Crime & Public Safety

Sheriff says latest charges might help solve 1987 case of missing toddler

The cedar box that 7-month-old Shannon Dedrick was found alive in 2009 by investigators with the Washington County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. The child's mother, Crystina Mercer, 25 and babysitter Susan Baker, 50, are facing multiple charges surrounding the girl's disappearance.
The cedar box that 7-month-old Shannon Dedrick was found alive in 2009 by investigators with the Washington County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. The child's mother, Crystina Mercer, 25 and babysitter Susan Baker, 50, are facing multiple charges surrounding the girl's disappearance. AP

Before drifting off to sleep, 6-year-old Nina Baker heard her stepmother screaming at her little brother to lay down and take a nap, the girl's grandmother said. Then, the house in Shell Point fell silent.

Little Paul Baker hasn't been seen or heard from since that day in March 1987,

Paul was 3 years old when he disappeared, and his case remains unsolved. His stepmother -- who admitted shortly after Paul vanished to abusing Nina -- was a prime suspect, but two attempts to charge Susan Baker and the children's father, James Baker, went nowhere because of a lack of evidence, investigators say.

Now comes renewed hope from 400 miles away.

A five-day search for 7-month-old Shannon Dedrick of Chipley, Fla., ended Thursday when the girl was found in a 2-by-3 cedar box that had been shoved under her baby sitter's bed.

That baby sitter was Susan Baker.

Authorities say Shannon's mother, Chrystina Lynn Mercer, gave her to Baker early Saturday, then reported her missing about 10 hours later. Shannon likely was kept in the box for 12 hours before investigators discovered her late Wednesday, Washington County Sheriff Bobby Haddock said. Clothing was packed around the box to muffle any sound, and baking powder was placed inside to mask the stench of dirty diapers. Investigators believe Shannon had been shut in the box on and off for several days.

"(Susan Baker) is a wicked woman," Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said during a press conference Thursday to discuss his agency's involvementin the Florida case.

On Thursday in Florida, Mercer was charged with interference of child custody, desertion of a child and several other charges in her daughter's disappearance.

Charges against Baker included neglect of a child with aggravated circumstances and interference of child custody. Baker's husband, James Arthur Baker, was arrested Wednesday night but released. He remains under investigation, Haddock said.

Tanner said Staff Sgt. Brian Baird -- a Navy investigator who worked on Paul's disappearance before coming to work for the Sheriff's Office -- was in Chipley on Thursday and was part of the team that interrogated Susan Baker.

"Knowing what I know about her," Tanner said, "... it was a surprise this child was found alive."

WAS A CHILD KILLED?

Linda Lambert agrees.

Contacted Thursday at her home in Mebane, N.C., Paul and Nina's maternal grandmother left no doubt about what she thinks happened to her grandson March 5, 1987.

"(Susan Baker) killed Paul," Lambert said.

Within 18 days of Paul's disappearance, Susan Baker was in custody, but the charges stemmed not from her stepson's case but from her physical abuse of Nina.

A doctor at Naval Hospital Beaufort who examined Nina shortly after she was removed from the Bakers' home discovered Nina had not received medical attention for a broken hand and had "several ulcerated sores on her back where she had been whipped."

Susan Baker was charged with assault and battery with intent to kill but pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison but was released from jail after 80 days when the sentence was suspended for time served.

That decision by Judge Luke Brown disappointed the Sheriff's Office and the Child Abuse Prevention Association, which helped organize searches for Paul and has followed Susan Baker's court cases through the years.

"I don't have a qualm with the reduced charge," CAPA executive director Susan Cato told The Beaufort Gazette in June 1987. "I just think she should have served more time."

Brown, now retired and living in Ridgeland, told the Gazette on Thursday that he could not say, in retrospect, if he should have given Baker a stiffer sentence -- he could not recall details of the case or if the sentence was the result of a plea bargain.

"His explanation at the time was that (prosecutors) were trying to punish Susan Baker for the disappearance of Paul and that they didn't have a case," Cato said Thursday.

