moved to Florida to be with Baker, an ex-girlfriend he’d reconnected with while awaiting trial. Baker took Terry’s side and testified for him in court.
“He is very truthful and I trust him completely,” Baker told the judge, according to a court transcript.
Rogers said she warned Baker that the man she was dating and defending was a monster. During the trial, she sent Baker a photo of her stab wounds on Facebook Messenger along with an imploring message:
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“Please don’t let this be you.”
The Golden Girls
Baker was one of the “Golden Girls.”
Her friend group of four was united by their love of that 1980s sitcom, frosé and karaoke. They talked about moving into their own mansion on the beach and growing old together, outliving any husbands or boyfriends.
“I would say she was more of a Dorothy, but she probably wouldn’t like that,” friend Lindsey Fielder said with a laugh, referring to Bea Arthur’s character on the show. “Kay is bold and fierce and fiery. She is the strongest one in our girlfriend group.”
Baker was known for greeting people with a simple “What up?” and pulling out her calendar to write down future plans, Fielder said. She worked hard to bring people together and always sat midfield at her son’s soccer games.
But eventually, Baker stopped including the other Golden Girls in her plans. She was spending all her time with Terry. Now, Fielder wonders if this isolation was a sign of abuse they all had missed.
“When I picture a hopeless romantic, I think of the girls in the Hallmark movies and that wasn’t her,” Fielder said. “But maybe she had a little bit of that, because she always believed in her and Matt.”
Kay’s father and stepmother said they never liked or trusted Terry. They warned Baker she could be attacked just like Rogers.
“My daughter was a very stubborn person,” Dave Empey, 73, said in an interview with the Times on Thursday. “She said, ‘Listen, Dad, I’m not gonna let that happen. That is not gonna happen in my house, with my sons.’”
Baker didn’t really know Terry because so much of their relationship was online and long-distance while he was in prison, Empey said. He believes she was in love with a person who existed only in memories from 20 years ago.
Empey and his wife went to Terry’s bond hearing in early June. He refused to look at them and didn’t show any remorse, they said.
That morning, Baker’s sister and stepmother went to her house in Lithia.
“I got down in the dirt where Kay died,” Kristine Empey, 60, said. “I promised her that he would not get away with it.”
The previous victim
Rogers first met Terry on a dating app in 2015.
They dated casually for a few months, but Rogers was planning to end the relationship. Then she found out she was pregnant. For the baby’s sake, they stayed together.
But there were signs of escalating abuse and violence, Rogers said: the morning at breakfast when Terry chucked a cast iron pan at her and their infant son; the day he picked up her cat, Snickers, and threw her against the wall; the drunken, angry nights when he banged on her apartment door, asking who she was sleeping with and demanding to be let in.
Gregg McClintic, Terry’s coworker at a local internet provider, told Lansing police that Terry talked about “stabbing the s--t” out of his girlfriend months before the attack. McClintic told the Times he didn’t report the threat because he didn’t take it seriously.
“You think nothing of it until something does happen,” said McClintic, 41.
Then, on March 17, 2017, after a night out at the bar and an argument, Terry stabbed Rogers in the neck with a kitchen knife.
Rogers escaped through the garage, leaving bloody handprints on the walls as she opened the door. When Terry tackled her in the driveway, she remembered grabbing for the knife in mid-air. It fell to her side and she rolled on top of it, fighting to keep it out of Terry’s hands as neighbors called 911.
Terry heard the sirens and ran. Rogers recalled lying in the snow on her back, waiting for him to return, bracing for the final blow. It’s going to hurt a lot, she told herself. Then, you’re going to just fade away. She said a silent goodbye to her 9-month-old baby and 7-year-old son.
Terry’s attorney argued that he had no intent to kill or assault anyone and was using his training as an ex-Marine to neutralize a fight Rogers had started, according to court transcripts. A jury convicted Terry of assault with intent to cause great bodily harm and a judge sentenced him to three to 10 years in prison.
