Long after the flames died down, the house fire that accompanied the killings of Edward and Elaine Baker fueled the rumor mill of Chattahoochee County. Whispers of conspiracies and organized crime spread from the streets of Cusseta, Ga., to neighboring Columbus as the community sought to cope with the unexplained deaths.
Fears were at least partially allayed last fall when the Georgia Bureau of Investigation filed murder, arson and burglary charges against Dane D. Register, a 32-year-old who had been staying with family here in a small, fenced-in residence off Ga. 26. Register was relatively new to the neighborhood, but he was no stranger to law enforcement, having been released from prison about two weeks before the killings.
Court documents show Register has spent much of his troubled adulthood behind bars, re-offending at an almost predictable pace. He has a history of mental health issues, according to his former defense attorneys, and ran afoul of the law so frequently he was banished from the six-county Southwestern Judicial Circuit.
“Everybody around here was and is very familiar with Dane Register,” said Plez H. Hardin, the district attorney of the circuit who also represented Register as a public defender in Americus, Ga. “He’s just somebody that you don’t forget.”
Many questions remain unanswered six months after the Bakers were found slain in their Firetower Road home, and investigators say the case is too sensitive to discuss in any detail before trial. But Register’s proceedings are slowly moving forward, and more details about the accused and the homicides have emerged in court documents and interviews.
The GBI recently forwarded an investigative file of more than 800 pages to local prosecutors, who say they hope to present the double murder case to a grand jury as early as next month. Don Kelly, a senior assistant district attorney in the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit, said Register’s case could qualify for the death penalty, but prosecutors haven’t made that decision at this early stage.
Register’s family maintains he has been falsely accused of the killings, saying he was never out of their sight on “the night of the storm” in Cusseta.
“They were thinking he used to walk the streets up here, but he didn’t do it, though. I swear he didn’t because he was with me and my family the whole time,” said Register’s nephew, Raymond Brown, 18, who said he was questioned by the GBI and asked to provide a DNA sample. “He’s really in jail for nothing.”
A GBI search warrant application reviewed by the Ledger-Enquirer shed new light on the charges, suggesting Register was linked to the investigation through DNA evidence. Agents also cited Register’s “violent criminal history” in the warrant, referring to a series of run-ins that began more than a decade before the Bakers’ home was set ablaze one morning last August.
A ravaging fire
Authorities responded to reports of tree-level flames about 2:51 a.m. on Aug. 9, and the house was fully engulfed when they arrived eight minutes later. Investigators knew from witnesses they’d be searching for the bodies of a retired couple.
Firefighters said they held back family members who had tried to get into the burning house. The Bakers were found dead amid the charred remnants, burned so badly authorities needed dental records to confirm their identities.
The Bakers were well known here. Edward Baker, 68, worked for more than 20 years for the county as a road superintendent, and, according to his obituary, enjoyed collecting classic cars.
Elaine Baker, 67, retired as a secretary after a long career at The Medical Center. Her obituary said she was a volunteer for the Children’s Network and served on a training team in the hospital’s education department.
“It was a good family,” Chattahoochee County Sheriff Glynn Cooper said.
Citing the stormy conditions, investigators initially said the blaze appeared to be sparked by lightning. But autopsies revealed no signs of smoke inhalation, suggesting the couple died before the fire began, said Johnny Floyd Jr., the longtime chief of the Cusseta-Chattahoochee County Volunteer Fire Department.
GBI agents launched a full-scale inquiry into the deaths. There were few leads in the weeks after the fire, and investigators offered $20,000 for fruitful tips.
Register was charged about a month after agents noted the DNA evidence in an application for a search warrant, according to court filings.
Fire investigators, meanwhile, determined someone “set different places on fire throughout the house,” Floyd said.
“He didn’t pour anything in there to set it on fire,” he said, referring to the alleged arsonist. “He used materials that were there like clothing and newspapers and stuff.”
Floyd said the case was the most difficult he could recall in his years at the department, not only because he knew the victims.
“The first part of the day, you’re thinking they died in the fire and you’re wondering why they couldn’t get out,” Floyd said. “Then, when it comes back as a murder and they were dead before, it turns because you have no idea who might have done this. Who would want to kill these nice people who live in this community?”
