Abuse victim recalls past horrors, the brother she lost

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Abuse victim recalls past horrors, the brother she lost

By JEFF KIDD jkidd@beaufortgazette.com 843-706-8175
Published Saturday, November 14, 2009   |  2568 Words  |  news

This is how Nina Hernandez learned to count:
She said that one morning when she was 6, her stepmother, Susan Baker, woke her early, led her into the bathroom of their home near the gate to Parris Island and filled the tub with water.
Nina was having trouble counting past 10. That morning, each time she made a mistake, Susan plunged her head beneath the water, banging her head against the side of the tub. Nina doesn't remember how many times she was dunked, but when Susan finally relented, the water was red with blood.
Then, Susan ordered Nina to wash in that water.
"What she did wasn't abuse. It was torture," said Nina, now a nurse and a married mother of three living in Chapel Hill, N.C. She turns 29 later this month.
Twenty-two years ago, Susan pleaded guilty to assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature for abusing Nina. She was given 10 years in prison but released after 80 days when the sentence was suspended for time served.
Beaufort County authorities also suspect Susan was responsible for the disappearance of Nina's younger brother, who was 3 when he vanished March 5, 1987.
Paul Baker hasn't been seen since. His case has not been solved.
But he has not been forgotten.
Not by county law enforcement officials, who hope new developments 400 miles away will help them resolve Paul's case.
And not by Nina, the big sister whose back -- and life -- bear the scars of seven months she and Paul spent in the home of Susan and James Baker.
<strong>NIGHTMARES AND POSSIBILITIES</strong>
It's been just more than a week since a friend's late-night telephone call awakened Nina to old nightmares and new possibilities.
Susan had been arrested again, the friend told her. So had Nina's dad, James.
A five-day search for 7-month-old Shannon Dedrick of Chipley, Fla., ended Nov. 5 when the infant was found shut in a small, cedar box beneath Susan's bed. Clothing had been packed around the container to muffle any sound. Baking powder had been sprinkled inside to mask the stench of dirty diapers.
Susan faces charges of neglect of a child with aggravated circumstances and interference of child custody. James Baker was arrested but released the same day. He remains under investigation, according to the Washington County, Fla., sheriff.
Also charged was Shannon's mother, Chrystina Lynn Mercer, who authorities believe gave her child to Susan early Halloween morning. Mercer reported Shannon missing about 10 hours later. Mercer faces several charges, among them interference of child custody and desertion of a child.
Nina's best friend came across reports of the Florida case while surfing the Internet. She recognized Susan's name and called immediately.
"It was just bizarre," Nina said. "What was she going to do with that child? ... It's been 22 years since Paul disappeared. (Susan) has been out there all that time, and there's no telling how many other children she has come into contact with."
SSgt. Brian Baird, who worked Paul's case in 1987, traveled to Chipley and questioned Susan, according to Sheriff P.J. Tanner. Investigators hope this new case will help resolve the old one.
So does Nina.
"I hope anyone who reads this or sees this might remember something," Nina said. "... Something. Just anything (about Paul's disappearance."
Remembering, though, can be a painful thing.
<strong>A CHILD AT RISK</strong>
Susan and James Baker had been married only a few months when they moved to the Beaufort area in early 1987. James, a sergeant at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, had recently divorced Lynda Solorzano -- Nina and Paul's mother -- who accused him of having an affair with Susan, the children's baby sitter. Despite that accusation, James was awarded custody in August 1986.
After Paul vanished, Susan told investigators she didn't marry to raise children and that she wished James had sent Paul and Nina back to North Carolina to live with Lynda.
She said she wasn't comfortable in her new role as a mother.
It was not one she played long.
A few weeks after Paul's disappearance, James turned Nina over to the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office to be placed in foster care, telling investigators he feared for his daughter's safety.
According to the doctor at Naval Hospital Beaufort who subsequently examined Nina, those fears were justified.
His exam revealed a broken bone in Nina's hand that had gone untreated. He also discovered ulcerated sores on Nina's back that he determined were the result of severe beatings. Nina told investigators that Susan beat her with a stick. Today, she said her back still bears small, round scars from those floggings.
