Nearly 25 years after strangling the life out of her stepson, Stephanie Spitser faced a chance at parole.
Spitser, 46, had received a degree in divinity and a diploma in Bible studies from Christian schools while in prison, and she had taken a class that prepares inmates to re-enter society.
She told the parole board there were opportunities for employment at a church where her husband is involved. She wept and said she had matured in prison.
But standing between Spitser and the door to freedom was the boy’s mother, Ruth Rose — tough-minded, plain-spoken and mad as hell.
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She described the horror of her son’s death to parole board members and talked of the pain of 25 years without him.
She called Spitser a thing, not a person, and said she would kill Spitser with her bare hands given a chance. She demanded that the board make Spitser spend the rest of her life in prison.
‘A great kid’
The crime that led to the hearing was harrowing, even in a state that has had its share of sensational homicides.
It happened the day before Thanksgiving in 1992.
Rose’s son, Scotty Baker, was 10 and in fifth grade at Paces Creek Elementary School in Clay County.
Scotty was a good-natured boy who had a rifle he liked to shoot, loved playing baseball and tried to get along with everyone, Rose said.
“Scotty was a great kid,” she said.
In the bustle and excitement the day before the Thanksgiving break, with hundreds of parents and siblings at school to have lunch with students, Spitser had her best friend go to the office to check Scotty out early.
Susanne Baker, who wasn’t related to Scotty, wore a wig and used a fake name on the check-out form.
The school secretary later acknowledged that she had not read the policy saying that only a parent, guardian or designated person could check out a child, and she said it was common not to ask for identification, according to a report from the time.
School officials said Scotty left willingly, waving to friends as he headed to the door.
Outside, Spitser was hiding in the back seat of Baker’s 1986 Buick, covered by blankets and coats.
As Baker drove, Spitser grabbed Scotty by the neck from behind and strangled him.
He screamed and struggled, kicking the dash of the car so hard it left an imprint, and wet himself.
A medical examiner later testified that Scotty’s death would have taken five to 10 minutes.
Baker drove to an abandoned strip mine in neighboring Laurel County, where she and Spitser carried Scotty’s body from the car and put it in a shallow pit.
The two drove several miles to London to fill some milk jugs with gas, went back to the mine in a different car, and doused Scotty’s body and set it on fire.
Many would not have suspected Spitser’s involvement in such horror.
She was in her early 20s at the time, an outgoing woman who had been in a service club in high school called Teens Who Care and had been a candidate for Miss Laurel County High.
The will she wrote for her senior yearbook said: “I will my soul to God, who willed his son to me; my respect and love to my parents and brother; my love and heart to my papaw, who makes each day of my life special, ...”
Spitser had attended two years of college and was planning to finish so she could become a teacher.
She had married Scotty’s father, a truck driver named Donnie Baker, just a few months earlier. Baker and Rose were divorced.
Scotty was in the wedding when his father and Spitser married, but it didn’t take long for tension to surface over the boy.
Donnie Baker said Spitser was jealous of the time he spent with Scotty, and she got upset when Scotty wanted to spend the night with them.
Scotty stayed with them sometimes, and sometimes with his mother in Laurel County or his grandmother in Clay County.
Baker said Spitser had written about her hard feelings in a diary.
“My husband brought his son over today, and I left again,” one entry said, according to Baker, who described Spitser as “insanely jealous.”
‘All my troubles are over’
Baker said Spitser had gotten angry the Sunday before Thanksgiving because Scotty planned to spend the night. The couple argued, and Baker left with Scotty, he said in a 1992 interview.
Susanne Baker later testified that after the murder, Spitser fixed her hair in a mirror and said, “All my troubles are over.”
It took a few hours for Scotty’s parents to realize he was missing.
Rose went to the school to get him at the end of the day. When she found he wasn’t there, she assumed he had ridden the bus to his grandmother’s house, so she went back home and then to her job at Walmart.
About 7 p.m., Scotty’s grandmother called to see if Rose had picked him up, setting off a frantic scramble to find him.
Rose, her ex-husband and others went to several houses to see if Scotty had gone home with a friend, and they called others. Police searched the grounds at the school.
Spitser showed up at Scotty’s grandmother’s house in Clay County, where she answered the phone and asked people to pray for the family, Rose said.
As the days stretched on, Donnie Baker printed posters with Scotty’s picture and numbers to contact family members. He and friends distributed them in London, Corbin, Hazard and Lexington.
Rose made emotional pleas through the media, begging the kidnappers to bring Scotty home.
“Please, just bring him out at the end of the driveway and let him out. It’s a long driveway. I couldn’t even see who would be in the car. Please. Please,” she said.
‘One of the best liars’
All the while, Kentucky State Police and the FBI were trying to figure out what had happened.
It’s standard procedure in kidnapping cases to question people close to the victim to help determine whether they were involved. Police asked several people to take lie detector tests, including Baker, Rose and Spitser.
The test indicated deception by Spitser, but police were a bit puzzled because she was so convincing in claiming that she had no idea where Scotty was, said Rod Kincaid, a retired FBI special agent who helped lead the investigation.
Spitser was “one of the best liars I ever met,” Kincaid said.
But Susanne Baker was another story.
Spitser had used Baker as her alibi, saying the two had been together doing laundry on the morning of the murder, so police wanted to talk to her.
