Zahra Baker's Stepmom, Elisa
Baker, Sentenced To 18 Years
By David Lohr - HuffingtonPost.com
September 15, 2011
Elisa Baker has been sentenced to 18 years in
prison after pleading guilty to the murder of her 10-year-old
stepdaughter, Zahra Baker.
Zahra, who had lost a leg to bone cancer and
was hearing-impaired, was murdered and dismembered in the fall of
2010, her remains found scattered in various locations around
Baker, 43, has pleaded guilty to second-degree
murder in Zahra's death. Elisa Baker also entered a guilty plea to
obstruction of justice in an unrelated case.
Adam Baker had brought his daughter from their
native Australia to North Carolina after meeting Elisa online. He
reported Zahra missing from their Hickory, N.C., home on Oct. 9,
2010, although authorities believe the girl had been killed more
than two weeks earlier.
Multiple searches were conducted for Zahra but
authorities were unable to locate her.
On Oct. 23, 2010, Elisa Baker's lawyer
contacted the district attorney’s office and indicated her client
had information that would solve the mystery of the disappearance
of Zahra Baker. There were, however, conditions to her
"First, in exchange for ending the search for
Zahra Baker and ending the mystery that surrounded her death, the
prosecution of Elisa Baker would be limited to second-degree
murder so long as her statement to law enforcement was truthful,"
District Attorney James C. Gaither said in a press release today.
"Second, in the event that it was determined
that Elisa Baker was not truthful, she could be prosecuted for
first-degree murder, but her statements and evidence would be
excluded," the district attorney continued. "In other words, Elisa
Baker's statements would be admissible only in a prosecution of
second-degree murder or less."
After consulting with local law enforcement
about the probability of finding Zahra’s remains, the prosecutor's
office agreed to the terms.
Elisa Baker's statements led authorities to
several locations where investigators recovered Zahra's
In February, Elisa Baker was indicted for
second-degree murder. The indictment handed up by a grand jury in
Catawba County, N.C., asserted that Baker had "a history and
pattern of physical, verbal and psychological abuse of the victim"
and that she had "desecrated the victim's body" to hinder
Zahra's father has not been named a suspect in
connection with his daughter's death.
"We hope and pray this conviction will bring
closure to the family of Zahra and the community," Gaither said.
Death of Zahra Baker
Zahra Clare Baker (November 16, 1999 -
September 24, 2010) was born in Wagga Wagga, Australia and was
reported missing on October 9, 2010. Only 10 years old at the time
of her death, her dismembered remains were found in November 2010.
Because of the crime's gruesome nature and the series of events
leading up to her death, Zahra's murder received worldwide media
In September of 2011, the victim's stepmother,
Elisa Baker, plead guilty to murdering Zahra, and was sentenced to
eighteen years in prison. She was subsequently given an additional
10 years in 2013 for drug related charges.
Zahra Baker was born to Emily Dietrich and Adam
Baker who both lived in Wagga Wagga, Australia. Emily Dietrich,
who had postpartum depression after Zahra's birth, gave up custody
to Adam. Adam took Zahra and moved with his parents to Giru,
Queensland in 2004 to work for a sugar mill. Zahra, who was
diagnosed with bone cancer in 2005, later suffered a bout of lung
cancer as well. As a result, she had the lower part of one leg
amputated and had to wear hearing aids.
Adam Baker reportedly met Elisa Fairchild
(originally from western North Carolina) online on an IMVU gothic
website. Elisa Fairchild visited Adam Baker in Queensland and they
were soon married. Elisa was previously married 6 times and was
still married at the time she married Adam Baker. Zahra's cancer
went into remission in 2008, shortly before she moved to the
United States from Australia with her father and new stepmother.
North Carolina, U.S.A.
