By Lindsay Toler
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During the period when Paws fell apart, Baker says, she was an emotional and physical wreck. Her business was sliding, Hollie had left her and she was falling ill with increasing frequency.
"She was almost incapacitated and still trying to do hundreds of things," recalls her friend Lynn Strozak, who helped her through that time. "I honestly thought maybe we were going to lose her. If you've been through any kind of depression, you know you have no control. But there were people that didn't understand that she was ill. I think she was having blackouts and personality changes. She told me I could talk about it."
Baker's history of health problems goes back at least to 1989, says a woman who worked as her photo assistant:
"She told me she had Epstein-Barr [a chronic viral infection that causes fever, fatigue and other symptoms]. I think she'd, like, bite the inside of her mouth until blood came out."
People remember Baker claiming to have breast cancer, seizures and a collapsed lung, and they say she often fainted and bled mysteriously from the mouth -- one woman says she saw blood drip from Baker's mouth at least ten times.
Baker says she gets severe chest pains and a hacking cough, then vomits a mix of blood and mucus -- the doctors aren't sure why.
"How could you fake it?" Baker asks now, adding that she tried to contact her physician for verification but that he never returned her call.
One former friend chortles at the notion of a medical explanation, convinced that Baker "breaks blood capsules. Pure theater."
Pona, her former business partner, also came to doubt the faints and seizures. One day she finally snapped, "Oh, get up, Debi."
"Do you forget what I do for a living?" Pona later asked a shocked Hollie. "I work with people who have seizures. This wasn't even a good one. Seizures are involuntary: People's eyes roll back, they jerk, and if they bite their tongue the blood is mixed with foamy saliva, not streaming out of their mouth like a vampire."
Alice Dodge, an activist who pours hundreds of dollars into animal rescue, says, "She'd always tell me she needed money or she could possibly die. I kind of felt sorry for her."
Gretchen Poellot sued for $5,500. Baker remembers that one but says the money was a gift. Poellot snorts:
"She'd say, 'Oh, by the way, Gretchen, I have this wonderful opportunity, and all I need is 4,000 of your dollars.' 'Oh yeah, and I have this fantastic opportunity at Disney World, and the airplane ticket costs....'" Poellot has given up on repayment; she sued on principle.
Others didn't dare.
Another friend says that when she confronted Baker about financial irresponsibility, Baker told her she was dying.
"What if it's really true?" worried the friend. But she couldn't help but notice that the symptoms came at strategic times.
For instance, after Mary McKee, owner of Mary's Pet Grooming in South St. Louis, hired Baker in the mid-'90s to do holiday pet portraits:
"We advertised for it, and we had a line about 100 people long at the door and appointments for all these dogs to be groomed that day before their picture -- and she didn't show up. I called, and there was no answer. We had to go rent a costume, and a photographer friend came over and did the portraits. When I finally did get ahold of her, she said she'd had a heart attack and she was in the hospital. I asked her what hospital. She wouldn't tell me."
Baker scoffs at the idea of 100 people lined up outside a tiny grooming shop in South City:
"She never signed a contract. She never got back to us. And I didn't say I had a heart attack. I might have said I was sick."
She was even sicker when she failed to show up with twelve springer spaniels for a major commercial photo shoot. Her current partner, Marissa Horton, confirms that Baker had chest pains and dizziness and that blood started coming from her mouth. Terrified, Horton raced her to the St. John's Mercy emergency department. She also says she left a message on the photographer's home answering machine.
All he remembers is that "the client had flown in, everything was set up in the studio and we were waiting, and the whole thing got wiped out because she didn't come."
Baker met Horton, her current partner, in the spring of 1996, shortly after her relationship with Hollie ended. A senior in high school, Horton loved animals and wanted to learn more about Baker's work. By fall, they were mailing wedding invitations.
Since then, Baker's life has made a 180-degree turn.
Calls are returned, appointments kept, obligations honored and bills paid promptly with checks drawn on an account in Horton's name and signed in her neat rounded handwriting. In 1997, Horton registered a new name for Baker's talent agency, Winged Womyn Productions, and took over as owner. Both women say that Baker merely provides advice (although local photographers still cite her as the primary handler). Baker says she spends most of her time at home working on three books: Keepers of the Earth, about zoos and exotic animals; Pissed Off, a coffee-table book compiling photographs of animals urinating; and Rescuing Rover, her philosophy of rehabilitation and practical obedience training.