By Melissa Nelson
CHIPLEY, Fla. — Sheriff Bobby Haddock knew time was running out for a 7-month-old girl missing in the Florida Panhandle.
For five days, searchers had scoured the dense vines and marshes around the baby's rural home, knowing that every hour a child is missing, the chances of finding them alive decreases. But Shannon Lea Dedrick was finally discovered - lying quietly in a 2-foot by 3-foot cedar box that had been shoved under her baby sitter's bed.
Haddock held the baby in front of flashing cameras and a cheering local audience, proudly displaying a discovery that defied statistics that show only a 30 percent chance of bringing a child home safe if they've been missing for more than three hours.
"We are the proud papas of a little girl," the beaming sheriff announced, his deputies standing behind him.
Later Thursday, the Sheriff choked up as he explained how investigators found the infant after days of searching. Clothing was packed around the box to muffle any sounds and baking soda placed inside to mask the stench of dirty diapers. She had been alone in the box for 12 hours as investigators interviewed the baby sitter.
"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. "Time was against us."
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. Haddock said Shannon apparently had been fed and cared for while she was with Baker, who lived about 12 miles from Mercer.
Shannon appeared healthy.
"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 was charged Thursday 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.
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.
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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.