A Beaufort County sheriff's deputy is headed to Chipley, Fla., to help authorities there investigate possible connections between a 22-year-old, unsolved missing-child case in Beaufort and the recent disappearance of a 7-month-old Florida girl.
Search teams have spent days looking for Shannon Dedrick in the wooded area surrounding the family's mobile home outside of Chipley, a rural Panhandle town. The girl was reported missing at about 11 a.m. Saturday, and her parents said they last saw her at about 3 a.m.
On Wednesday, Washington County sheriff's deputies were at the home of Shannon's baby sitter, Susan Baker, thought to be a former Beaufort resident convicted in 1987 of abusing her step-daughter and suspected in her step-son's disappearance that same year.
Authorities would not immediately confirm if the Susan Baker convicted in the Beaufort case was the same woman questioned Wednesday about Shannon's disappearance. However, Tabatha Phillips, who said she is Baker's niece, told The News Herald newspaper of Panama City, Fla., that Smith is the same woman accused in the 1987 disappearance.
But that arrest, Phillips told the newspaper, was "on a technicality" and Baker was innocent.
Baker had not been named a person of interest in Shannon's disappearance as of Wednesday afternoon, but a Washington County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman told the News Herald that Baker had been interviewed and that the Sheriff's Office was aware of the similarities in their case and the 1987 disappearance of Paul Baker.
THE LOCAL CASE
James Baker and his wife, Susan, then 27, married shortly before moving to Beaufort in 1987 with their children from James' first marriage -- 3-year-old Paul and 6-year-old Nina.
Paul was reported missing on March 5 of that year.
Susan Baker told authorities that she put Paul down for a nap at about 11 a.m. and that he had vanished by the time she checked on him again a few hours later.
Teams searched for Paul on foot, by air and by boat, but he has not been seen since.
Within days of Paul's disappearance, the state removed Nina from the Baker home after discovering she had been abused -- a sheriff's deputy said the girl had been "brutalized" and given no medical attention for a broken hand and ulcerated sores on her back that were the result of whippings.
Susan Baker was charged with assault and battery with intent to kill but pleaded guilty to assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. She was given a 10-year prison term but released from jail after 80 days when the sentence was suspended for time served, according to records on the Beaufort County courts Web site.
The Bakers later moved to Florida but were extradited back to South Carolina in 2000 in connection with Paul's disappearance, according to reports at that time in The Beaufort Gazette.
However, a grand jury would not indict Susan Baker on a charge of criminal domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature, and in 2003, a charge of unlawful neglect of a child was dismissed, according to Daniel Brownstein, spokesman for 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone's office.
THE FLORIDA CASE
Baker told the News Herald on Tuesday that she loved Shannon Dedrick and feared the girl was being abused by her parents. Baker also gave the newspaper an e-mail she sent to Gov. Charlie Crist pleading for the state to intervene.
Information released Wednesday indicates Florida child welfare workers began investigating abuse allegations less than two weeks after Shannon was born.
Records from the Florida's Department of Children and Families indicate investigators frequently visited the infant's home from August to late September. They reported that both of the parents used marijuana and that the home was messy.
However, the investigators said the baby appeared to be cared for. The risk to the child was repeatedly listed as "intermediate." On Sept. 18, an investigator said a physician had determined Shannon was healthy and had "expressed no concerns regarding the baby."
'HOPING FOR CLOSURE'
An officer who investigated Paul Baker's disappearance will travel to Chipley to aid the investigation there, Beaufort County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Robin McIntosh confirmed Wednesday. Also, the S.C. Law Enforcement Division, which assisted the Sheriff's Office in the investigation of Paul's disappearance, is "reviewing all information related to the original case," spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons told The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet by e-mail.
In Florida, Washington County sheriff's investigators were working on that connection, too. Deputies blocked a dirt road leading to Baker's home near Chipley late Wednesday. She lives about 12 miles from the Dedrick home in another rural area of dirt roads and ramshackle mobile homes on the outskirts of the city.
Baker, who was in contact with the News Herald multiple times Tuesday night, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
"Susan would not hurt a child," Phillips, her niece, told the newspaper..
"That's the only reason they're putting her as a person of interest now is because of all of that crap that happened way back when," she added.
Many in Beaufort still remember what happened "back when."
The Child Abuse Prevention Association organized search parties when Paul went missing and followed closely the court cases against Susan Baker, according to executive director Susan Cato.
Just last week, Cato said she ran into one of Nina Baker's former school teachers.
"We talked about her and you just wonder how her life turned out," Cato said, adding she hopes closure to Paul's case might come soon.
"I hope the case in Florida is solved and that if Susan Baker had anything to do with this ... I hope she is brought to trial," Cato said.
The Associated Press and The (Panama City, Fla.) News Herald contributed to this report