After moving to North Carolina, the Bakers
settled in Hickory where Zahra attended public school until she
started being home schooled. It is not known, though, if she was
ever home schooled at all. It is suspected Zahra was taken out of
public school because reports of child abuse were made to the
school, implicating Elisa. Many neighbors of Zahra's claimed that
Elisa was physically and mentally abusive and neglecting the
child. Two teachers visited Zahra's home, after Zahra went to
school with a black eye in a public school in Hudson while she was
in the fourth grade.
Child Protective Services from both Caldwell
County and Catawba County visited the various residences of Zahra
multiple times before Zahra died. The Bakers had moved a few times
in both those counties before settling in Hickory. Reports of
Elisa's abusive behavior have been investigated by the Department
of Social Services in regards to Elisa's own biological children
dating as far back from 1999. Elisa has 3 children from 2
different relationships: a daughter born out of wedlock and a son
and a daughter from a previous marriage.
A 911 call was made by Elisa on October 9, 2010
at 5:30 am, reporting a fire in the back of the family residence
in Hickory. When the police came for the reported fire, there was
a ransom note and the smell of gasoline coming from Adam's company
truck, a Chevrolet Tahoe.
In a second 911 phone
call made when Zahra is reported missing on 2 pm on the same day,
Adam Baker explained that during a fire in their backyard a $1
million ransom note was found on his company truck the night
before, addressed to Adam's boss and landlord, Mark Coffey. Adam
explained that they called 911 earlier that day about the fire and
implied that whoever started the fire, may have done so in order
to distract the alleged kidnapper, in order to take Zahra. Adam
explained the purported kidnapper mistakenly confused Zahra for
Mr. Coffey's daughter. Mark Coffey's daughter was unharmed and
with her family, Adam stated. Adam said the last time he saw his
daughter was at 2:30 am. Apparently, Adam Baker left for work
early in the morning and did not return until after Zahra went to
Arrests and charges
failed a polygraph test she had taken early in the investigation.
She was asked: if she had hurt Zahra, if she knew of anyone who
had harmed Zahra and if she knew who wrote the ransom note.
On October 10, 2010 search and rescue dogs were sent to search the
Baker's house and cars. The dogs gave positive alerts to the smell
of human remains on both of the Baker's cars, the Chevrolet Tahoe
and a sedan. The police took swabs of what they thought may be
blood from the car.
On October 10, 2010, Elisa Baker was also
arrested for various crimes which included communicating threats,
writing bad checks, larceny and driving with a revoked license,
crimes unrelated to the death of Zahra. Baker, who was jailed, was
next charged with obstruction of justice after admitting that she
wrote the ransom note, which led the police astray.
In late October 2010, a
Catawba County judge raised Elisa's bond from 40k to 65k at a bond
hearing, believing that Elisa was a flight risk. Amber Fairchild,
Elisa's daughter testified at the hearing and said her mother told
her she was thinking of leaving North Carolina the day before she
was arrested. Amber Fairchild also said her mother was involved in
an online relationship with a man from England who had sent her
thousands of dollars. The prosecutor said that Elisa failed to
show up at other court dates for other charges which included
traffic violations and communicating threats, thus thwarting
Elisa's attorney's attempt to lower her bond.
Elisa Baker's aunt Buzzie
Winkler told reporters that Elisa told her Zahra died after being
sick for 2 weeks, and both parents dismembered her and hid the
remains. Elisa's aunt said: "She'd been sick two weeks before she
died, when they found her, I guess they didn't know what to do.
They just went wild." However, Elisa reportedly said Adam
dismembered Zahra Baker alone, after she died, and they both hid
her remains. Elisa also told police that Zahra died on September
24, yet she was not reported missing until October 9.
Allegedly Eric Gein, crime memorabilia dealer
and owner of Serial killers Ink, used an assumed name to write to
Elisa in jail. She wrote him back twice, sharing some information.
According to a letter written to Eric Gein, Elisa admitted: "We
really didn't kill her, but what he did after the fact is kinda
horrifying." "(It) makes me scared of him."
