Beaufort News

Susan Baker sentenced to 25 years in 'Baby Shannon' case

Susan Baker during her trial in September 2010.
Susan Baker during her trial in September 2010. Robert Cooper | Panama City News Herald

CHIPLEY, Fla. -- More than two decades after she became the prime suspect in the disappearance of her stepson, a former Beaufort resident was sentenced to 25 years in prison for stealing her neighbor's baby and keeping her locked in a wooden box.

Susan Baker, convicted last month in the disappearance of Shannon Dedrick, was sentenced Monday.

The 51-year-old defendant appeared in a jailhouse jumpsuit and handcuffs, facing a maximum sentence of 35 years on several charges -- aggravated child abuse, interference with custody and giving false information to law enforcement -- in the disappearance of "Baby Shannon," as the child has become known. Baker didn't address the judge before sentencing, but her ex-husband and brother asked for leniency.

Assistant State Attorney Greg Wilson told the judge the baby had spent about 36 hours locked in the box during the five days she was missing and asked that Baker be sentenced to one year for each hour the child spent in the box. Wilson said Baker was self-righteous and showed no remorse for what she had done, so there was no reason to mitigate her sentence.

"Even if she went about it the wrong way, her biggest intention was to get Shannon out of a bad situation," James Baker told Judge Allen Register before his ex-wife was sentenced.

Beaufort-area authorities still consider Susan Baker a suspect in the disappearance of her 3-year-old stepson, Paul Baker, who vanished from the family's Shell Point home on March 5, 1987.

Susan and James Baker were charged in connection with Paul's disappearance in 2000, but a grand jury refused to indict; charges were brought again in 2003 but later dropped.

However, while investigating Paul's disappearance, authorities discovered his 6-year-old sister, Nina, had been abused by Susan Baker, the children's stepmother.

A Naval Hospital Beaufort doctor discovered a broken bone in Nina's hand that had gone untreated and ulcerated sores on her back from severe beatings. Nina told investigators Susan Baker beat her with a stick; she told The Beaufort Gazette in a recent interview that she still bears the small round scars from the floggings.

Susan Baker 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.

She and James Baker later moved to Florida. The couple divorced but were living together at the time of Dedrick's disappearance, according to Wilson.

One of Susan Baker's attorney in her latest case, Rachel Seaton-Virga, told the judge during Monday's sentencing that anything more than 10 or 20 years could amount to a death sentence for her client, who Seaton-Virga said is in poor health.

"Really what we're asking for is that she not die in prison," she said.

Baker was arrested in November 2009 after officers discovered Shannon under Baker's bed in a small wooden box after searching five days for the 7-month-old child. The child was discovered with an overflowing diaper and an angry rash but was otherwise in good health. Shannon is living now with family members in Texas.

At her trial last month, Baker testified she made an arrangement with Shannon's mother, Crystina Mercer, to exchange custody of the child permanently to Baker. Mercer also was charged in the case, but the most serious charges were dropped and she was released from jail after serving a maximum sentence for giving false information to law enforcement, a misdemeanor.

The search for Dedrick involved nearly every law enforcement agency in the Panhandle, and investigators initially believed Dedrick had been slain because of bizarre statements Mercer gave to investigators early in the search.

Several witnesses, including Rusty Dedrick, Shannon's father, testified that the home where Shannon lived was filthy and that the couple took drugs, had mental health problems and were generally neglectful.

Rusty Dedrick has surrendered his parental rights, and testimony at Baker's trial raised questions about whether he is actually the Shannon's biological father. Mercer would need to petition the court and meet the requirements of Florida Department of Children and Families before she could get her daughter back.

Baker, who cared for Shannon about half of the time as a baby sitter, had called the DCF to report the parents in the months leading up to her disappearance.

Theodore Shirley, the brother of both Baker and Rusty Dedrick, asked Register for mercy. He added that he didn't see why Mercer should be free while Baker is incarcerated. "Thirty-five years for one and freedom for the other -- that's just totally unjust."

But Register said Mercer had received the maximum sentence for the charge to which she pleaded and that Baker's situation was "totally different" from Mercer's. There was no independent evidence presented at trial to support Baker's story that she had an agreement with Mercer.

After initially telling investigators she had misplaced the baby, Mercer said she remembered seeing a black figure in her bedroom the night Shannon disappeared. Prosecutors believe Baker sneaked into the trailer where Shannon stayed, as Mercer and Rusty Dedrick slept, and took Shannon.

Baker's testimony was the highlight of her trial, particularly Wilson's cross-examination, which lasted several hours. Under questioning from Wilson, Baker positioned herself as a martyr, saying she did what she had to do to protect the child.

Based on Baker's testimony, Register said, "I had to conclude that you and you alone saw your actions as being justified."

The judge said the case was among the most bizarre things he'd seen.

"How bizarre and how cruel," Register said. "No reasonable person who cared about the well-being of this child, as you claim you did, would have allowed the child to remain in that box for any period of time, certainly not for over 10 hours on the day the child was eventually found."

Baker spent 10 hours at the Washington County Sheriff's Office on the day Shannon eventually was discovered; Shannon had spent those 10 hours in the box.