A troubled past
Register has run the gamut of criminal charges over the years, from misdemeanor fights and probation violations to rape and aggravated assaults. One of his earlier run-ins occurred in August 1999 when he bailed out of a vehicle in reverse and let it roll into an Americus Police Department patrol car.
Register pleaded guilty as a “first offender” to aggravated assault, interference with government property and obstruction of an officer, court documents show, and was sentenced in December 1999 to 10 years probation. A few months later, he got into a fight with a man he accused of stealing from him, punching the man and damaging a screen door.
In August 2000, Register was charged with breaking into a house on Allen Street in Americus and beating and raping a woman. The victim had severe bruising to her face and upper arms, according to court records, and there also were signs Register had bitten her.
That arrest prompted a judge to revoke his probation and sentence him to nearly four years in the penitentiary. Three years after the rape arrest, in September 2003, he pleaded guilty to reduced charges of sexual battery and criminal trespassing and was sentenced to three years probation.
Asked about the plea in an email last week, Cecilia M. Cooper, the former district attorney who lost office to Hardin in 2008, said she couldn’t recall the details of the case or what may have prompted prosecutors to plead it to lesser charges.
About a year after Register’s release, in late 2004, he was indicted for aggravated assault with the intent to rape in a separate attack on a woman in Americus. The victim told authorities that Register -- whom she referred to as “Housing Authority” -- accosted her on a pathway and pulled her into some bushes. The woman escaped but had several scratches on her face, according to police, and one of her hair extensions had been pulled out.
A jury in September 2005 found Register guilty of the lesser included offense of battery.
“She had been drinking that morning, and I believe the jury couldn’t decide whether her recollection of everything was correct,” defense attorney Kevin Kwashnak said of the victim in a phone interview.
Register was sentenced to 12 months consecutive to a sentence he was already serving. Kwashnak said he did not recall Register being ordered to undergo any psychiatric treatment.
Register’s next legal issues stemmed from a felony “false imprisonment” charge that happened before the 2005 aggravated assault trial. He was accused of exposing himself to a young woman working at a telecommunications shop in Americus, trapping her behind her desk and preventing her from calling authorities.
In an interview, the victim recalled Register coming into the store around closing time and inquiring about a pager. She said Register fled the store after the incident but was later arrested when he tried to file a complaint against her.
The woman said she returned to Americus twice for court hearings after moving out of state.
“They said they really wanted to make sure he got off the street,” she said, referring to prosecutors. “They really pushed the false imprisonment through.”
Transcripts of Register’s 2007 proceedings show prosecutors urged Judge Rucker Smith to sentence him to 10 years after he pleaded guilty to the felony charge. Hardin, the current district attorney who was Register’s defense attorney at the time, attributed the lewd encounter to his client’s mental issues.
“At the time this happened, he was in one of those psychiatric episodes,” Hardin told the judge, according to a transcript. “He wasn’t medicated. He wasn’t doing things that he’s required to do.”
Register told the judge he’d already spent “enough time” in prison.
“And I feel like prison don’t help me enough to get out here and do right now,” he said. “I know I did wrong and I asked God to forgive me for it. And I ask you to forgive me for it, too, and I just want to move on with my life.”
“I’m going to give you that chance,” the judge replied, “but you do something like this again and I’m going to revoke you for 10 years.”
Register again was sentenced to 10 years probation, banned from the telecommunications shop and ordered to attend the Middle Flint Behavioral Health Care. The day after the hearing, he was accused of stalking and loitering at a cosmetics store.
A woman said Register approached her and began masturbating under his clothing. The victim “was frightened by his actions and thought he was going to do harm to her,” authorities said.
This charge also led to a probation revocation, but it wasn’t the 10-year term Smith promised. On May 10, 2007, the judge ordered Register back to the penitentiary for two years, according to court documents.
A few months after he was released, in August 2009, Register was revoked again for changing his address without his probation officer’s permission and failing to comply with his mental health treatment. He again was sentenced to two years in prison and released July 27, 2011, about two weeks before the fire.
Hardin recalled in a phone interview that he requested a mental health evaluation of Register because of his demeanor and history with the courts.
“He would do things to try to harm himself, I would say, to get out of going to trial,” Hardin said, adding Register was nevertheless found competent to stand trial.
“I think if you were to compile a list of everyone in the Georgia state prison system, you’re going to have a large number of people that fall under that same category,” he added. “There are a lot of people like Dane Register in our society and in our prison system.”