Reportedly, Elisa's attorney Lisa Dubs told
police where they could find possible evidence relating to Zahra's
death. Apparently, Elisa told her attorney that Zahra's prosthetic
leg was left in a dumpster that she and Adam had disposed of at
Fox Ridge Apartments in Hickory. A prosthetic leg was found in
late October off a road in Caldwell County a few miles from a
former residence of Elisa's. The Hickory police department were
able to match the serial # of the prosthetic leg from Zahra's
medical records they obtained from Australia, in order to confirm
that it was definitely Zahra's leg.
In November 2010, Elisa Baker started leading
police to different areas in Catawba County and Caldwell County to
find Zahra's scattered remains. Numerous bones of Zahra was found
but Zahra's head was not found. Allegedly, Elisa had told police
she threw Zahra's mattress in a dumpster, and police confirmed the
mattress fitting the description was found in a landfill.
Elisa Baker also led the police to another
dumpster, behind a grocery store in Hudson, where she and Adam
dumped a car cover and bed cover, which was used to hide and
transport Zahra. Elisa also told police they can find Zahra's body
parts in the drain trap of the bathtub and that plastic gloves
that she used could be found in her bathroom.
Elisa's MySpace page
A review of Elisa Baker's now defunct MySpace
page revealed she called herself "GothicFairy6668". Her page
portrayed skulls and bones as a song titled Living Dead Girl by
Rob Zombie was played. She listed "Never, neverland" as her
hometown, Queensland, Australia as her state and country and wrote
that she was a college graduate and a proud parent. The page had
photos of Zahra on it and in one photo, Zahra was wearing all
black and the title read "The Dark Child!!!lol". Her "mood" on the
page was listed as "crazy" on the last day she signed in, October,
8th, 2010, one day before Zahra was reported missing.
Elisa's past marriages
Reportedly, Elisa was married seven times and
at certain points she was married to 2 or 3 men at the same time,
since she never divorced before marrying again. Before marrying
Adam Baker, Elisa had previously married 3 men within 3 years. In
January 2011 it was reported that Elisa Baker was charged with
bigamy after it was confirmed that Elisa Baker was still married
to Aaron Young when she wed Adam Baker. Elisa had introduced Aaron
Young to Adam, claiming he was her brother, not an ex-husband.
Supposedly, Elisa was in contact often with her
previous husband, Aaron Young, and they both were on an IMVU.com
website on September 22, two days before the day of which Elisa
claimed Zahra died. The IMVU website involved "chainsaw massacre
role-playing". The police investigated a woman's claim, who used
the same social networking site as the Bakers. The woman said she
had blogged about a conversation she had with one or both of the
Bakers about "doing a murder with chainsaws".
Accusations against two men related to Elisa
Baker's previous husband, Aaron Young, alleged that Zahra was
raped and may have been hit on the head, causing her death. The
two cousins, James Young and Timothy "Sammy" Young were both
investigated by the police for the allegations. Both men passed
polygraph tests and were not charged. Sammy Young was allegedly
known to have had a sexual relationship with Elisa and the two of
them did illegal drugs together.
Since no cause of death could be determined,
Zahra's death was ruled an "undetermined violent homicide".
Allegedly, Elisa told the police that both she and Adam Baker
disposed of Zahra's remains, but according to cell phone towers,
Elisa was in the area where Zahra's remains were found but Adam
was not. Investigators believe that Elisa Baker killed and
dismembered Zahra on Sept, 24th, 2010 and disposed of her remains
the following day. Elisa Baker was indicted by a grand jury, for
second degree murder with aggravating circumstances, on February
22, 2011 in Catawba County. The five aggravating circumstances
were cited as:
Elisa Baker had a history of physical, verbal
and psychological abuse of the child.
She secreted the child from her family,
before and after the crime.
She desecrated Zahra’s body to hinder the
murder investigation and prosecution.
