Case of woman believed killed heats up
Detective hired by fiance heads to trial next month
Sunday, December 18, 2005
By Milan Simonich, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
MERCER, Pa. -- Billy Crea, electrician, small-town resident and murder suspect, has been looking over his shoulder for five years.
Pennsylvania State Police zeroed in on Mr. Crea in the spring of 2000, soon after his fiancee, Sandra K. Baker, vanished. They interrogated him about what happened to Ms. Baker, but they had no body and no physical evidence. He hired a lawyer, stopped talking to police and went on with his life. The case went cold.
Only now is it warming up. This year state police in a court affidavit labeled Mr. Crea, 50, the suspect in Ms. Baker's disappearance and death. Even so, they did not charge him with a crime.
Instead, police and Mercer County prosecutors focused their attention on Clifford Aley, a private detective Mr. Crea had hired to investigate Ms. Baker before she disappeared.
Mr. Aley, charged with four felonies, all for hindering the investigation of what happened to Ms. Baker, is to stand trial next month. In trying to save himself from a prison term, he told police and prosecutors that Mr. Crea had killed Ms. Baker.
"He said William Crea confessed to him that he murdered his fiancee," said Assistant District Attorney Tim Bonner, lead prosecutor in the Baker case.
Mr. Aley repeated his claims about Mr. Crea in open court during a hearing on whether his statements to police should be suppressed. Mr. Aley contends that what he said should not be made available to prosecutors because they reneged on a plea bargain with him.
Prosecutors had offered Mr. Aley, 48, a deal which could have set him free, provided he had no physical involvement in Ms. Baker's death and that he was being truthful.
But Mr. Aley failed a lie-detector test. The examiner found that he was untruthful to questions about whether he was involved in Ms. Baker's disappearance and whether he knew where her body was. That scotched the plea bargain.
A Mercer judge will rule tomorrow on Mr. Aley's attempts to suppress the statements he gave to police. For their part, prosecutors expect to put Mr. Aley on trial Jan. 10.
What he will say under oath is anybody's guess. More clear is that Mr. Crea intends to maintain his long silence about Ms. Baker.
"He doesn't have any comment," said Mr. Crea's attorney, James Ecker, of Pittsburgh. "I know nothing. He knows nothing."
In the court affidavit seeking an arrest warrant for Mr. Aley, state police branded Mr. Crea the suspect in Ms. Baker's disappearance and presumed killing.
Mr. Ecker says he does not appreciate police using a public document to call his client a suspect.
"If they had anything, he'd be charged, don't you think?" Mr. Ecker said.
Police have classified Ms. Baker's case as an abduction and homicide, though her body was never found. Some people in Mercer County think they are right.
"Her credit card was never used after she disappeared. I didn't hear from her, so I'm sure she's dead," said Linda Henry, who was Ms. Baker's closest friend.
Mrs. Henry, 53, has been the one constant in the five-year saga of the Baker case. She wrote politicians and network television producers when the investigation seemed stuck in quicksand. She regularly called police to share information. She even persuaded a dairy to put Ms. Baker's picture on its milk cartons, hoping the attendant publicity would help crack the case.
A self-employed house cleaner in Greenville, population 6,300, Mrs. Henry never expected to spend her life crusading to have a murder case prosecuted. Then again, she never expected somebody she loved to be abducted.
In the beginning, her best ally was state Trooper Robert I. Lewis, initially the lead investigator in Ms. Baker's disappearance.
Now retired, Mr. Lewis said he still thinks about the case all of the time. He acknowledges making a colossal error which might have helped conceal damning physical evidence.
Mr. Crea told police he last saw Ms. Baker between 8:30 and 9 a.m. May 25, 2000, at the Sheetz store in Pymatuning. Surveillance tapes at the store showed she left alone in her own vehicle.
Mr. Lewis said he was lax in putting out alerts for the vehicle. Ms. Baker's car, as it turned out, was repossessed two days after she vanished.
Police allege that Mr. Aley called the finance company and reported that it could find her vehicle in the parking lot of the Shenango Valley Mall.
Repo men followed his instructions and took the car away, unaware that its driver might have been kidnapped and killed.
The car, which might have contained fibers, blood or other evidence, was sold at an auction. State police did not discover the car's whereabouts until last year, too late for it to be of value in the investigation.
Mr. Bonner said Ms. Baker's vehicle now is "a pile of rubbish" in a salvage yard.
Mr. Lewis said he regrets his failure to secure the car when the investigation was in its infancy.
"It got right by me," he said. "I admit it. I had no idea where her car was."
In 2000, Mr. Aley denied that he helped dispose of the car. He said in the beginning that Mr. Crea had not hired him to investigate Ms. Baker. Police say Mr. Aley's claims were lies which threw their investigation off track.
Ms. Baker, 46 when she vanished, had been married six times. She had not divorced her last husband in Florida when she became engaged to Mr. Crea.
They were living together in Delaware, Mercer County, as they planned their wedding. It was to be held on a picturesque covered bridge.
Whether Ms. Baker knew her fiancee was digging into her past is one of the case's many mysteries. Mr. Crea also had a past.
Police say he was married twice before he met Ms. Baker in 1999. While separated from his second wife, Deborah Crea, he found himself under police investigation on domestic violence charges.
Mrs. Crea said in a police report that he had beaten her and abducted her at gunpoint Oct. 31, 1997, in Austintown, Ohio. Mr. Lewis said Mr. Aley was there that day, too, having accompanied Mr. Crea when he went to his estranged wife's home in violation of a restraining order.
But the case against Mr. Crea lost steam in a hurry. Deborah Crea gave Austintown police two dramatically different stories of her encounter with her husband.
First, she said Mr. Crea had not been armed, had not hurt her and had not forced her to go with him. Then she made a second statement, saying the first was a lie.
"My reason for not telling the truth [the first time] was pure fear that Billy would come back and kill me," she wrote in a statement to police Nov. 14, 1997.
The case ended in August 1998 with Mr. Crea being convicted of a misdemeanor for violating the restraining order. A Common Pleas judge in Mahoning County, Ohio, sentenced him to two years' probation.
Mr. Crea eventually moved back to his parents' home in Mercer County. After his second divorce, he met Ms. Baker through an acquaintance, Mrs. Henry.
Mrs. Henry said Ms. Baker tended to fall hard if she liked a man. It happened that way with Mr. Crea. Almost as soon as they met, Mrs. Henry said, they began planning a future together.
These days, Mr. Crea does not speak to Mrs. Henry. Once, at a fairgrounds in Mercer County, she accused him in public of killing Ms. Baker. Mrs. Henry says her friend's disappearance and death obsess her. She tries to confront Mr. Crea in public any time she can.
"I believe someday this case will be solved," she said.
Mr. Lewis is not so confident.
"I hope justice prevails," he said. "But I'm not sure it's ever going to happen."