Baker had traveled to Florida with her husband, a truck driver, after the murder. FBI agents found her at the port in Miami and asked her to take a lie-detector test.
Kincaid said she failed, and afterward, shaking, she told the agents what had happened.
She said in a written statement that she thought Spitser only planned to scare Scotty, but that Spitser “must have freaked out.”
“She said I would be the one who would get blamed, so I helped her bury him,” Baker said in the statement.
With information from Baker, police found Scotty’s charred body at the strip mine the afternoon of Dec. 1.
“That’s the kind of crime, afterward you want to go home and hug your kids,” Kincaid said.
‘Abuse is contagious’
Susanne Baker was convicted in 1994 of kidnapping and abuse of a corpse, but the Knox County jury settled on the lesser charge of reckless homicide instead of murder.
She was sentenced to 25 years in prison but was paroled in May 2008 after serving 16 years.
The day Spitser was supposed to go on trial in 1994, she pleaded guilty to murder, kidnapping and abuse of a corpse.
The deal called for her to serve 25 years before becoming eligible for parole.
In court that day, Spitser and her attorney gave an explanation of how a nice, sweet girl had become someone capable of killing a boy, saying Donnie Baker had raped and abused her before and during their marriage.
“Abuse is contagious,” Spitser told the judge.
But Donnie Baker said Spitser was lying, and Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Handy rejected the notion that the alleged abuse had anything to do with Scotty’s murder.
The boy’s relationship with his father “infringed upon the attention she felt she deserved,” Handy, now retired, said in a recent interview.
Handy said the crime was one of the coldest he ever prosecuted. That’s in a career that included cases against nurse’s aide Donald Harvey, who admitted killing more than 30 patients at hospitals in London and Cincinnati, and Robert Foley, who is on Death Row for killing six people in Laurel County, burying four of them in an abandoned septic tank.
“I don’t think she has a conscience,” Handy said of Spitser.
Choosing to live
Rose said in a recent interview that Scotty’s death devastated her.
But as the single mother of two teenage daughters at the time, she couldn’t just give up.
“You’ve got two choices. You kill yourself or you try to go on,” Rose, now 60, said. “I chose to go on and live for them. That’s what got me through.”
Still, Rose thinks often of what might have been, of what kind of man Scotty would have become.
She doesn’t keep any photos of Scotty out at her house because it’s too painful.
“When I see ’em, it makes it real,” Rose said.
And this time of year is still hard.
“I don’t look at Thanksgiving as anything to be thankful for,” she said.
After Scotty’s murder, school districts across Kentucky reviewed and tightened policies on checking students out of school.
Rose said 25 years seemed like a lifetime away when Spitser was sentenced, but the years flowed by quickly.
She married again, divorced and held various jobs, including selling advertising for the Corbin newspaper and now for several radio stations. Her two daughters had four children, and she dotes on them.
“I lean on them a lot to keep me busy,” she said of her children and grandchildren.
Spitser’s initial parole hearing was scheduled in late September. Rose gave a victim statement to members of the board two days before.
She was nervous before the meeting because she didn’t know how the case would turn out, but when she sat down to talk to the board, the anger that has driven her for a quarter of a century returned.
Rose asked the board members whether they had children. She told them to feel sorry for Scotty, not her, and she described the crime to make sure board members knew the details.
“That’s what I live with every day of my life: thinking about that,” she told them.
And she demanded that the board order Spitser to spend the rest of her life in prison.
Several family members and Handy also spoke against parole for Spitser.
Spitser went before parole board members Amanda Spears and Robert Powers a few days later, while Rose watched a video feed from another location.
Spitser had served 24 years and 10 months at the time.
She had given birth to a son while behind bars, had gotten married, and received a few disciplinary write-ups — including for improper sexual behavior. She studied computer skills and horticulture in addition to religion and mentored other inmates.
She said her intent in checking Scotty out of school was so he would be home when his father arrived.
Spitser said Susanne Baker wore the wig out of concern that if Rose was at the school, there would be a confrontation. Baker had gotten the wig to use as a disguise in cashing someone else’s check and suggested using it, Spitser said, although none of those details matched Baker’s account.
Spitser said that as they drove away from the school, Baker pulled off the wig, and Scotty panicked and reached for the door handle.
She said she grabbed the back of his sweatshirt and pulled to keep him in the car.
“He was screaming. … I just wanted him to stop fighting and be quiet,” Spitser told the board members, suggesting that Scotty’s death wasn’t intentional.
However, she said his death was her fault and that she feels “soul-crushing guilt.”
“I was so young and stupid, and I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” Spitser said, weeping.
Spears and Powers seemed skeptical, questioning how Spitser could have acted normal in the days after the killing and pressing her on details.
“We’ve all been young, and most of us have survived our youth without murdering someone,” Spears said.
A mending heart
Ultimately, the two members took the case to the full parole board. They ordered Spitser to serve out her life sentence.
That means the board won’t schedule another parole hearing. Barring something extraordinary, such as a governor commuting her sentence, Spitser will spend the rest of her life in prison.
Rose said true justice for Spitser would have been the death penalty, but she was pleased with the board’s decision.
It would only have been more satisfying if she could have seen Spitser’s face when she got the decision, Rose said.
Rose said the decision has brought her a measure of peace.
“Seems like I feel like my heart’s mended a little bit.”