Zahra was young, and physically
Elisa Baker took advantage of a position of
Elisa would have a first degree murder charge
if she had not led law enforcement to Zahra's remains. Adam has
denied any involvement in Zahra's death and the police have not
found any credible evidence to suggest that he had any involvement
in her death or to charge him with murder. Elisa's bond was
increased by $200,000 because of the murder charge, making the
total bond $307,700.
Identity theft charges
In April 2011 Adam Baker was charged with
identity theft and obtaining property under false pretenses. It
was claimed that Adam Baker used the identity of a man by the name
of James Starbuck and his social security number to get power
connected to his apartment. James Starbuck is the husband of
Elisa's daughter, Brittany Starbuck. Adam was previously charged
with passing worthless checks, communicating threats, assault with
a deadly weapon and failure to return property.
With these new charges, Adam was ordered not to
leave North Carolina without notifying the district attorney's
office. He also was ordered to wear an electronic monitoring
device on his ankle and was ordered to meet with U.S. Immigration
and Customs Enforcement once a week. Adam was hoping to return to
Elisa Baker was also charged with identity
theft and obtaining property under false pretenses in February
2011. It was reported that Elisa had used her daughter, Brittany
Starbuck's personal information to obtain telephone and utility
service at one of the family residences in Caldwell County in
March 2010. She pled not guilty to the four counts of identity
theft in May 2011.
In May, 2011 Elisa Baker was indicted with
seven drug counts for the time period of May 2006 through October
2010. Elisa, who had used different addresses in both Catawba and
Caldwell County of North Carolina, had distributed Oxycodone,
Hydrocodone and Alprazolam, all prescription drugs for pain and
anxiety. Elisa was charged with possessing, distributing and
conspiring to distribute prescription drugs. These new federal
drug charges combined with the previous unrelated charges brings
the total to over twenty. On June 2 of 2011, Elisa pleaded not
guilty to all seven federal drug charges. She is facing up to 20
years in prison for each drug charge.
July 2010 - Zahra along with her
parents moved from a trailer park in Caldwell County, North
August 2010 - Zahra was enrolled in a
Hudson elementary school, but never attended. Elisa Baker
notified the school that Zahra would be home schooled.
September 22, 2010 - Workers at a
Hickory, North Carolina furniture store claimed they saw Zahra
in the store while she was there with Elisa. This is the last
time anyone claimed to have seen Zahra, other than her parents,
before her remains were found.
September 24, 2010 - Investigators
believe Zahra Baker died on this day.
September 25, 2010 - Investigators
believe Zahra was disposed of on this day.
October 9, 2010 - Two 911 calls were
placed: one at 5:30am to report a fire and another call around
2pm in the afternoon to report Zahra missing.
October 10, 2010 - Elisa Baker was
arrested for various charges unrelated to Zahra.
October 27, 2010 - Zahra Baker's
prosthetic leg was found.
February 21, 2011 - Elisa Baker was
indicted for second-degree murder.
February 21, 2013 - The Hickory Police
Department confirm that a skull found in April 2012 belongs to
The Hunt for Zahra Baker
By Gary C. King
The tragic plight of freckle-faced 10-year-old
Zahra Clare Baker had begun well before Saturday, October 9, 2010,
when, at approximately 5:20 a.m., the Hickory, N.C., fire
department arrived at a residence on the 21st Avenue
Northwest block in response to a small grass fire in the backyard
of the home. The fire was reported by Elisa Baker, 42, a resident
of the house. She said she had spotted the flames upon getting out
of bed that morning. She and her husband, Adam Baker, observed the
firefighters at work as they extinguished what proved to be a
burning mulch pile.
