To be that person, I’m not convinced that Christian Gabriel and his friends killed Erica Baker, whether in an accidental car crash, or in an accidental car crash followed by a homicide (as the lead homicide detective on the case at one point theorized).
Over the last two days, I binged the six-episode podcast series, Missing Erica Baker, produced and reported by Dayton 24/7 Now. The case concerns Erica Baker, who went missing and then was presumed dead in 1999 after taking her dog, a Shih Tzu, on a walk in Kettering, Ohio, maybe 40 minutes north of my house. She would have been 9-years-old at the time, which was my age at that time as well.
Christian Gabriel was later convicted in 2005 of gross abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence related to her disappearance and presumed death. He served six years in prison and was released in 2011; of those, five years were for tampering, and one year was for gross abuse of a corpse. Which, that charge is wild considering there is no body.
That conviction was based on Gabriel’s own confession.
As the story goes, Erica was walking the dog sometime between 3:00 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. on Feb. 7, 1999, near the Kettering Recreation Center. Around 3:45 p.m., a couple was also walking their dog near the KRC and its pond, and witnessed Erica leaving the pond and walking toward the track of Indian Ripple Middle School. An unspecified “short time later,” the couple saw the Shih Tzu wet, shaking and near the middle school with its leash still attached, but no Erica. A police sergeant even tried to hypnotize the man afterward to see what he remembered. I think we need a more specific timeline of how much longer it was after they witnessed Erica alive that they then witnessed the dog. For all intents and purposes, these are the only two people we know for a fact to be the last two people to see Erica alive.
When the search began for Erica, the father mentioned that the police, naturally, separated the family and asked them questions, including of him, about her disappearance. He noted that he was told he could get a lawyer, but that he didn’t need a lawyer because he had nothing to do with her disappearance. I’m going to stop you right there: Always get a lawyer! The police are not your friend, even in the investigation of your missing daughter.
In July of 1999, the police interviewed Gabriel, who stated himself, Clifford Butts, and Jan Franks were stealing from the Kettering Meijer on Feb. 7, 1999, and that “something could have happened” when they were on their way to his residence in his van at the Duck Inn in Dayton.
This is where I will interject to note: Why has all of the spotlight been on Gabriel, but seemingly no attention paid toward Clifford Butts or Jan Franks? How come they also weren’t charged with tampering with evidence and gross abuse of a corpse? Did I miss that explanation?
So, picking back up, the van Gabriel was driving was sold to Kevin Smith 16 days after Erica went missing. The van was later impounded by the Dayton Police Department and taken to the Miami Valley Regional Crime Laboratory in July 1999. The van was examined for blood and trace evidence, and forensic scientists found “no evidence linking the van to Erica Baker.”
That’s what I don’t understand, either. The podcast hosts made it seem like the van was sitting out in the weather elements for so long — seemed to be only five months, though, before it was impounded — and that Kevin Smith replaced the carpet. So, I have two questions: 1.) Have the police talked to Kevin Smith, and asked him what the condition of the van was at the time he bought it supposedly 16 days after it was involved in a crash?; and 2.) I have a hard time believing that if the van was used in a crash, particularly to hit a human body, there wouldn’t be some sort of evidence indicating as much. As just mentioned, the forensic scientists found nothing.
Related, I don’t think it is impossible, but we know a couple witnessed Erica shortly before then witnessing the dog without Erica; you’re telling me in that short timespan in the late afternoon, three drug dealers who just shoplifted from Meijer were able to crash into her and throw her body into the van without any witnesses? I would add, too, that I find it hard to imagine, although, again, it is not impossible, that she was struck by a van without it also impacting the dog. And nobody witnessed the van its condition thereafter while it was parked at the Duck Inn (another part of Gabriel’s confession that changes, as the first time, they went to the Duck Inn, and then other times, they went back to his apartment) for however long it was (what was the timeline? We know the search began in earnest that night at 8:10 p.m., with it on the broadcast news by 11:00 p.m., and the nearby pond drained at midnight) and and nobody witnessed them then dumping the body?
In April 2004, police started talking to Gabriel about Erica’s case again. In that new interview, Gabriel said he “lent” the van to Kevin Smith on Feb. 7, 1999, the day Erica went missing. By July 2004, Gabriel was charged with receiving stolen property and arrested, and then spoke more about the Baker case. According to his new version of events, he was a passenger in the seat and Jan Franks was driving. As they left Meijer, they hit Erica, put her body in the van, drove back to his apartment, and smoked crack cocaine. They later drove Erica to the Huffman Dam and buried her.
Police were unable to locate her body at the Huffman Dam.
By December 2004, Gabriel was saying he was the one driving the van when they struck Erica. And now he was claiming she was buried at Caesar’s Creek. Again, her body was not found by police.
On Feb. 4, 2005, nearly six years after Erica’s disappearance, Gabriel was charged with tampering with evidence and gross abuse of a corpse.
I’m getting this timeline of events from the case details here.
I should note, too, I’m not sure where on the timeline of when the police interviewed Gabriel that this would go, but the podcast mentioned he took a polygraph test and failed. I’m glad the Dayton 24/7 Now reporters thereafter pointed out that polygraph tests are unreliable. I would also further add, get a lawyer, Gabriel! When the cop tells you, “I don’t know what you think, but I’m not here to hurt you,” shut the hell up and get a lawyer. The cop is lying and he is there to potentially “hurt you” by charging you with murder.
I’m not convinced by Gabriel’s confession. For one, he specifically asked the cop which charges would net him less time in jail. Secondly, there is no other evidence indicating he did this crime other than a confession. And third, I’m not convinced by confessions on the face of it unless they are providing clear information that wasn’t publicly known or (and this is important) something the cops gave to Gabriel in order for him to spit back out to them to tell them what they wanted to hear. One example the podcast used to indicate Gabriel knew something only someone involved in Erica’s disappearance could know was a description of the dog has having a “mustache.” I don’t find that convincing, either! Maybe I’m way off base here, but my assumption is that in news reports at the time of her disappearance, they would have mentioned that she was last seen walking her dog, and would have described and/or shown pictures of the dog. In the Feb. 10, 1999 edition of The Dayton Daily News, they do in fact mention the breed of the dog.
We know people confess to crimes they didn’t commit for a whole host of reasons. In this particular case, my assumption is that Gabriel confessed to these far lesser charges to get the police, prosecutors, media, and the public off of his back. He then could serve six years, and be a free man, who I think they said lives somewhere in Oregon now.
I walk away from the story of Erica Baker believing something else happened to her entirely. If she didn’t willingly walk away, which seems unlikely of a nine-year-old and for her to remain “off the grid” with family and friends and this media attention for 23 years, and if she wasn’t hit in some sort of vehicle crash scenario, then that leaves one other option that I can think of: Abduction and captivity to where she is still improbably alive, or more likely, abduction and murder, with the killer dumping her body who knows where, if it is even in Ohio at all. And because police and media attention have been so myopically focused on Christian Gabriel, the real killer has passed by unnoticed.
Even though I’m skeptical, I did appreciate the podcast delving into this case, and importantly, letting the family and friends talk through their grief and hope for Erica’s return. After all, they want to bury her properly.
If you listen to the podcast (easy “binge” of six short-ish episodes), I’d welcome your perspective on the case.