Missing baby found; mother, sitter charged

CHIPLEY, Fla. — Investigators spent five days searching dense vines and marshes for a missing infant, only to find her lying quietly in a 2-foot by 3-foot cedar box that had been shoved under her baby sitter’s bed.

Clothing was packed around it to muffle any sounds and baking powder placed inside to mask the stench of dirty diapers.

Authorities say the baby’s mother, Chrystina Lynn Mercer, gave her to baby sitter Susan Elizabeth Baker early Saturday, then reported her missing about 10 hours later.

Washington County Sheriff Bobby Haddock choked up today as he described how 7-month-old Shannon Dedrick was stashed in the box for 12 straight hours before investigators discovered her late Wednesday. They believe she had been in the box on and off for several days before that.

“She was way back under the bed,” he said. “But she was not crying.”

Baker had written a letter to Gov. Charlie Crist’s office in August, pleading for help for the baby and claiming her father shook her and both parents did drugs in front of her. She asked Mercer on Friday if she could have permanent custody, Haddock said. Officials do not believe Shannon’s father, who is Baker’s stepbrother, was involved in the disappearance.

Haddock said Shannon apparently had been fed and cared for while she was with Baker, who lived about 12 miles from Mercer, though there was no bottle in the box with her. He said Baker became a suspect several days ago but never told them where the baby was, even as they interviewed her for 12 hours while Shannon remained hidden.

Mercer and Baker were jailed and arraignments were scheduled for this afternoon. Mercer was charged with interference of child custody, desertion of a child and several other charges. Charges against Baker included neglect of a child with aggravated circumstances and interference of child custody.

Mercer’s mother, Candis Boyer, attended today’s news conference and said afterward that she was there to show support for her daughter and granddaughter.

“I love my daughter very deeply,” she said.

Baker’s husband, James Arthur Baker, was arrested but released. He is still under investigation, Haddock said.

Shannon’s parents told investigators they last saw her when they went to bed around 3 a.m. Saturday and investigators thought she had vanished sometime between then and 8 a.m.

About 100 law enforcement agents and others spent days scouring dense vines and marshes around the baby’s home in a remote, makeshift community of dirt roads, tin-roof shacks and old mobile homes. Searchers also dug through trash cans and dumpsters.

“Statistically speaking this should not have ever happened, that we found this child alive, especially after so many days,” said Haddock, who cradled Shannon in his arms as he spoke to reporters earlier today. “Time was against us.”

According to court documents, child welfare officials began looking into allegations Shannon was being abused less than two weeks after she was born.

Investigators frequently went to the infant’s home from August to late September and reported that both parents used marijuana and kept a messy home. But they said Shannon seemed to be cared for and in September, a physician determined she was healthy.

Susan Baker was involved in another missing child case in South Carolina more than two decades ago. She told authorities her stepson, 3-year-old Paul Leonard Baker, disappeared from the family’s Beaufort, S.C., home on March 5, 1987, while she napped.

A massive manhunt turned up nothing. She and her husband, James Baker, were extradited to South Carolina in 2000 and charged with assault and battery in Paul’s disappearance, according to police reports provided by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. But a grand jury never indicted them and the child was never found.

Susan Baker did serve prison time after authorities investigating her stepson’s disappearance discovered a 6-year-old girl in the Baker home had been badly beaten. Susan Baker was sentenced to 10 years in prison but the sentence was suspended after 80 days. Authorities could not say how she was related to the girl.

Florida officials refused to answer questions today about the South Carolina case. They would say only that investigators from that state were in Chipley and had spoken with Baker.

Shannon, who was placed in state custody, appeared healthy, much to the relief of investigators who spent days looking for her.

Said Haddock: “Once we got the hospital, five or six of us called our wives to let them know that we found the child and a lot grown men were shedding tears.”

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