A few minutes later Officer Rollins of the
Hickory Police Department arrived at the home after being called
by one of the fireman. According to official documents, a fireman
had observed that the passenger side doors of a silver 1996
Chevrolet Tahoe at the scene bearing North Carolina license plates
were open and that a Duke Energy business envelope was located on
the vehicle's front windshield. When Rollins approached the Tahoe,
he could smell gasoline fumes coming from inside it and saw that
the Duke Energy envelope had handwriting on it. When he examined
it, he saw that the handwriting said [punctuation added], "Mr.
Coffey, you like being in control. Now who is in control? We have
your daughter and your pot smoking red head son is next unless you
do what is asked. 1,000,000 unmarked. Will be in touch soon." Also
written at the top and bottom of the note was, "No cops." Rollins
noted that a burgundy Toyota Camry was also parked on the
property. It, too, bore North Carolina plates.
Mark Coffey, Rollins subsequently learned,
owned the house at which the Bakers resided, and the Bakers rented
it from him. The Chevrolet Tahoe in fact belonged to Adam Baker.
Rollins and others contacted Coffey and his daughter at the home
that morning, and both appeared to be fine despite the threatening
intimations of the poorly-written note. Labeling the grass fire as
arson, Rollins and the firemen left the home a short time later
after learning that Coffey was Adam Baker's boss. Initially,
authorities didn't know what to make of the strange note at that
At approximately 2 p.m. that same day, Adam
Baker called the Hickory Police Department to report that someone
had poured gasoline inside his Chevrolet Tahoe, presumably during
the previous night. He mentioned the note left on his car's
windshield, and indicated that he thought that his young daughter,
Zahra, had been kidnapped. An officer was sent to the house and,
with the Bakers' consent and assistance, searched the residence
for the missing girl. However, he did not find Zahra.
By the next day, news of the missing girl had
circulated through the community and made its way to the FBI. For
reasons that were not made public at first, Elisa Baker, Zahra's
stepmother, was taken into custody by police at 10:45 a.m. on
charges that included writing bad checks and failure to return
property. Police were careful to note that the charges against
Baker were unrelated to the case of her missing stepdaughter.
As a result of the kidnapping report, Maria
Claxton, who worked with the South Carolina Search and Rescue Dog
Association, was requested by the FBI and the local police to
report to the Baker residence with a dog trained to locate people
or bodies. Upon her arrival at approximately 12:45 p.m., Claxton
walked a search and rescue dog in and around the Baker home and
the vehicles located on the property. Roughly 15 minutes later,
the dog "gave a positive alert for the presence of human remains
in or on both vehicles, the silver-in-color Chevrolet
Tahoe...and...burgundy in color Toyota Camry," according to a
search warrant document. Both vehicles were taken to a secure
location at the Hickory Police Department where investigators from
the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) as well as
agents with the FBI began processing it in their search for clues
that police hoped might shed some light on what had happened to
Zahra. An AMBER alert was also promptly issued.
Meanwhile, local police officers spent much of
the afternoon going door-to-door throughout Zahra's neighborhood,
showing the girl's photograph to neighbors and asking if anyone
had seen her. They also asked for permission to search
outbuildings, such as sheds, and wooded areas of adjacent
properties. By the end of the day, however, they came up
empty-handed—it didn't seem that Zahra was anywhere to be found.
According to Elisa Baker's account to police,
she, her husband and Zahra had gone to the Oktoberfest in Hickory
on Friday evening, October 8, 2010, between 7:00 p.m. and 9:00
p.m. and had then returned home. Elisa said Zahra had gone to bed
soon after they arrived at their house. Around 2:30 a.m., she
said, she had gotten out of bed and had gone to check on Zahra and
then returned to bed. She had woken up again at about 5:20 a.m.,
seen the small fire outside, and reported it to authorities. Elisa
Baker told police that Zahra must have been taken by someone when
the fire broke out. She said she believed the fire had been a ruse
used to get her and her husband out of the house.