Nina lived in foster care in Beaufort before Lambert gained custody.

Now 29, Nina is a licensed practical nurse living near Raleigh, N.C., with three children of her own, Lambert said. She would not provide contact information for her granddaughter or for her daughter, Nina's biological mother, Lynda Solorzano. Attempts to reach them independently were unsuccessful.

Lambert said she once asked her granddaughter what she heard and saw the day Paul disappeared.

"(Susan Baker) kept hollering at him to lay down and go to sleep," Lambert said Nina told her. "This went on for a few minutes and then -- nothing. Silence."

MASSIVE EFFORTS, NO LEADS

Paul's parents, James Baker and Lynda Solorzano, separated in the mid-1980s after Baker allegedly had an affair with their baby sitter.

James Baker eventually was awarded full custody of their children and later married the baby sitter, Susan Baker.

Paul's disappearance came just after the family moved to Beaufort in 1987.

According to a Gazette article published two days after Paul's disappearance, Susan Baker said she put her stepson down for a nap at about 11 a.m., and then nodded off herself. She told the newspaper that she was awakened by a phone call from James Baker, at the time a sergeant stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

Susan Baker, then 27, said that's when she went to check on Paul and discovered him missing.

James Baker told the newspaper he called his wife between 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. after he was notified by the station's family services that a woman had called claiming that she had Paul and that he was OK. He said he was told the phone call was long distance.

A sheriff's deputy confirmed with family services that a phone call had been made but offered no other details.

James Baker suspected Solorzano made the call and told the Gazette that "I still feel like my ex-wife knows where he is at" in an interview a few weeks after Paul's disappearance. However, authorities here and in North Carolina determined Solorzano was not in South Carolina at the time and had nothing to do with her son's disappearance.

Despite the mysterious phone call, investigators didn't suspect kidnapping.

They suspected foul play.

For weeks, search parties looked for Paul in the neighborhoods and salt marshes surrounding the family's home. Another search was conducted on Lemon Island after an anonymous tip from someone claiming to have seen birds flying "heavily" in the area. Deputies and volunteers searched by foot, by boat and by helicopter, the latter sometimes provided by the air station and equipped with infrared cameras. Paul's case was entered into a national missing-children's database.

Those efforts brought no new leads.

Acting on tips about nine weeks after the disappearance, deputies found areas in the Bakers' front yard that appeared to have been "disturbed," but they turned up no clues after digging several holes there.

Neither did they find new evidence two years later, when they again searched the by-then empty home in Shell Point. A Gazette article about that search said the Bakers had moved into on-base housing in December 1987 and were still in the Beaufort area.

'WE CAN STILL PROSECUTE'

It is not clear when Susan and James Baker moved to Florida, but they were extradited to South Carolina in 2000 as prosecutors tried to connect them with Paul's disappearance.

However, a grand jury would not indict either Baker on a charge of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. 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 evidence was "very, very, very shaky, very limited," said Sheriff Tanner, who started a cold-case squad soon after he was first elected to office in 1999.

Adding to the difficulty, Tanner said, was that the best witnesses in the case were the Bakers themselves. Because they are married, they would not have to testify against each other.

Stone said Thursday in the joint press conference with Tanner that because no verdict was rendered in those cases, double jeopardy would not be a factor should new evidence emerge to link the Bakers to Paul's disappearance. There is no statute of limitations in South Carolina to prevent the Bakers being tried for a 1987 crime, Stone said.

"We can still prosecute a criminal offense at any time," Stone said.

However, Susan Baker's 10-year suspended sentence in connection with her abuse of Nina could not be reinstated because she completed her five-year probation, according to Stone.

Tanner said he has been in touch with Baird, the local deputy sent to Chipley to assist in the investigation of Shannon's disappearance and to see if new facts could be gleaned about Paul's disappearance.

Tanner declined to say what has been learned so far or to compare the cases.

"All we would be doing is help Susan Baker's attorney build a defense ... and we're not going to do anything to help her down in Florida," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

  Comments