Nate Baker, a Modesto prosecutor known to colleagues as a "big teddy bear" and to crime victims as their tireless advocate, died Thursday morning at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center, where he was scheduled to undergo a heart procedure. He was 42.
"He was tough, yet kind," fellow prosecutor Annette Rees said. "He knew justice when he saw it and when he needed to make it happen."
Superior Court Judge Ricardo Córdova said the atmosphere in his courtroom was "surreal" after news of Mr. Baker's death, with prosecutors and defense attorneys in tears.
"There wasn't a dry eye in the courthouse," defense attorney Ruben Villalobos said. "As a prosecutor, (Mr. Baker) was firm ... yet he treated everyone — including victims and defendants — as human beings."
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Colleagues said Mr. Baker, who most recently prosecuted crimes of domestic violence, could be heard spending long hours on his office phone talking to victims.
In June, he successfully prosecuted a Modesto couple for brutalizing their young daughters, one close to death.
In 2007, Mr. Baker helped bring closure to families in a string of home invasion robberies that terrorized residents of Stanislaus and Merced counties in summer 2003. Mr. Baker persuaded a jury to convict three men now serving 480 years and 30 life terms in state prison.
"It was very traumatic, and he helped me get through that time in my life," said 52-year-old Ken Myers, whose family was among those victimized. "You never felt like it was his job. He took it personal."
But despite the seriousness of his work — including stints prosecuting child abuse and sexual assaults — Mr. Baker rarely missed an opportunity to amuse colleagues with his office antics.
"You never heard your true name (used)," said Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley, who Mr. Baker branded "Shipster." "He had a nickname for everyone. It was always a nice nickname, mind you."
Mr. Baker also made time to coach the mock trial team at Johansen High School and staged mini courtroom dramas for young schoolchildren.
"I only have two words for this case: Ba — Loney!" Mr. Baker would yell to the delight of the class.
Mr. Baker began his stint at the Stanislaus County district attorney's office in October 1996.
His first day on the job was Oct. 14, and chief Deputy District Attorney Jerry Begen knows this because Mr. Baker would come by his office that same day each year to thank Begen for hiring him.
"Every day he was thankful that he had this job that he loved so dearly," Begen said.
Mr. Baker graduated from San Jose State University and earned his law degree at Monterey College of Law.
He is survived by his wife, Shelley, and two children.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2337.