Douglas Jehl . NY Times . 21 january 2002
HOUSTON, Jan. 26 Cliff Baxter was supposed to be on a boat right now, floating on some endless expanse of blue water beneath endless blue skies. That was the party line when he left Enron last May as vice chairman, and if former colleagues now say it was never that simple, they nonetheless expected him to be living the good life.
The son of a police sergeant, Mr. Baxter was getting out of Enron as a rich man at a time when his vision for the company apparently clashed with those of many of its top executives. He had helped create the company's centerpiece business, its energy trading operations, and had risen to vice chairman, a grand title for a man from ordinary beginnings.
He had a loving wife and two children and a big new house in an exclusive suburb. He could afford to do anything, or nothing at all.
But if Mr. Baxter left Enron months before trouble engulfed the company, those troubles seemed to be engulfing him when he was found dead early Friday morning, shot once in the head. An autopsy was completed on Friday, and the death has been ruled a suicide, a representative of the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office said today.
Mr. Baxter had been subpoenaed by Congress to testify about Enron, and investigators hoped he would be a helpful witness against his former peers since his name had surfaced as someone who had complained "mightily" about the financial partnerships now at the center of the company's collapse. He had also been named as a defendant in a shareholder lawsuit.
His anguish became evident to those who bumped into him in recent weeks. People who saw him at the Houston Yacht Club, where until recently Mr. Baxter kept a boat, Tranquility Base, noticed that his salt- and-pepper hair had turned mostly white between December and January, said the club's president, Chuck Buckner.
"Cliff was a guy who clearly seemed to be very concerned that people would think ill of him whether he'd done anything wrong or not," said Mr. Buckner, a partner with Ernst & Young. At the club's Christmas party in December, Mr. Buckner said, he and Mr. Baxter spoke only in general terms about Enron.
"I thought he was a man who'd got out on time, but a man who'd be concerned about what happened to the company," Mr. Buckner said. "He worked really hard. This was the son of a policeman. This wasn't a rich kid."
The mail carrier in the neighborhood, Veronica DeLaCruz, said that Mr. Baxter's mail had been full of certified letters from law firms in Houston and elsewhere in recent months, and that his wife regularly signed for them. But in recent weeks, as the certified letters kept coming, no one came to the door to sign.
"They were very, very to themselves," said a next-door neighbor who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They spent most of their time on their yacht."
Police investigators in Sugar Land, the affluent Houston suburb where Mr. Baxter's body was discovered inside his parked Mercedes- Benz, have refused to reveal the contents of a suicide note he left behind, but CNBC has reported that Mr. Baxter wrote that he was distraught over Enron's disintegration and the prospect of having to testify against friends there.
His reputation among friends and colleagues was of a man of high integrity who could be an intimidating negotiator, sometimes arrogant and brash in a typically Enron mold. He liked expensive cars and motorcycles, and one former colleague, Michael P. Moran, recalled seeing a Ferrari, a Lexus, an S.U.V. and more in his parking spot.
"He was really pretty typical of what the Enron culture was, although he was a very principled individual," said Mr. Moran, a retired general counsel of Enron's natural gas pipeline group who is now serving on the creditors' committee overseeing the bankruptcy.
Mr. Moran said he was shocked by Mr. Baxter's death because he had had neither financial problems nor a major hand in the company's decline. But, he said, Mr. Baxter had always been concerned about the fate of workers when he was buying or selling companies.
"The thought has crossed my mind," Mr. Moran said, that the suicide came because "he was so disturbed by all the things that were going on."
Before he left Enron, Mr. Baxter, like many of the company's executives, was active in charity work, particularly for Junior Achievement of Southeast Texas. Jerry V. Mutchler, the group's president, described him as "very gregarious, a very big thinker and one of those people who thought you should give back."
Mr. Mutchler said Mr. Baxter had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the group because he wanted to help make certain young people "understood the values of the free enterprise system."
Doug Leach, a vice president of Enron Global Markets, said one of Mr. Baxter's fund-raisers for Junior Achievement was called Birdies for Charity. A putting green was set up in the Enron lobby for employees who passed by. "They would pay to make a putt, and Enron would match the funds," Mr. Leach said. "He held his own as a putter. He had fun, he got into it.
"That's the part of Cliff I got to know, and that's why this is so sad."
Mr. Baxter grew up in working- class Amityville, N.Y., on the south shore of Long Island, one of six children of a father who was a local police sergeant and a mother who worked for the Town of Babylon. He graduated with honors from New York University, became a captain in the Air Force and earned a master's degree in business at Columbia University.
Arriving at Columbia Business School as a married father recently discharged from the Air Force, Mr. Baxter did not fit the typical profile of an incoming student.
Dan Nagao recalled that Mr. Baxter had approached him in an accounting class after noticing in the student directory that Mr. Nagao, too, had served in the military. They became friends, Mr. Nagao said, and he recalled that Mr. Baxter had joined a rock band as a guitarist, hustled fellow students in pool and joined investment and entrepreneurial clubs on campus.
For years, Mr. Baxter and Mr. Nagao stayed in touch, talking, exchanging e-mail messages, swapping Christmas cards. Mr. Baxter talked about his two children and his wife, Carol, whom he had met while in the Air Force, but rarely about his job. Only last year, after Mr. Nagao asked Mr. Baxter what he did for Enron, did Mr. Baxter state, almost sheepishly, that he was the company's vice chairman.
This year, though, Mr. Nagao said the usual Christmas card with the long, handwritten note and the photo of his family did not arrive from Mr. Baxter. "It was something simple, but I remember mentioning to my wife that it was odd," said Mr. Nagao, who runs a human resources consulting company in Palo Alto, Calif.
"I thought, maybe he's busy, maybe he's traveling. I was thinking of calling him, and just asking him, `Hey, is everything O.K.?' I regret not doing that now."
When Mr. Nagao learned of his friend's death on Friday, he was shocked. "I don't know what happened, and I would hate to even guess," he said. "We thought that Cliff would survive anything."