WHEN FARMERS FOUND HIS charred Jaguar in a Texas field last November, there was barely enough left of Edward Baker to identify. Of his company, Houston-based Vanguard Groups International Inc., auditors found fewer assets than liabilities.

Vanguard will not appear on this year's INC. 500 list of the fastest-growing privately held companies as it has for the past three.

In 1978, after 25 years of selling other companies' products, Baker struck out on his own. He founded Vanguard to build inexpensive housing. In 1980, Vanguard switched to selling limited partnerships in commercial real estate. In 1981, Baker began selling limited partnerships in speculative oil wells. Business couldn't have been better. In '83, Vanguard finished #45 on the INC. 500, and construction began on a multi-million-dollar Vanguard office building with Baker's own black marble bathroom.

In '84, with sales still on the rise, some Vanguard associates and clients had begun to suspect that Baker may have co-mingled funds, using revenues from new investors to meet obligations to investors in earlier partnerships. Vanguard finished at #137 on the '84 INC. 500.

In '85, according to published reports in the local papers, Baker may have established financial ties with a reputed organized crime figure in Miami. On November 6, his attorney has told the press, Baker wrote letters removing Vanguard as beneficiary on his insurance policies and naming, instead, his family. On November 8, the farmers found him dead at 53.

At least authorities think it was Baker. The Harris County D.A.'s office is holding the case open.

A week after the body was found, Vanguard was ranked #123 on the '85 INC. 500.

"Edward Baker was an entrepreneur living the American dream -- and then he screwed the family pooch. If he didn't die in a ball of flame in his '84 Jaguar," a Houston writer quoted a business associate, "he died in the flame of his own greed."

On December 2, 1985, Vanguard filed for protection pending reorganization under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy law. A spokesperson for the bankruptcy trustee will verify only the filing. "We have nothing else to say," she said.