EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first story in a two-part High Point Confidential series.

THOMASVILLE

It ended with a kiss

The newspapers from 60-plus years ago don’t tell us much about the complicated relationship between James Andrew Baker and his lover, Viola Lankford Parker, but we know it ended with a kiss.

Well, a kiss and a shotgun blast through the heart — that’s why the young couple’s tragic love story was in the papers to begin with. But how did it happen? And why?

The year was 1959, and Baker and Parker had been living together as man and wife in rural Davidson County, though they weren’t actually married. Baker, a 27-year-old sawmill worker and former Thomasville taxi driver, was estranged from his wife, who had left him and was seeking a divorce. He had an illegitimate son with another woman.

Parker, Baker’s 24-year-old paramour, who was also from Thomasville, had left her husband, who happened to be more than 30 years her senior. Furthermore, Parker was the mother of a young son — from a previous marriage, before she became a Parker.

Hey, we told you it was complicated.

The affair came to its bloody end on Aug. 31, 1959, a rainy Monday when Baker skipped work because of the weather. Instead, he and his sweetheart went frog-hunting at a woodland pond a few miles north of Denton, taking along a .22-caliber rifle Baker had borrowed from an acquaintance.

Unfortunately, the frogs wouldn’t be the only victims that day. Shortly after 12:30 that afternoon, Viola Parker died when a bullet from that .22 rifle pierced her heart, and Baker was left holding the smoking gun.

So what happened? Had Baker murdered his young lover, or was this a tragic accident? Well, that depends on whose version of the story you believe.

For his part, a highly distraught Baker told sheriff’s deputies an admittedly dubious story that went something like this:

He and his girlfriend had gone frog-hunting that morning around 10. When they took a break, Baker sat down on a tree stump and had the rifle lying across his knees. Parker sat against a tree about three feet away. We don’t know if they were conversing or sitting quietly.

After a few minutes, when a hawk flew overhead and perched in a nearby tree, Baker reached for the rifle to try and shoot it. At that very moment, Parker leaned over to kiss her boyfriend, unaware that he was reaching for the gun. Just as she wrapped her arms around Baker to kiss him, the rifle accidentally discharged, firing a bullet into her chest and straight through her heart. She weakly spoke her boyfriend’s name, then collapsed and died.

Baker, horrified by what he’d done, tried to carry the young woman out of the woods to the house where they’d been living with a relative — about half a mile away — but he couldn’t make it more than a few yards. So he placed Parker’s body back on the ground, ran to the house, and drove frantically to Denton to report what had happened. Denton police, in turn, called the Davidson’s County Sheriff’s Department, and deputies met Baker back at the house, where he led them to the scene and repeated his story.

“I loved her, and I didn’t mean to do it, but I shot her,” Baker tearfully confessed to the deputies.

As you can imagine, Baker’s juicy tale titillated the press with its sordid details of illicit love, an errant gunshot — or was it? — and that final fateful kiss. Newspapers across the state, including The High Point Enterprise, couldn’t resist referring to the case as the “kiss of death” slaying.

As suspicious as Baker’s story sounded, it was little surprise when he was locked up in the Lexington Jail, charged with first-degree murder. Despite his tears, neither the Davidson County sheriff nor the district attorney had believed him.

But the question was, would a jury?

jtomlin@hpenews.com | 336-888-3579

EDITOR’S NOTE: Part two of “The Kiss of Death” will be published in Tuesday’s High Point Enterprise.