News of Cleveland women resurrects glimmer of hope for local families

All over the Miami Valley, families with missing loved ones reacted with joy, tinged with wistfulness, to the news that three missing Cleveland women had been rescued after more than 10 years in captivity. For some, the news resurrected a glimmer of hope that had all but been extinguished.

“Do you think this could happen to us?” Pam Schmidt asked her daughter, Misty Baker, Tuesday morning. Baker’s 9-year-old daughter, Erica, disappeared from her Kettering home in 1999. “In my mind, I know this is not going to happen to me,” said Baker, who now lives in Miami Twp. “All the facts say that it’s not going to happen. In my heart, I can’t give up hope. When this type of thing happens, you can’t help but wonder.”

Anita Smith had a similar reaction to the news, even though her daughter, Lori Jean Lloyd, has been missing since 1976. At first, Smith held out hope when the identity of the third survivor in Cleveland hadn’t been released. “Do you think it could be Lori?” she asked her daughter, Joni Spencer of Kettering.

Anita Ping of Kettering felt overjoyed by the news, but a bit wistful, too. Her 42-year-old son, Dan Ping, left his job at Elder Beerman on Jan. 25, 2002, and has not been seen since. “I’m so happy for these families, but I wish it were me,” she said.

Erica’s father, Greg Baker of Kettering, admitted to feeling “a sliver of hope,” adding, “There’s always that 1 percent chance that she’s alive, because we still are not 100-percent sure what happened. Yet you have to face the reality that this is probably not going to happen to you.”

Investigators believe that Erica was hit by a van driven by Christian Gabriel shortly before 4 p.m. Feb. 7, 1999, as he was driving westbound on Glengarry Drive in Kettering near the intersection of Powhattan Drive. Gabriel was released June 23, 2011, after serving nearly six years in prison for gross abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence. Gabriel has never led detectives to Erica’s body despite multiple attempts to locate her remains.

Baker said the police should not be blamed for not finding the three survivors in Cleveland earlier. “I am sure they exhausted means to find those girls, we exhausted every means to find Erica,” he said.

The more time passes, the harder it is for these families to hope for the miraculous Cleveland outcome.”There is always hope, because they have never found Dan’s remains,” Ping said, “but the longer it goes on, the harder it is to hope. When something like this happens, you feel a little bit of hope.”

Spencer said she used to respond to these rare happy endings with the same question: “Why couldn’t it have been Lori?” Her 14-year-old sister disappeared from her Kettering home Feb. 10, 1976, and her case initially was not taken seriously, Spencer said: “Everybody who went missing back then was assumed to be a runaway. My mom knew from beginning this wasn’t a runaway, but nobody else did. I am so happy that things are different now, and there’s so much more support.”

Kidnap victim Amanda Berry, who escaped from the home where she had been held captive and called police for help, has been hailed as a national hero. Misty Baker was devastated to learn that her mother, Lowana Miller, died of heart failure in 2006, at the age of 43, after tirelessly searching for her daughter. “It’s heartbreaking,” Baker said.

The families all agreed that both the young women and their families will need lots of support in the years to come. “I was so moved, because I can just imagine what these families are feeling,” Ping said. “The pain and the agony are tremendous. You go through every scenario, and there’s no closure. Every morning, every night, you think about it. It never gets any easier.”

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