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Apparent suicide shocks friends of former executive

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When J. Clifford Baxter resigned in May as vice chairman of Enron Corp., he told a college acquaintance he hoped to spend more time with his family and possibly go back to school or become president of another company.

Baxter, 43, was found shot dead Friday morning in an apparent suicide near his luxury home in suburban Houston.

"Cliff seemed OK when I talked to him after he left Enron," said a Manhattan attorney who was a classmate of Baxter's at Columbia University Business School. "He was disappointed at being passed over (for chief executive of Enron), but he was confident about the future.

"I remember him saying, 'I'm going to take some time off and then see about getting a doctorate or running another company,' " said the college friend, who requested anonymity, citing fears that any association with the Enron scandal would damage his law practice. "I just cannot believe this. . . . I wouldn't have expected this would happen to Cliff."

Baxter, an Amityville, N.Y., native, by all accounts had the world by the tail until Enron collapsed. He excelled in the classroom, military service and high-stakes business deals. Success brought him a home in the tony Houston suburb of Sugar Land, fancy cars such as a Mercedes-Benz and a 72-foot yacht.

Large holdings of Enron stock, which once traded near $90 a share, had produced a windfall for Baxter of $35 million when he sold shares from 1998 through 2001. Proceeds from these sales helped establish the Baxter-Whalen Family Foundation, named for Baxter and his wife, Carol Whalen. The foundation made modest donations to the American Cancer Society, Junior Achievement, various charities involved in diabetes research and a Catholic parish in Sugar Land.

Baxter was one of six children born to Dolores Baxter of Amityville and her husband Edwin, now deceased, who was a sergeant in the village police department. The family was well-known throughout the village, friends said Friday. But early on, Cliff Baxter, a 1976 graduate of Amityville High School, earned his own reputation as a hard-working student.

"I just know him as an ambitious, brilliant young man," said Amityville Police Chief Woodrow Cromarty. "He moved on and did good for himself."

His family's childhood baby sitter remembered him playing soldier in her back yard. "He was just a happy-go-lucky kid," Jo Kenny, 66, said at her home, three doors down from where Baxter grew up. "I just feel so bad for the family."

Three police cars lined the quiet block of Terry Avenue where hedges are neatly trimmed and American flags and basketball hoops are prevalent.

"We had other kids that became lawyers or doctors and so on. It was just good to have him, to say somebody could do it," Kenny said, referring to Baxter's accomplishments. But somewhere along the way, either stress, desperation or a need to protect his family from what was to come with Enron must have grown too overwhelming, she said.

"Here's someone you think has got the world ... and he doesn't," Kenny said.

The neighborhood, she said, was still mourning the death of Peter O'Neill, an Amityville man who was lost in the World Trade Center attack. "That was hard to understand," she said. "This is even harder to comprehend."