By Bill Hewitt
December 12, 1994 12:00 PM

ON THE MORNING BEFORE Thanksgiving 1992, 10-year-old Scotty Baker was summoned to the office at Paces Creek Elementary School in the poor, onetime mining town of Manchester, Ky. There school secretary Charlotte Smith told the fifth-grader that a woman had just come to fetch him. Scotty hesitated for an instant, not recognizing the woman, but he responded happily when she gently told him she was taking him to see his father. Moments later they walked out to the parking lot together and got into the woman’s Buick Skyhawk. What Scotty didn’t know was that, crouched in the backseat, covered by sheets, was his father’s second wife, Stephanie Baker, then 22.

Minutes later Scotty Baker was dead, strangled by his own stepmother. In October, as Stephanie Baker was sentenced to life in prison for his murder, the people of Manchester (pop. 1,634) could only wonder at her brutality—and her motive. Baker, who just nine months before the murder had married Scotty’s father, Donnie, 35, apparently killed the boy out of jealousy. “She wanted 100 percent of Donnie’s attention,” says state police detective Larry Lewis. “She didn’t want anyone else in the picture. She wanted Donnie all to herself.”

Those who thought they knew Baker had seen no hint of such deadly potential. She grew up in London, Ky., about 25 miles west of Manchester. There she sang in the choir at the Community Christian Church and spent two years at nearby Sue Bennett College, where she studied psychology. She had met truck driver Donnie Baker in August 1991. Divorced three years from his ex-wife Ruth, 38, Donnie shared custody of 9-year-old Scotty. Meeting Stephanie, he was smitten. “She was real sweet, real pretty, went to church,” he says. “She just about blew my mind.” Six months after they met, they were married on Valentine’s Day 1992, with Scotty serving as ring bearer.

To friends and neighbors, all seemed well. Stephanie, who worked at Wal-Mart in nearby London, often took Scotty to the store to pick out toys, and the two were sometimes seen playing ball in the yard together. “She was as nice as she could be,” recalls Dorothy Jackson, Donnie’s mother. “She seemed like a perfect person.”

Soon, though, Stephanie began feeling” frustrated. Her husband’s work frequently took him on the road for days at a time; and when he was home, he made it clear he wanted to spend as much time with his son as he could. That did not please his young bride. “She didn’t want to go anywhere with me and Scotty,” says Donnie. For his part, “Scotty never said anything against Stephanie, and he never back-talked her,” says his mother, Ruth. “But he was very aware that she was jealous.”

More than that, as it turned out. In July, Baker attempted suicide by slitting her wrists. She and Donnie separated and reconciled several times, but by autumn the marriage was in trouble again. “I believe she thought Scotty would always be first in my life,” says Donnie. “She couldn’t stand it.” It was about that time that Stephanie got together again with Susanne Baker—no relation—her best friend in high school.

During frequent shopping trips and get-togethers in the following weeks, the women, prosecutors say, began hatching a plot for murder. About that time, Baker confided her resentment to her diary. “I don’t dislike [Donnie’s] son,” she wrote. “I just want to be able to do whatever I want in my own home, and I don’t particularly enjoy keeping doors shut and keeping fully dressed all the time.” By November, Baker had discovered that she was pregnant, further complicating her already troubled marriage.

On Nov. 23, the Monday before Thanksgiving, Baker spoke by telephone with Donnie, who was on the road. When he mentioned that he was planning to drive his truck to Tennessee after Thanksgiving, she excitedly told him that she wanted to come too. He told her that sounded fine, but he had already promised to take Scotty. “She wasn’t happy about that,” says Donnie. “She would never go if he was coming.”

Two days later, Stephanie and Susanne, disguised in a black wig, arrived at Scotty’s school. Claiming to be his “cousin,” Susanne signed him out of school and drove off with him in her car. When they got to an empty stretch of road, Stephanie suddenly reached into the front seat, grabbed Scotty by the neck and pulled him between the bucket seats. As his stepmother began choking him, he kicked frantically, scuffing the air vents and breaking the gearshift lever. When she was done, Susanne later said, Stephanie triumphantly announced, “Now all my troubles are over.”

Of course, they were not. Disposing of the body was one pressing detail. The women decided to dump Scotty in an abandoned strip mine and burn him, but they didn’t have any gasoline. On the way to get some, they stopped at Stephanie’s trailer home. In a bizarre touch, Stephanie called Donnie’s voice mail to leave a tender message. “Hi, sweetheart,” she said. “Me and Alex [the couple’s dog] just walked around the loop, and I thought I’d call and tell you just how much I miss you, and I love you next to God.” She and Susanne then returned to the strip mine, doused Scotty’s body with fuel and set it ablaze.

When Scotty didn’t arrive home by evening, Ruth called police. As the days passed, she began to suspect Stephanie might have had something to do with his disappearance. Donnie wondered the same thing—and asked Stephanie about it point-blank. “She said, ‘I love you too much to do something like that,’ ” he recalls. Police questioned her, but she appeared to have an unshakable alibi: She claimed she and Susanne had been doing laundry together all morning on the day Scotty disappeared. Meanwhile, the waiting and uncertainty began taking a toll on the boy’s parents. “One night it was snowing, and I stood in the window all night long,” says Ruth. “I kept thinking someone would drop him at the end of the driveway.”

Finally, after six days, and after Stephanie had failed two FBI lie-detector tests while continuing to maintain her innocence, authorities decided to lean on Susanne in hopes that she would come clean. Confronted by FBI agents on Dec. 1, she cracked and confessed that Scotty had been killed but insisted that she had been an unwitting dupe. Susanne claimed she thought Stephanie had simply intended to surprise Scotty, and that she kept quiet after the murder only because she feared Stephanie would pin all the blame on her. Fourteen months later, in early 1994, Susanne was convicted on charges including kidnapping and reckless homicide and sentenced to 26 years in prison. In October, Stephanie Baker plea-bargained to save herself from the death penalty and was given a life sentence. Donnie Baker and Ruth Baker are suing the board of education for $12 million for releasing Scotty in Susanne Baker’s custody.

Stephanie’s baby, born seven months after her arrest, is now 16 months old and has been adopted by her parents, Bonnie and Roger Spitser. Donnie has never seen the child—”Someday I hope to”—but believes that in the long run, given the time he spends on the road, the Spitsers are probably better equipped to raise the boy than he is. “They’re good people,” he says. “I hear he’s gorgeous.” At night now, Donnie sleeps with Scotty’s pillow beneath his head, still trying to make sense of a tragedy that defies understanding. “No matter what happens,” he says, “no one will ever be able to replace Scotty.”