Nina says Susan routinely put her in a closet for hours, with a trash can to use as a toilet. Once, Nina says, Susan made her stay up all night with a bar of soap in her mouth.
Her "offenses?"
"I don't know. I can't remember," Nina said.
James told investigators that Susan once beat Nina so severely, he had to drag her off the child.
Nina thinks that incident might be one she remembers today -- on a rare occasion when her father came to her defense, Susan became further enraged and shut them both in Nina's bedroom, which had a door that locked from the outside.
"That's one of my memories of my dad -- us in my bedroom and him trying to pick the lock with a credit card," Nina said.
<strong>LOVE AS AN ANCHOR</strong>
Nina's experiences have not been without consequence. She said she quit high school at 15, seldom had a boyfriend for more than a few months and got pregnant before she got married.
Yet she now describes herself as happy and well-adjusted.
She got her GED at age 20. She has been married to William Hernandez, the father of her three children, for eight years. While caring for Erica, 8, William, 6, and Carlos, 3, Nina found time to get a nursing license. She has worked at an extended-care facility for the elderly in Chapel Hill for just more than a year.
"I beat the odds. I beat the statistics," she declares.
Her partner in that victory is her maternal grandmother, Linda Lambert of Mebane, N.C., who fought to get custody of Nina after she was placed in foster care.
"My grandma has been my rock," Nina said. " ... I always knew where she was going to be, when she was coming to get me. No matter what, even to this day, she is there."
Linda said she reared her grandchildren in the same no-nonsense way she reared her children. She kept a wooden paint stirrer at the ready and popped Nina on the leg whenever the child got out of line.
"I never had to use it that much, though," Linda said. "I wasn't being mean; I was just getting her attention."
But Nina got more than discipline. She received care and affection.
When she first came to live with her, Linda put Nina in therapy for several months. She had the child's rotten teeth cleaned and capped. Linda's job managing a self-storage facility came with flexible hours. She took Nina to school in the morning and picked her up in the afternoon. They often reviewed Nina's homework before Linda returned to finish her shift.
"(Nina) was a tee-total mess when I first got her," Linda said. "... It was a trauma that first year. The second year was not that bad, and the third year was not bad at all. Basically, she found out she was loved, that she wasn't going to get beat."
<strong>BROKEN CONNECTIONS</strong>
Despite her new life, Nina still ached for a connection with her parents.
She convinced Linda to let her live with her mother in about 1992.
When the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office revisited Paul's cold-case file in 2000, investigators asked Nina to go to Florida to see James for the first time since she was taken from his home. She eagerly agreed. (She has seen him once more, around 2003, after charges stemming from Paul's disappearance were dropped and James was released from the Beaufort County Detention Center.)
"I wanted a father. I wanted to know what it was like to have a daddy," she said. Even now, Nina uses "Baker" as her middle name.
Time and experience have changed her perspective, though.
In her husband, William Hernandez, she discovered a second rock. Five years her senior, William was the most mature man she had dated. He understood her mood swings.
And there are the children.
Gazing upon three innocent faces only makes her time in the home of Susan and James more incomprehensible.
"I came to the decision that as long as (James) is with (Susan), I do not need a relationship with him," Nina said. "Not when I have children."
Nina thinks Susan is responsible for Paul's disappearance. She thinks James thinks so, too.
But she cannot explain the hold Susan seems to have over her father: Maybe he thinks staying with her is the only way he can find out what happened to Paul; maybe the trouble in Florida will jolt him to his senses.
But Nina says her father is not blameless. Not after Shannon Dedrick was found in a box under Susan's bed ... and under James' nose.
"How do you have a baby in the house and not know it's in the house?" Nina said. "... I hope to God he finds a connection between this and the last one and wakes up and goes, 'Holy (expletive,) let me do something.' "
<strong>MOUNTING SUSPICIONS</strong>
Nina said she wasn't the only one treated roughly by Susan. She recalled that when Paul wet his bed, Susan "whipped him for it" and made him change the sheets himself. James told investigators his wife often made Paul stand in a corner for "hours on end" if he misbehaved.
