Harry Baker, a former Madera County supervisor and longtime Oakhurst-area civic leader and philanthropist who in recent years made news for his arrest on child-molestation charges, died early Friday.
The 87-year-old was arrested by Fresno police in 2009 on suspicion of committing a lewd act with a 13-year-old girl. But there were years of delays in prosecuting Baker — also president of Sierra Telephone Co. — because of recurring health issues.
Last month, he suffered an ischemic stroke in the Fresno County Jail, where he has been held since Sept. 24 awaiting trial on the molestation charges. Last week, his attorney Roger Nuttall said the trial likely wouldn’t happen because Baker was in grave condition.
The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office said Baker died at approximately 2:15 Friday morning. Sheriff’s spokesman Tony Botti said Baker was “in hospice care at an off-site facility from the Fresno County Jail.”
Nuttall said Baker had been at Community Regional Medical Center — first in critical care — since March 10. He was moved to a recovery floor and then to hospice care within the past week.
“They basically said that he wouldn’t recover from this stroke,” Nuttall said. “The doctor said he was terminal.”
Nuttall called Baker resilient. “When they put him in jail, he got along just fine.”
Still, in the past few months “he was doing terrible” and if he’d been released from the jail and went home, he would have needed 24-hour care, Nuttall said.
Baker’s last years were marked with controversy. Court records say Baker allegedly fondled and kissed a 13-year-old girl’s breasts in a Fresno motel room in 2007, which was secretly videotaped. Baker contended he was ensnared in a blackmail scheme by a band of gypsies.
Besides Baker’s constantly delayed court hearings, he also made headlines in 2013 for firing a gun inside a Merced motel room and for a false report that he had been kidnapped. In 2012, Baker attended a court hearing with two black eyes, bruises and stitches, saying he had been mugged.
Politician and businessman
Baker served as a supervisor for 12 years, finishing his final four-year term in 1998.
Stell Manfredi, who worked for Madera County for nearly 40 years, was the county’s chief administrative officer when Baker was a supervisor.
Manfredi said Baker had a hand in a number of big Madera County projects, including the Highway 41 extension and the early stages of the planned Rio Mesa community, which plans indicate could eventually be home to 100,000 residents in homes covering more than 2,000 acres on the north side of the San Joaquin River, east of Highway 41. Baker was also remembered for helping Madera County transition from the “pencil and paper days” to embrace new technology.
Manfredi described Baker — also a World War II veteran — as a “gentleman” who never lost his temper and wasn’t pushy. “Instead of telling me how to do something or demanding, he’d say, ‘Well Stell, see what you think.’ ”
He said Baker took over his father’s small telephone company, then based in the tiny town of Raymond, as a young man. Baker built it up, moved its headquarters to Oakhurst and opened offices throughout the mountain area.
While he became “a multi-multi-multi-millionaire” and one of Madera County’s top employers, Manfredi said Baker wasn’t pretentious or showy. “He would wear polyester suits, sometimes with rips in the pockets … but he had a couple jets with standby pilots.”
A statement from Sierra Telephone on Friday said, “Harry’s generosity, wit and dedication to the company and community will be remembered warmheartedly.” A private memorial service is being planned. Sierra Telephone managers on Friday didn’t discuss possible changes to the company in light of Baker’s death.
Manfredi added, “In all of Harry’s faults — and there were some — he still was a benevolent benefactor to especially the Oakhurst area and he served this county well as a county supervisor.”
Baker’s contributions to the Oakhurst area are vast. His hefty donations and political clout helped found Yosemite High School, the Boys & Girls Club of Oakhurst and nonprofit Sierra Ambulance Service, to name a few.
“I don’t know if there is anything he hasn’t been involved in,” Madera County Supervisor Tom Wheeler said of Baker’s involvement in eastern Madera County.
Of Baker’s wealth, Wheeler said, “he didn’t just hog it — he shared everything.”
Yosemite High’s gymnasium and swim complex are named after Baker in honor of his financial support, and each year Baker provided numerous scholarships for the school’s graduating seniors.
In the early 1980s, Baker also signed a long-term lease to make 4.5 acres of his company’s property a community park in Oakhurst, which is still in existence.
Sierra Ambulance General Manager Ed Guzman said Baker provided a loan for the mountain area’s first ambulance in 1964. After its purchase, Baker was the ambulance’s first driver — parading it triumphantly through town with its lights on.
“He has done many wonderful things for the community and it’s saddening that his legacy will always be tainted by these allegations late in his life,” Guzman said. “It needs to be remembered that he died an innocent man, never convicted of any crime. Unfortunately, we’ll never know what the true story is with regards to those allegations.”