CHIPLEY, Fla. – Investigators spent five days searching a rural area of 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 soda placed inside to mask the stench of dirty diapers.
Authorities said the baby's mother, Chrystina Lynn Mercer, gave the infant to baby sitter Susan Elizabeth Baker early Saturday, then reported her missing about 10 hours later. About 100 law enforcement agents and others spent days scouring 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 bins.
All along, the baby was under the bed.
Washington County Sheriff Bobby Haddock choked up Thursday 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 closed box on and off for several days.
"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 a week ago 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. He said Baker became a suspect several days ago but never told them where the baby was, even as they interviewed her.
Shannon appeared healthy, much to the relief of investigators.
"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," Haddock said.
Mercer's mother, Candis Boyer, attended Thursday'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 briefly before leaving the news conference. At a court hearing later, family members were escorted by sheriff's deputies and didn't talk to reporters.
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.
Bond was set at $150,000 for Baker and $75,000 for Mercer. In separate hearings, the women shuffled in wearing leg chains and their hands bound with plastic restraints.
The judge told Mercer she couldn't have contact with her daughter, who was in state custody, if she posts bond. Both women said they understood the charges against them and their arraignments were scheduled for Dec. 14.
Baker's husband, James Arthur Baker, was arrested Wednesday night 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.
"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 Thursday. "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 had been a baby sitter for James Baker and his now ex-wife before she married him, a family member said.
Susan Baker 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.
Paul's grandmother said she blames Susan Baker for her grandson's disappearance. Lambert gained legal custody of Paul's sister.
She was glad the case in Florida has renewed interest in Paul's disappearance.
"I'd like to know if my grandson is dead or alive," said Linda Lambert, 65, of Mebane, N.C. "I'd like some closure."
Susan Baker did serve prison time after authorities investigating Paul's disappearance discovered her 6-year-old stepdaughter had been badly beaten. Susan Baker was sentenced to 10 years in prison but the punishment was suspended to 80 days.
Florida officials refused to answer questions Thursday about the South Carolina case. They would say only that investigators from that state were in Chipley and had spoken with Baker.