P.J. Tanner was one of several Beaufort County Sheriff's deputies who combed the woods of northern Beaufort County in 1987, in search of a missing 3-year-old boy.
Today, Tanner is sheriff, and he recently considered how the search for Paul Baker would have been different had the toddler vanished today instead of 22 years ago."That's a tough question," Tanner said. "The knowledge that we have, the technology and other assets at our disposal have increased tenfold. It's hard to say, though. Hindsight is always crystal clear."
The AMBER Alert system and a child protection statute might have helped authorities prevent or solve Baker's disappearance, said Tanner and others.
The case attracted interest again last month when 7-month-old Shannon Dedrick was found alive after missing for five days. She was shut in a small, cedar box beneath the bed of Paul's stepmother, Susan Baker, in Chipley, Fla.
In 1987, Susan Baker told investigators she put Paul down for a nap and reported him missing a few hours later when she said she awoke.
Susan and James Baker were suspects in Paul's disappearance, but two attempts to press charges against them failed to stick. Neither was tried.AMBER Alert
Six years after Paul's disappearance, South Carolina implemented its first statewide alert system for missing or abducted children, Operation Child Alert.
That was six years too late for Paul Baker, says his sister, Nina Hernandez.
Operation Child Alert was the state's predecessor to the AMBER Alert system, introduced statewide in 2002.Both systems interrupt regular programming of television and radio stations using the state's Emergency Alert System to broadcast information about a child's abduction, such as what the child was last seen wearing, a description of the vehicle the child might be in and other details.
"Also now, you have the Internet,"Hernandez said. "Now, it's much easier for them to find background on (Susan.) If they had those things back then, (Paul) might have had a fighting chance."AMBER Alert is a critical tool to locate missing or abducted children, said Bob Lowery, a division director of the National Center for Missing or Exploited Children in Washington, D.C.
"That system is the most glaring and significant difference since now and 1987 because it has enabled us to locate children much more quickly," Lowery said. "In missing children cases, time is your enemy. Most of the children that are murdered are killed within the first three to four hours (after abduction)."
South Carolina had six AMBER alerts last year, up from three the year before, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report.The report did not specify whether those children were found.
Knowing Susan Baker
Part of the reason investigators didn't initially suspect Susan Baker was that they didn't know with whom they were dealing, Tanner said.
"We know more about the Bakers today than we did in 1987," Tanner said. "Back then, they had never been on the radar, it was our first time dealing with them. They will always be on the radar now."
The Bakers had barely lived in Beaufort a year when Paul went missing. The family moved to the area when James Baker, a Marine sergeant, was stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
Within 18 days of Paul's disappearance, Susan Baker was in custody, but the charges stemmed not from her stepson's case but abuse of Hernandez.
A doctor examining the girl, then 6 years old, noted that she had not received medical attention for a broken hand and had ulcerated sores on her back from repeated whippings.
Susan Baker was charged with assault and battery with intent to kill but pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, a misdemeanor. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison but was released from jail after 80 days when the sentence was suspended for time served.
Judge Luke Brown said he could not say, in retrospect, if he should have given Baker a stiffer sentence. Brown said he could not recall details of the case nor if the sentence was the result of a plea bargain.Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said he did not know if the Baker case involved a plea bargain.
Stone would not say whether he would offer such a deal today but said defendants accused of what Susan Baker was would not receive lenient treatment from his office.
"The way my office prosecutes cases is, one, how good is the case and two, how bad is the defendant?" Stone said. "I can't imagine anyone worse than a person who would intentionally harm a child and cause serious bodily injury to that child. She's bad. As far as the case goes, I don't know enough information about the quality of their case so it wouldn't be fair of me to play Monday morning quarterback on a case that happened in 1987."
Hernandez said her stepmother should have spent more time in jail.
"When a sentence is given, they should at least have to serve half of it, not less than one-tenth of it," Nina said last week.
The 10-year sentence Baker received for aggravated assault is still the maximum allowed under state law.
Today, Stone said Baker also could be charged with unlawful conduct toward a child, a felony that carries an additional 10-year prison sentence. The law, passed in June 2008, makes it a crime for a caretaker to put a child at "unreasonable risk" or cause or intend to cause bodily harm to the child.
Hoping for a break
Stone said Baker still could be charged in Paul's disappearance because South Carolina has no statute of limitations.
Charged with neglect of a child with aggravated circumstances and interference of child custody in connection with Dedrick's disappearance, Tanner said he hopes Baker's arrest 400 miles away will help his deputies crack the Paul Baker case.
But he's not counting on it.
"They have the smoking gun in Chipley, Fla. We didn't have the smoking gun here and we still don't," Tanner said. "Paul Baker is still missing. Susan Baker will pay for her sins. I know she will. I'm hoping that that case in Chipley, Fla., will help our case here, but I'm not getting my hopes up that it will."