For six years, Misty Baker waited for her little girl to walk through the front door. Or to call home. Or for a police officer to knock on her door with news that her bubbly blond butterfly was safe.
The wait came to a painful, punishing end earlier this month with the first criminal charges and word from authorities that evidence shows Erica is dead.
“Six years is a long time for me to go through so much torment,” Baker said. “It was awful. It was gut-wrenching. It was terrifying.”
Erica was the youngest of four children and the only girl. A 9-year-old third-grader at Indian Riffle School, she loved animals and babies. She liked digging into fantasy books such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and drawing pictures of her family that her mom proudly displayed on the refrigerator. She’d be fighting with her brothers one minute and hugging them the next.
She was mommy’s little butterfly because she was so energetic, she couldn’t sit still.
On Feb. 7, 1999, Baker was crocheting her daughter a pair of slippers when Erica asked to walk the dog. Baker said no at first, but when Erica pleaded, she gave in.
Less than an hour later, a retired couple found the dog, a Shih Tzu named Jaime, cowering and dragging his leash. Prosecutors believe that Erica was struck and killed by a van and her body disposed of.
About 400 volunteers searched for Erica and passed out fliers.
Over the years, volunteers searched periodically in the woods, sometimes on hands and knees, and along vast stretches of the Great Miami River.
There was no trace of Erica. To this day, her body has not been found.
“Believe in Miracles” is written on a wooden sculpture on the living room wall of the Baker family’s brick ranch-style home in a modest middle-class neighborhood in Kettering. Photos of Erica and a stuffed butterfly sit on a shelf. And on the front porch, there’s a marble sculpture of a small winged angel, her arms clasped in prayer across her chest.
When she vanished, Erica had a bedroom that was the quintessential little girl’s room -- pink walls, pink bedspread, pink gingham curtains and a pink-and-white striped valance that matched the bed ruffle. Dolls were on the shelves and a toy chest on the floor.
Pam Schmidt redecorated her granddaughter’s room with symbolic touches of Erica as a 15-year-old today. The walls are painted white and gold, with gold signifying angels watching over Erica, Schmidt says.
The quilted bedspread is festooned with butterflies in hopes that she would one day be free.
Baker’s hope that Erica was alive crumbled the afternoon of Feb. 4 when the county’s victim-advocate’s office called to tell her that charges had been filed against Christian John Gabriel, 33, a father of three from Springfield who is serving a nine-month prison sentence for receiving stolen property.
Gabriel was charged with evidence-tampering and gross abuse of a corpse, but not homicide. He was indicted three days before Ohio’s six-year statute of limitations would have run out on all charges but murder and aggravated murder.
“I walked around the house and didn’t want to believe it,” Baker said. “I even went downstairs and started my laundry, trying to pretend that everything was OK.”
Eventually she broke the news to her three sons, ages 17 through 22.
“Saying it out loud made it become real,” she said. “Up until [that day], I always said nobody can take that hope away from me.”
Today, Baker wants Gabriel to tell her where Erica’s body is.
Carley Ingram, an assistant Montgomery County prosecutor, says Gabriel is accused of disposing of Erica’s body and may have been driving the van that struck her.
She would not elaborate on the evidence or say how Gabriel came to the attention of investigators.
He has pleaded not guilty.
“All I’ve got to say is, ‘Christian Gabriel, you know where she is, you know what they did with her, just give us our daughter,’ ” Greg Baker, Erica’s father, said to reporters after the arraignment. He and Misty divorced six years before Erica’s disappearance.
Gabriel has declined interview requests. Joanna Gabriel said her son told her that he knows nothing about Erica’s disappearance.
“My heart goes out to the little girl’s parents,” she said. “There is no way that Chris is involved. He wouldn’t hurt a child or anybody.”
In 2002, a grand jury investigating the case directed former federal public defender Beth Lewis to testify about what a client, Jan Franks -- who died the year before -- may have told her about Erica’s disappearance. Lewis refused, citing attorney-client privilege. The dispute is still pending in court. Lewis’ attorney did not respond to a call for comment.
According to court documents, police have information that Franks and other people may have been in the van that struck Erica.
Police are no longer searching for her body. Without more information, they say, they don’t know where to look.
Greg Baker would like to hear what Lewis knows. But it’s more important that he find his daughter and bring her to a family resting place.
“I’m just trying to stay strong for her,” he said. “That way, we can get her home. After that, I’ll fall to pieces.”