In a disturbing twist to the case, Adam Baker,
interviewed separately, told police that he had not seen Zahra
since Wednesday, October 6, 2010. Had Elisa deliberately lied to
the police about the time frame in which Zahra was last seen? Or
had he or she simply been somehow mistaken? The cops were
determined to find out. By the next day, Sunday, October 10, 2010,
police begin gathering and viewing surveillance tapes from
businesses near the Baker's residence in an effort to identify any
events, suspicious or mundane, that might shed light on the
Cute, freckle-faced Zahra Baker was born in
2000 in Wagga Wagga, Australia, in the state of New South Wales
about halfway between Sydney and Melbourne. By 2004 she was living
in Giru, Australia, a small sugar-producing town of 400 people in
Queensland, in the northeast part of the country on the Coral Sea
coast. Her father had taken a job at a mill there and his mother,
Karen Baker, helped look after Zahra for him. While living in
Giru, Zahra came down with bone cancer in 2006, when she was only
six. When the cancer worsened, doctors decided to amputate her
left leg above the knee. The brave little girl told an older woman
who was herself fighting cancer that losing her leg was not to be
"It's okay," she said, "because I'm going to be
getting a Barbie leg, so I don't want you to be upset."
Months later, in 2007, doctors discovered the
cancer had spread, finding tumors in the little girl's lungs. She
received chemotherapy at Royal Brisbane Children's Hospital that
year. Although the treatment seemed to stop the growth of the
tumors in her lungs, it affected Zahra's hearing, requiring her to
wear hearing aids in both ears.
"She was always hopping around on her crutches
flat-out through the ward and was always full of life, energy and
was always happy, considering the illness she had been fighting,"
acquaintance Wendy Wieck said, according to the Winston-Salem
Journal. "My husband and I used to marvel at the obvious love
her dad and grandma had for her and how they had both put their
lives on hold to help her with her treatments."
Wieck met Zahra at the hospital while her own
daughter was being treated for an illness there. She said that the
girls played together and did their school homework together.
"They don't make them much tougher than little
Zahra Baker," reporter Jessica Johnston wrote in an article about
Zahra in the Townsville Bulletin. "The eight-year-old Giru
girl has overcome more challenges than most people would in a
lifetime, but nothing could wipe the smile off the bubbly
Estranged from Zahra's mother since the girl
was eight months old, Adam Baker took Zahra and left Australia in
2008 to move to North Carolina after meeting Elisa Fairchild
online, where she described herself as a 40-something gothic
fairy. The online image she chose for herself depicted her as
having red angel wings. She also purportedly told stories about
being a police officer who had been shot in the line of duty, and
about having been a bounty hunter. It is believed that the stories
Elisa Fairchild purportedly told friends that
Adam Baker was her soul mate and that she wanted to spend her life
"Who says long distance relationships don't
work?" she wrote on her MySpace page, which depicted skulls and
crossbones and played the song, "Living Dead Girl" by Rob Zombie.
The couple married soon after Adam and Zahra's
arrival in America, but, when all was said and done, Elisa proved
to be not a gothic fairy, but a fairy-tale wicked stepmother.
Zahra Didn't Want to Leave Australia
Before Zahra left for America, the local
community, a school, and charities raised money to buy Zahra a
wheelchair, as well as a laptop computer so that she could
complete her school assignments from home. She also had a
memorable experience with the Australian military before she left
as part of a camp outing. The soldiers gave her a helmet to wear
and allowed her to sit on an armored vehicle for photos with them.
In one of the photos Zahra was seen giving two thumbs up,
according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
When she was with the soldiers her grandmother,
Karen Baker, said that "her eyes couldn't have been any bigger."
"She loves the whole army business," her
grandmother said. "She handles everything with a smile. She has
been on a camp [Camp Quality—a charity for child cancer patients]
a couple of years ago, but she hadn't been well enough to go again
until this year."
When she did the obstacle course involving
ropes, other children asked her how she could do the ropes with
only one leg. Zahra responded, "Because I want to."
