Beaufort News

Susan Baker's stepdaughter tries to move past horrific childhood

Nina Baker Hernandez of Chapel Hill, N.C., holds a photograph of her father and missing brother in November 2009. Hernandez was 6 when her 3-year-old brother disappeared.
Nina Baker Hernandez of Chapel Hill, N.C., holds a photograph of her father and missing brother in November 2009. Hernandez was 6 when her 3-year-old brother disappeared. File, The Island Packet

No matter how often Nina changed addresses, no matter where she moved, Susan Baker's letters and gifts found her.

They came for years after their estrangement.

There was the delicate ceramic egg sent one Easter that Nina's grandmother allowed in the house only because Nina's father, James Baker, had also signed the card that came with it.

Years later, when Nina was on her own, the carrier brought a stack of letters and documents, Susan Baker's hurtful -- and unsuccessful -- attempt to convince Nina her grandmother never wanted her and thought her "retarded."

There was Susan Baker's congratulatory note soon after her wedding, when Nina Baker became Nina Hernandez.

Now, if Nina gets another parcel from Susan Baker, prison likely will be the return address.

In a case that drew national attention, Baker was arrested Nov. 4, 2009, after law enforcement officers searched her trailer in Chipley, Fla., and found 7-month-old Shannon Dedrick in a latched cedar box beneath Baker's bed. Shannon had been missing for days and was found with an overflowing diaper and a bad rash, but she was otherwise unharmed.

Baker, Shannon's baby sitter and a friend of her parents, faces a sentence of as much as 35 years after her conviction earlier this month of aggravated child abuse, interference with custody and giving false information to Florida law enforcement. Judge Allen Register ordered her jailed without bond until her sentencing, expected Nov. 8.

"At her age, even if she just gets 20 years, she'll be 70 years old by the time she gets out," Nina said in a recent phone interview from her home near Durham, N.C. "... Nothing can ever make it up for what she did to me and my brother. If she spent her entire life in jail for my brother's death, it wouldn't make up for what she did. However, it all seems to work out. Good people get what they deserve; bad people get what they deserve.

"It just takes time."

A CHRONICLE OF MISDEEDS

Susan Baker was Nina's stepmother.

And her dedicated tormentor.

The abuse started about the time the family -- newlyweds Susan and James Baker, and James' children from a previous marriage, Nina and Paul -- moved to the Shell Point area after James was stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

Paul, then 3, disappeared from the home March 5, 1987. He hasn't been seen since.

While his case remains unsolved, suspicion -- and the subsequent investigation -- quickly centered on Susan.

But authorities could never make charges stick. More than a decade passed before they even tried: Susan and James were charged in connection with Paul's disappearance in 2000, but a grand jury refused to indict; charges were brought again in 2003 but subsequently dropped.

In the days after Paul vanished, James turned Nina over to the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office to be placed in foster care, telling investigators he feared for his daughter's safety.

A doctor at Naval Hospital Beaufort examined Nina, then 6. Her small body mapped the abuse.

He discovered a broken bone in her hand that had gone untreated. He also found ulcerated sores on her back that he determined were the result of severe beatings. Nina told investigators that Susan beat her with a stick; she still bears the small round scars from the floggings.

Nina also told investigators of being confined for hours to a closet, with a trash can to use as a toilet.

And of being made to stay up all night with a bar of soap in her mouth.

Susan pleaded guilty to assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature for abusing Nina. She was given 10 years in prison but released after 80 days when a judge suspended her sentence for time served, a move that dismayed child advocates in the Beaufort area.

Soon after Susan Baker's release, she moved with James to Florida. Nina was sent to live with her maternal grandmother, Linda Lambert of Mebane, N.C., who raised her.

Nina has seen her father and stepmother only a few times since. Most of what she knows about their present life, she has read in Susan Baker's letters.

Or in online reports of Susan's other misdeeds.

A LIFE OF HER OWN

Susan Baker never denied locking Shannon Dedrick in a box. In fact, she admitted it to jurors.

Testifying in her own defense, Baker said she stole Shannon to protect her from Crystina Mercer, the mother whom Baker said wanted to harm or kill the child. Baker also testified that she and Mercer had agreed that Baker would be allowed to raise the baby, the Foster Folly News of Florida reported.

The jury didn't buy what Nina calls "the Moses defense." After just two hours of deliberation, Baker was found guilty of all charges.

Before Judge Register sets a sentence, Florida officials will examine Baker's background, including her criminal record. Her treatment of Nina was inadmissible during the trial but can now come into play, according to Washington County prosecutor Greg Wilson.

During the sentencing phase, "people can come in and testify about mitigating and aggravating circumstances," Wilson said.

Wilson said he has not subpoenaed Nina but might do so. "She could be brought down or ask to come down," he said.

Nina said she has not heard from Florida authorities.

Neither has she heard from her father, now divorced from Susan Baker, according to Wilson, who called James Baker to the stand during his ex-wife's trial.

Nina once longed for a relationship with James Baker, despite all that had happened -- despite his inability to protect her from Susan Baker.

Now, though, Nina has a life that has all but eliminated that longing.

She has three children, has earned a nursing degree, has married and moved from Chapel Hill, N.C., to Durham.

While the scars, horrible memories and the emptiness that came with her brother's loss remain, time has smoothed their jagged edges.

Nina simply doesn't need James Baker anymore.

"My life is just different now," she said. "... I might talk to my dad again one day, but he'll never see my children."

Nina also is at peace with one hard fact -- she'll likely never know what happened to her brother. Beaufort County investigators interrogated Baker again shortly after her Florida arrest last November but turned up no new leads in the 24-year-old case.

Nonetheless, Nina is confident Baker will not skirt serious punishment as she did more than 20 years ago, when her 10-year sentence for abuse was reduced to less than three months in jail.

Her only regret is that had Susan Baker been forced to serve a full sentence, Shannon Dedrick might never have been stuffed into that wooden box.

"Maybe those 10 years in jail would have done something, but because she got off so easy, I think she believed she could just continue to do things," Nina said.

"Now, maybe this will put an end to it."

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