Erica Baker: What the missing girl would look like today

Fifteen years ago Friday 9-year-old Erica Baker disappeared without a trace outside the Kettering Recreation Center while walking her dog in the cold and rain.

As part of its ongoing search, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children is again asking for the public's help to locate Erica Baker. The center released an age progression photograph of what Erica might look like today at the age of 24.

In September 2013, police working on a tip that Erica's remains might be in a pond at a trailer park on private property, dispatched a dive team to search the pond but nothing conclusive came of the search.Christian Gabriel, the only man ever charged in connection with Baker's disappearance, reportedly lived at the trailer park with now deceased Jan Franks at the time of Baker's disappearance.Its believed that Gabriel and Franks were in a van that hit Erica near the Kettering Recreation Center.

Last year, Kettering police and her family members revealed 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 that Erica may have been alive at the time she was struck by a van driven by Christian Gabriel.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, in an interview with Dayton Daily News last year, explained she 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, also interviewed by Dayton Daily News last year, said he 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." Attempts to interview Gabriel by Dayton Daily News and WHIO-TV have failed.

Kettering police feel certain that Erica is dead but are still actively pursuing leads.

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., massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School last year 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."