Monday, May 17, 1999

Search for Erica undaunted after month 3

Two detectives on case full time

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Erica Baker
        KETTERING, Ohio — There's no evidence that 9-year-old Erica Nicole Baker, who has been missing since Feb. 7, is dead. There's also no evidence that she's alive, despite exhaustive searches and widespread publicity about her disappearance from this Day ton, Ohio, suburb.

        But Erica's family, local police and other supporters say their hope is still alive — and they'll continue working for her safe return until the case ends, one way or another.

        “Our goal is still to bring her back alive,” said Officer Larry Warren, Kettering police spokesman.

        Two detectives are still assigned full time to the case, he said, but tips are coming in only a few at a time now. Earlier, they came in daily, by the hundreds.

        “Seeing the three-month mark pass was really hard,” said family friend Barb Schmidt of Fairborn. “But I'm not going to give up hope. If I lose hope for Erica, I feel like I'm losing hope for everything else, too.”

        Erica's disappearance while walking her dog on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Indian Riffle Park has awakened Mrs. Schmidt to the plight of missing children — and others, too, she hopes. “It affects thousands of children but it goes almost unnoticed because it's a one-child-at-a-time tragedy,” Mrs. Schmidt said.

        Nationally, the FBI estimated last year that 850,000 children were missing; about 5,000 of them were believed abducted.

        The Interstate Association for Stolen Children (IASC), a Sacramento, Calif.-based nonprofit organization, works exclusively on cases of children who are believed to be victims of nonfamily abductions. IASC has assisted in dozens of missing-child cases, including Erica's — and hers has had some strange twists and turns, says Greg Mengell, a retired corrections officer who now is the IASC's executive director.

        “I've seen some things in this case that I've never seen in any other case,” he said.

        Mr. Mengell said he has personally helped families in about 100 missing-child cases since the group's inception in 1990, and cannot release certain details because he promises confidentiality to those families.

        But he did say that, in Erica's case, "there's been some strange Internet activity, with bogus posters saying very derogatory things about the little girl.” He sees that as a sign that either someone is playing a sick joke or that someone has Erica and “is playing a game with us.”

        Erica's mother, Misty Baker, 32, says she was aware of those bogus posters and said, “It's just another way of abusing my daughter.”

        Mrs. Baker says that each morning, she looks out her front door hoping to see Erica. She has another ritual at night: “When I go to bed, I always tell Erica that I love her and that we're searching for her — and I always get a warm feeling when I do that. I think it's from her — her presence."

        Mrs. Baker says some days are harder than others, and Mother's Day was almost unbearable.

        “I took food up for the searchers, and that was about as much as I could handle for the day,” she said, noting that a core group of about 20 searchers has continued to show up each weekend, searching for some sign of Erica.

        Mrs. Baker has fond memories of Mother's Days past. “She usually would dress up in a dress, play games and help cook, but we didn't get to do any of that this year,” Mrs. Baker said. “It was a rough day with her still being gone.”

        The next day, Mrs. Baker said she went to the doctor for antidepressants. But in an interview Friday, she said her resolve hasn't been shaken. “I know I need to do everything I can to bring her home.”

        The Erica N. Baker Recovery Center, an office dedicated to working for Erica's safe recovery, has moved to a different location and has a new telephone number: (937) 254-0242. But it's open only on weekends. If you call on a weekday, you'll hear a recording that begins: “Erica, honey, if this is you, hang up the phone and dial 911.”

        Besides searches, the center also serves as a base for distributing fliers bearing Erica's picture and making phone calls to enlist volunteers. They also continue to make the yellow-and-pink ribbons that had been seen fluttering everywhere around town to serve as reminders of Erica. Now some of the ribbons are gone; some have faded.

        “Our greatest fear is that people will forget,” said her grandmother, Pam Schmidt, “because if they do, they could see her and walk right past her.”

        While it's easy to conclude that a child missing so long may be dead or may be in the hands of a pedophile, Mr. Mengell said, “This case still could go any number of ways. There are still a lot of wild cards to be played on this.”

        He says he knows that from experience. Mr. Mengell is able to rattle off example after example of cases where children were gone for months, even years, yet were returned to their families. In one such case, a 12-year-old girl disappeared in a bad neighborhood in Texas. “Everyone thought the worst,” Mr. Mengell said. A month later, she showed up at her home, unharmed, with a story about an odyssey on the road with a truck driver and his wife.

        There are other stories, too, of children who are kidnapped and indoctrinated into religious cults — or are well cared-for by a misguided person who desperately wanted to adopt a child, he said.

        In Erica's case, there are many “viable scenarios,” he said.

        “There is no forensic evidence she's not alive,” Mr. Mengell said. “But there are some credible, tangible, hands-on types of things that lead us to believe she's still alive. But I can't go into that at all.”

        Kettering police said they were unaware of what Mr. Mengell might be referring to.

        Mr. Mengell said he's continuing to work on Erica's case and plans another trip to the Dayton area next month, adding, “Erica needs all the help and all the heroes she can get.”


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