In the days before he disappeared, Paul was not feeling well. James told investigators the child had been "sick and whining" and was wetting his bed and soiling his pants.
This is what Nina recalls about the last day anyone saw him:
She got home from school at about 11 a.m. Susan told her Paul was feeling better and was playing in the backyard. Susan told her to go to her room and take a nap. A short time later, she heard Susan screaming at Paul to lay down and go to sleep.
Then the house fell silent.
Nina never heard Paul's voice. In fact, she doesn't recall seeing or hearing Paul at all that day.
Susan told investigators she took a muscle relaxer and nodded off. Both she and Nina say they were awakened by a telephone call. At first, Nina was afraid to get out of the bed because she heard Susan crying in the living room and knew something must be wrong.
Nina said that when she mustered the nerve to leave her bedroom, she found Susan sobbing on the couch. "Your brother is missing. Go look in his bedroom," her stepmother said.
The call was from James, who said that while at work, someone who identified herself as Lynda left a message for him saying she had Paul and that he was OK.
Susan and James pointed the finger at Paul and Nina's mother, who lived in Mebane, N.C., but Lynda Solorzano had an alibi and was dismissed as a suspect.
Suspicions about James and Susan mounted, though.
At one point, James told investigators he thought Susan killed Paul and threw his body in Battery Creek, a short walk from the family's home. A day later he told investigators he had changed his mind and didn't think Susan had anything to do with the disappearance.
Susan was taken to Columbia for a polygraph test eight days after Paul vanished. According to investigation documents, Susan told the analyst, "You know I'm going to fail," before he began questioning her. After the test, she asked him: "I failed, didn't I?" Actually, the results were inconclusive because of Susan's obesity, her stress level and the medication she was taking. However, the examiner suspected she was lying.
Four days later, James took a polygraph. He failed.
Prosecutors had little physical evidence to link Susan or James to Paul's disappearance and could not compel them to testify against each other. The couple was extradited from Florida to South Carolina in 2000, but a grand jury refused to indict them on a charge of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. In 2003, a charge of unlawful neglect of a child was dropped.
<strong>'I JUST WANT TO KNOW'</strong>
When Nina left the Baker home, she took only a baby doll and an empty stomach.
"The female officer who took me asked if I wanted to go get sloppy joes," Nina recalled. "I had no idea what sloppy joes were, but they sounded good."
Aside from a few family photos and some yellowing newspaper clips about Paul's disappearance given to her by her mother and grandmother, Nina says she has few mementos of her little brother.
So she created her own.
When she was 18, Nina drove to Durham, N.C., and got a tattoo on her upper left chest -- a black rose with a green stem and drops of blood dripping from it.
"It's my tribute to Paul," she said.
The rest of her recollections are whatever tatters she can unpack from the memory of a 6 year old -- Saturday mornings before Lynda and James split up, when she and Paul awoke early, crept into the kitchen and ate sugar from the bowl; the fence in the back yard they climbed until it doubled to meet the ground; returning from trick-or-treating to divvy up candy.
The memories end before Paul could know his niece and nephews, before he could go to school, before he learned to count.
Nina says she wasn't just abused. She was robbed.
"I'll never know how it is to have him in my life ... to play with him ... to see him get married." And then her voice chokes with tears.
Rationally, Nina concludes what many others do: Paul is dead. But emotionally, she's not ready to abandon hope. When Shannon Dedrick was found alive, it was simultaneously awful and wonderful. Maybe Shannon wasn't dead because Susan was trying to sell her, Nina thought. Maybe she sold Paul. Maybe he is alive, too.
But that's speculation. Conjecture. The kind of uncertainty that has stymied investigators and haunted Nina for 22 years.
"If he's alive, I just would like to know that. Maybe he's out there somewhere. Maybe we can find him," Nina said. "If he's dead, just tell me. Then I can grieve and move on.
"I just want to know."