“I wish I could say that what you did to me was an isolated incident, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Rogers said during Terry’s sentencing. “This is just the only time you’ve gotten caught.”
She saw the glares of Terry’s defenders, how his friends and family shook their heads as she spoke in court.
“Had he really intended to murder or cause bodily harm, that would have happened,” Terry’s father, Mark, 74, told the Times in an interview this week.
The Michigan Parole Board discharged Terry after he served the minimum three-year sentence because he had a high parole score for good behavior and he passed a domestic violence class, a department of corrections spokesperson said.
Hillsborough County Public Defender Julie Holt, whose office is representing Terry, declined to comment.
Advocates say it’s common for perpetrators of domestic violence to get off easily.
“These cases are pled down, the charges are reduced, there’s very little jail time, the rehabilitation programs aren’t necessarily regulated,” said Lariana Forsythe, chief executive officer of CASA Pinellas, an organization that provides resources for domestic violence survivors. “These perpetrators go off to another unsuspecting victim.”
Domestic violence involves coercive control, Forsythe said. It starts with a perpetrator isolating a victim from their friends and family and exerting control over their life choices. From there, verbal or physical abuse escalates, sometimes to murder. More than half of female homicide victims in the U.S. are killed by a current or former male partner. Prior domestic violence is a major risk factor in these murders.
“It’s very common for people to not understand the danger of the situation they’re in,” Forsythe said. “Perpetrators are masterful at putting themselves in a positive light so their stories are believable.”
Mark Terry said he visited his son for the first time since Baker’s death on Tuesday.
“He is devastated by the loss of Kay Baker, as is our entire family,” the elder Terry said in a text to the Times. “She was a very special person to all of us, and we will miss her greatly. It’s difficult to comment further, as the events implied thus far defy all logic.”
Krumbach, the Lansing detective who investigated Rogers’ case and now is retired, said in an email to the Times that “Matthew Terry was a textbook case of an evil, narcissistic, manipulative killer.
“It appeared he was supported by his family,” the detective added, “who denied his behavior and actions, especially his father.”
‘If we would have believed’
The night before Baker’s funeral, Fielder and other friends read Rogers’ parole board letter together. Before then, they had only heard Terry’s version of the story.
Rogers told them about her scars, broken nose, busted molar and concussion. How Terry had bashed her head into the cement driveway, again and again; the terror she felt as he raised the knife over her once more; the way she shakes every time she says his name.
“Mr. Terry is dangerous and will hurt another person. It’s simply a matter of time,” the letter reads. “Except the next time, that person might not be as lucky as I was.”
All of Baker’s friends cried.
“If we would have believed Michelle to begin with,” Fielder said, her voice cracking. “I want her to know that we support her and how sorry I am that I didn’t believe her.”
How to get help
If you are in immediate danger, call 911. Here’s how to reach Tampa Bay’s domestic violence agencies for help:
Hillsborough County: Call or text The Spring of Tampa Bay’s 24-hour crisis line at 813-247-7233 or visit online at thespring.org. The TTY line is 813-248-1050.
Pasco County: Contact Sunrise of Pasco County via its 24-hour hotline at 1-888-668-7273 or 352-521-3120, or go online at www.sunrisepasco.org.
Pinellas County: Contact Community Action Stops Abuse, or CASA, by calling the 24-hour hotline at 727-895-4912, texting casa-stpete.org/chat or visiting casapinellas.org. The TTY line at 727-828-1269.
• • •
Domestic violence warning signs
- Abuser isolates victim from friends or family.
- Victim is encouraged or forced to stop participating in activities important to them.
- Abuser controls finances or puts victim on an allowance, asks for explanations of spending.
- Victim is blamed for their feelings, yelled at or made to feel “small.”
- Abuser criticizes and controls victim’s appearance, including what they can wear.
- Abuser abandons victim in places they don’t know.
- Abuser keeps victim from eating, sleeping or getting medical care.
- Abuser throws or punches things around victim.