Wednesday, August 29, 2001

Erica searchers hope computer likeness helps

Rendering made of missing girl

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        KETTERING, Ohio — Misty Baker took the photo from a Federal Express envelope and saw how her daughter, Erica, missing since she was 9, might appear at age 12.

Erica at 12?
Erica at 9
        “I didn't want to look ... and when I did, it tore me up,” Ms. Baker said Tuesday, a day after the age-progression rendering of Erica arrived.

        “It made me wonder: Am I ever going to get to see her looking like this, older? Am I ever going to get to hold her again? It just broke my heart.”

        Nevertheless, Ms. Baker,34, is grateful that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children provided the likeness of Erica.

        “The picture kind of brought my hopes back up. I'm hoping in that small chance that someone would recognize her and she'll be home again,” said Ms. Baker, who has acknowledged it's unlikely Erica is alive.

        The girl disappeared from this suburb of Dayton, Ohio, on Feb. 7, 1999. The case gained considerable attention because it marked the first “stranger abduction” of a child here in more than 20 years.

        Despite an exhaustive search and widespread publicity, no trace of Erica has surfaced since she vanished while walking her dog on a rainy Sunday afternoon near her home.

        Kettering police say they welcome the age-progression depiction.

        “Anything we can do to get Erica's name and face out there can only help our case,” said Detective Bob Green. “Maybe the people who might have done this will see it, start feeling remorse, and come forward.”

        Before the National Center will prepare an age progression, the child must be missing at least two years.

        After the two-year anniversary of Erica's disappearance passed six months ago, “I was not feeling strong enough to handle it, so I kept putting it off,” Ms. Baker said.

        Finally, a couple weeks ago, Ms. Baker dug through family photos to find pictures of family members when they were 12, including Erica's three brothers: Jason, now 19; Gregory, 15; and Logan, 14.

        The family photos helped forensic artist Joe Mullins make a likeness of Erica.

        The family photos “are a crucial ingredient in what we do,” Mr. Mullins said.

        He found it especially helpful that Ms. Baker and Erica's father, Greg Baker, submitted photos of themselves at 12. “That's very rare, for both parents to give us those photos,” Mr. Mullins said.

        The artists scan the relatives' photos and the child's last known photo into a computer. Then the artists use a software program that allows them to “cut and paste, push and pull” facial features, Mr. Mullins explained.

        “We kind of put it together like a jigsaw puzzle.”

        The National Center has been doing age progressions since 1984. They produce about 350 a year, and a few result in happy endings.

        “We do have some documented and framed on our wall,” Mr. Mullins said from his Alexandria, Va., office. About 10 “success stories” are chronicled in photos of recovered children alongside the artists' age progressions of the youngsters.

        “Some of them are right on the money and some of them aren't, but we still think it played a role in finding the children,” Mr. Mullins said.

        “I hope that the image that I created brings Erica home. Whatever child I'm working on, that's the thought, that's the motivation, that's the drive.”

        Anyone with information on Erica's case is asked to call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 1-800-THE-LOST, or Kettering, Ohio, police, (937) 296-2555.



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