Fourteen years after 9-year-old Erica Baker disappeared without a trace, Kettering police and her family members are revealing publicly for the first time their fears that she may initially have survived the hit-and-run accident long believed to have caused her death.
Longtime lead detective Sgt. Bob Green speculated Wednesday that Erica may have been alive at the time she was struck by a van driven by Christian Gabriel, the only person ever charged in connection with her disappearance.
Gabriel has never led detectives to Erica’s body despite multiple attempts to locate her remains. “I think he remembers where she is, but he doesn’t want us to find her, because that could lead to more charges,” Green said.
Gabriel was released June 23, 2011, after serving nearly six years in prison for gross abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence.
Erica's grandmother, Pam Schmidt, picked Gabriel up from jail in the hope of finding answers. "I always hoped if I could talk to him personally, from a grandparent's viewpoint, we could find her and bring her home and bury her," Schmidt said. "We still haven't found Erica, so you know that didn't work out, but I felt that I owed it to Erica to try. I feel like I let everyone down, because he didn't tell me everything I wanted to know."
Both Schmidt and Erica’s mother, Misty Baker, fear she may have survived the accident. “There’s always that question in my mind if they buried her alive somewhere,” said Baker, who now lives in Miami Twp.
Schmidt added, “The excuse always has been that they were on drugs. How many drugs do you have to take that you don’t reach down to help a child?”
Erica’s father, Greg Baker of Kettering, remains haunted by the thoughts of her last moments: “It tears me up knowing she’s out here and wondering about her last thoughts. Was she thinking, ‘Where’s daddy, and why wasn’t he there to protect me? That was my little girl.”
Investigators believe that Erica was hit by Gabriel’s van shortly before 4 p.m. Feb. 7, 1999, as he was driving westbound on Glengarry Drive near the intersection of Powhattan Drive. His passenger, Jan Franks, died of a drug overdose in 2001.
Her disappearance set off a community-wide search for Erica, a third-grader at Indian Riffle Elementary School, but the first big break in the case would not come until Dec. 10, 2004, when Gabriel contacted investigators. Green said Gabriel confessed three days later, and that his account of the accident was convincing. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I can tell when someone is telling the truth,” Green said. “Gabriel said that her body was twisted and broken, but I can’t tell you whether or not she died because of that accident.”
Gabriel told detectives that he fled the scene, later disposing of the child’s body, because he had been committing a theft at Meijer and was driving under suspension.
Greg Baker speculated, “That man is not going to tell diddly squat because there could be more charges.”
Gabriel could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Kettering police feel certain that Erica is dead but are still actively pursuing leads, interviewing an inmate in the Montgomery County Jail only last week. That lead went nowhere, as did a recent claim from a Rutgers University student that Erica is now a 23-year-old New Jersey college student. Green discounted that theory after conducting an investigation and speaking with the young woman in question.
“The tragic thing is that he contacted the Baker family,” Green said. “In 2005 the family had some kind of closure about what occurred and now someone comes out of the woodwork and said she’s alive.”
The young woman is of Cuban descent, and Schmidt said she knew immediately it wasn’t her blond, blue-eyed granddaughter. “In the back of Misty’s mind there was the hope that maybe we could have that miracle, like Elizabeth Smart,” Schmidt said.
The incident was painful, Schmidt conceded, “but I hold no malice. What if it was her? I wouldn’t want to discourage people from coming forward.”
Misty Baker, who is studying psychology through an online university, said that she wanted to believe the Rutgers student’s story at first. “Nobody has given me a body yet, so you always try to find one little thing to hold onto,” she said. “It makes you a little nutty. I just keep waiting for that phone to ring and for answers to come.”
Erica’s three older brothers — Jason, Greg Jr. and Logan — are grown up now, holding jobs, raising children. Greg and Logan both served overseas in the Marines. “The boys have done well, but they would like to have a place to bury their sister and honor her memory,” Schmidt said.
Green is certain that Erica is dead but is dedicated to finding her remains. “We would love to bring her home for her family’s sake,” Green said.
For their part, the family has nothing but praise for Green’s tireless efforts. Observed Schmidt, “He still does pursue every lead, and I don’t think he will ever give up. He will always hold a special place in his heart for finding Erica.”
The Newtown, Conn., school massacre tragedy brought back painful memories of their loss, but Erica’s family tries to remain comforted by the memories of a vivacious, affectionate little girl who loved cheerleading and who was equally happy playing dress-up or going fishing with her father and brothers.
“I try to remember the joy she brought us and the way she was always blowing kisses and dancing on the way to the school bus,” Schmidt said. “My greatest fear is that I’ll forget what her voice sounded like.”
Her father observed, “There is not a day that goes by I don’t think about her. She is forever frozen at nine years old with me.”
Erica Baker timeline
Feb. 7, 1999:
3:45 p.m.: Erica is spotted walking her dog by a couple who is out walking their dog.
4:06 p.m.: The couple finds Erica's dog huddled near a house on Glengarry Drive.
5:15 p.m.: The Baker family begins a frantic search for Erica when she doesn't return from her walk.
8:05 p.m.: The Baker family calls police. A massive search is initiated that ultimately involves hundreds of volunteers and the establishment of the Erica Baker Recovery Center.
July 1999: Detectives first identify Christian Gabriel of Springfield and Jan Franks as possible suspects in Erica's disappearance.
Dec. 30, 2001: Jan Franks dies of a drug overdose. Her public defender, Beth Lewis, is later ordered to testify before a Montgomery County grand jury. Prosecutors prevailed after invoking a rare exception under state law to the attorney/client privilege: a deceased client's spouse can waive the privilege.
June 2002: The Erica Baker Recovery Center is closed.
Dec. 10, 2004: Christian Gabriel contacts Kettering detectives and three days later, according to lead detective Bob Green, he confessed to striking Erica with his van and burying the body.
Feb. 4, 2005: A grand jury declined to indict Gabriel on charges related to causing Baker's death, but did indict him on charges of of gross abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence three days before the statute of limitations would have expired on those offenses.
October, 2005: Christian Gabriel is convicted of gross abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence and is sentenced to six years in prison.
January, 2007: Gabriel's attorney filed an appeal of his conviction, claiming Gabriel was denied a fair trial because his own statements provided the only evidence against him.
June 14, 2011: Gabriel was released from prison, but handed over to the Mercer County Sheriff's Office on an old domestic violence conviction. He was granted his release from jail June 23. Erica's grandmother, Pam Schmidt, picks Gabriel up from jail in the hope of learning more information.