Ohio family still seeks answers on 9-year-old girl

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DAYTON, Ohio (AP) -- A southwest Ohio family remains haunted by questions about their 9-year-old daughter's final moments after she went missing in 1999, and by tantalizing tips that never pan out.

Erica Baker was last seen alive 14 years ago this week, after going outside to walk her dog in the Dayton suburb of Kettering. A massive search followed, yielding no conclusive leads.

In 2004, a man police had considered a possible suspect contacted Kettering detectives to talk about a Feb. 7, 1999, vehicle accident now believed to have resulted in Erica's death.

Police said he told them he buried her body. A grand jury indicted Christian Gabriel on counts of gross abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence. He was convicted and served nearly six years in prison. His passenger the day of Baker's disappearance, Jan Franks, had died of a drug overdose in 2001.

Police say multiple attempts to find a burial spot were fruitless. Lead detective Sgt. Bob Green told the Dayton Daily News this week he thinks Erica might have still been alive after the accident, something that adds to the family's painful thoughts.

"There's always that question in my mind, if they buried her alive somewhere," said her mother, Misty Baker.

"It tears me up, knowing she's out here and wondering about her last thoughts," said her father, Greg Baker. "Was she thinking, 'Where's Daddy, and why wasn't he there to protect me?' That was my little girl."

Kettering police are convinced that Erica is dead, but they still will pursue any information that comes in, hoping to at least allow the family to give a proper burial to her remains. Police last week interviewed a Montgomery County Jail inmate about the case, and they also recently checked out a report from a Rutgers University student who believed Erica was a college student he had seen. Green talked to the young woman in question to be sure.

"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."

Grandmother Pam Schmidt said there was briefly hope for "that miracle" for the family, and that she held no malice for the erroneous report.

"What if it was her? I wouldn't want to discourage people from coming forward," said Schmidt.

Erica's three brothers are grown up, and two served 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.

"Nobody has given me a body yet, so you always try to find one little thing to hold onto," Misty Baker said. "It makes you a little nutty. I just keep waiting for that phone to ring and for answers to come."

The family tries to take consolation with pleasant memories of the vivacious little girl who loved cheerleading, playing dress-up, and going fishing with her father and brothers.

"There is not a day that goes by I don't think about her," Greg Baker said. "She is forever frozen at 9 years old with me."

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Information from: Dayton Daily News, http://www.daytondailynews.com