Sunday, December 24, 2000

Grieving for Erica enter new stage


“She's not coming back.”

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        KETTERING, Ohio — Last Christmas, Misty Baker expressed hope that her missing little girl, Erica, would return home.

        This Christmas, Ms. Baker is uttering the words that wouldn't come out before: “She's not coming back.”

        “I knew it for a long time, but I was afraid to say it,” Ms. Baker, 34, said Thursday at her home south of Dayton. “I think I've really felt it since Feb. 7, 1999. Something in me died that night — and it's never recovered.”

[photo] Misty Baker holds a doll with butterfly wings that she bought last year as a Christmas gift for her daughter, Erica, who has been missing since Feb. 7, 1999.
(Dick Swaim photo)
| ZOOM |
        Erica, then 9 and wearing a pink raincoat, was walking her dog near her home when she vanished that drizzly Sunday. After exhaustive searches, Erica was presumed abducted by a stranger — a rare occurrence in the Tristate and the only such case in this middle-class suburb in more than 20 years.

        Erica's disappearance galvanized the community more than any event in memory. Fliers announcing her missing, now curling and faded, still hang in some stores and on a few car windows. Meanwhile, Erica's family struggles with a pain that won't heal. Close family members have undergone counseling; their nights can still be sleepless, their days sometimes paralyzed by grief.

        Erica's loved ones this week publicly acknowledge for the first time that one thing seems clear: There's only a sliver of a chance that she could still be alive now, after 22 months without a trace. The passage of time, confidential information from investigators, and feelings deep in their guts have led them to say it.

        “Last year at Christmastime, I remember thinking, "She'll walk through that door any minute.' This year, the way I put it is: There's an angel that's missing from my tree,” said Erica's maternal grandmother, Pam Schmidt.

        “We still have hope. But it's changed from hope of having her home to hope of having the perpetrators caught.”

        Kettering police, who have cleared Erica's relatives of any involvement, are still looking at four to six suspects they identified more than a year ago, Officer Larry Warren said Thursday. “We think more people have information,” he said.

        At Ms. Baker's invitation, Erica's father, Greg Baker, comes to his ex-wife's house to talk about their daughter. Big white letters on the front window read, “Please Pray for Erica.” An Erica poster hangs on the front door.

        Sitting at the kitchen table between Ms. Baker and Mrs. Schmidt, Mr. Baker says he, too, thinks Erica isn't coming back. That realization hit suddenly at a candlelight vigil in February which marked the first anniversary of her disappearance.

        Mr. Baker nervously runs his fingers through his hair and says he still blames himself for waiting too long to get tickets to a sold-out father-daughter dance held the day Erica disappeared. He can't stop dreaming about it.

        “I hear her screaming for me: "Daddy, Daddy.' And I can't help her,” said Mr. Baker, who was in a town a half-hour away when Erica disappeared.

        Ms. Baker, who now works as a nurse's aide, says some people still think Erica's alive. “I don't. But prove me wrong, please!” Ms. Baker said.

        The longing for her lost daughter is especially hard at Christmas. Erica loved it so much.

        Ms. Baker cries when she hears the Mariah Carey song, “Miss You Most at Christmas Time.” “It's so true,” she says.

        Ms. Baker strokes a doll with butterfly wings, a Christmas gift she bought for her daughter last year because “butterflies are free, and that's how I want Erica to be.”

        Ms. Baker points out a glittery red ornament. Erica decorated it. It hangs front and center on the family's Christmas tree, even though it doesn't quite fit this year's gingerbread theme.

        And every time Ms. Baker thinks about her three sons — Logan, 13; Greg, 14; and Jason, 18 — she can't help but think of her only daughter. “People ask me how many kids I have and I tell them four — that's automatic,” Ms. Baker said.

        Ms. Baker said she planned to buy her daughter a Christmas present again this year.

        “I've bought her a Christmas gift every year since she's been born. I ain't gonna stop now,” she said. “She's still mine, no matter where she is.”

        It took Mrs. Schmidt more than a year to seriously consider that Erica might be dead — or, as she likes to say, “in spirit.”

        This fall, she and Erica's mother sat in their front room, watching as a Dayton TV station broadcast an interview with a Montgomery County Jail inmate. His face blurred to conceal his identity, the inmate told the camera he knew what had happened to Erica. But he said he wouldn't tell the whole story without a promise of immunity from prosecution.

        “This man sat there and said so nonchalantly that there was a van and it hit her and they took her body away and dumped it,” Mrs. Schmidt said. “And it made me so angry because he spoke of what had supposedly befallen my granddaughter in the same tone you and I would use to say, "I went to Kroger's and got a dozen eggs.' It was so cold.”

        Both women screamed and cursed at the image on the television; they said they didn't believe it anyway.

        Then Mrs. Schmidt told her daughter she was starting to think the family might never get Erica back.

        Ms. Baker replied: “Mama, I've known that for a long time. You just never asked me.”

        The women held each other and cried.

        Kettering police say the inmate's story “doesn't check out.”

        Ms. Baker, frustrated because she's been told much of the evidence against the suspects is inadmissible in court, said, “Even if the scenario they give is true, they're going to get away with it. I've lost faith in the justice system.”

        Although the family acknowledges police have worked doggedly on the case, investigators have found no physical evidence giving a clue to Erica's whereabouts.

        Mr. Baker, 35, tries to stay busy doing things in his daughter's memory. He's been handing out toys to needy children through Project Christmas Smiles.

        He recounts how Erica “lit up like a Christmas tree” one year when she handed out gifts at a local nursing home. “She said, "Daddy, I wish we could do this all the time. It makes me so happy to see them smile.'”

        At a recent visit to that nursing home, Mr. Baker wore a button bearing Erica's photo. “And Alzheimer's patients — some who can't remember their own names — they remembered my daughter and asked about her,” he said. “She's become so much more than my daughter. She's still touching people even though she's been gone for almost two years.”
       



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