"She was the life of any camp we went on," one
of Camp Quality's managers said. "The kids loved her. Other kids
were inspired by her enthusiasm and her fight to live against all
A family friend said that Zahra did not want to
leave Australia to go to America, mostly because she did not want
to leave her grandparents and friends behind.
Good Morning, America
On Monday morning, October 11, 2010, Adam
Baker, along with Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins, appeared on
Good Morning America, where they provided details of Zahra's
disappearance and made a heartfelt plea for anyone with
information about the girl to come forward. Baker also reportedly
said at the time that it was possible that his wife may have been
involved in the girl's disappearance. Although he claimed he
hadn't seen his daughter since Thursday, October 7, 2010, due to
his work schedule, it was previously reported that he had also
stated that he hadn't seen Zahra since Wednesday, October 6, 2010.
The police report on the girl's disappearance noted that he, Elisa
and Zahra had attended Oktoberfest on Friday, October 8, together
as a family. As a result, many people—including police—were left
wondering when Adam Baker had really last seen his daughter and
why there were such blatant discrepancies about it.
Later that day, police called a news conference
and revealed that detectives had not been able to find anyone who
had seen Zahra in recent weeks.
"We can't confirm anyone has seen Zahra within
the past month," Chief Adkins said. "Without this information, we
cannot positively select the area to search for her ... [and]
cannot confirm with any confidence how long Zahra has been
Police also announced that search warrants had
been issued for the two vehicles belonging to Adam and Elisa
Baker, which had been impounded from their home. Several swabs of
what appeared to be blood were collected from the Tahoe and sent
to the crime laboratory. Assorted drug paraphernalia were also
At one point that day, police went to Morganton
in neighboring Burke County and searched the property of a tree
service company where Adam Baker was employed as a laborer,
according to police. A search team, with police dogs, spent
several hours at the site after the dogs picked up suspicious
odors in log and mulch piles there, as well as a wood chipper,
according to the Hickory Daily Record and Fox News. The
company was about 19 miles from Baker's home.
The next day, Tuesday, October 12, 2010, in a
move that came somewhat abruptly, the AMBER alert for Zahra was
canceled by the Hickory Police Department when Chief Adkins
announced that Elisa Baker had admitted to writing the ransom note
found on the Tahoe's windshield. Investigators believe the note
was an effort to mislead police in their search for Zahra.
Elisa was also charged with obstruction of
justice and a dozen other charges including writing bad checks,
larceny, communicating threats and driving with a revoked license.
Soon after making the arrest announcement, Adkins began referring
to the case as a homicide investigation although a body had not
been found. According to Adkins, the shift to a homicide
investigation was a result of Elisa Baker's admission to having
written the ransom note.
Police spent much of that Tuesday using
backhoes and other equipment to search in a 50-foot-wide mulch
pile at the tree service company. Crime lab personnel also
carefully examined the wood chipper, but at day's end authorities
didn't appear to be any closer to finding out what had happened to
According to family members and former
neighbors, there was reason for concern about Zahra's home life.
Some said Zahra, who was believed to have been home-schooled, had
been abused, and others portrayed Elisa Baker as a woman with a
quick temper who was fast to dole out physical punishment. Some
said that her nasty temper made her more apt to use her fists to
settle a dispute and that all too frequently Zahra had become the
focus of her anger.
"She was always beating her," Karen Yount, a
former neighbor, told a Fox News reporter. "I told her to
stop, but she wouldn't listen to anyone. That poor girl."
Another former neighbor, Kayla Rotenberry, said
that she had been good friends with the Bakers when they had lived
in Sawmills, before the Bakers moved to Hickory, and that she and
her fiancé had frequently seen Zahra. Rotenberry said that earlier
in 2010 she had noticed Elisa's hand had been swollen, and had
asked her about it.
"She told me that she was trying to spank
Zahra, but hit her on her prosthetic leg," Rotenberry said. "When
Adam asked her about the injury, she said she fell and hurt her
hand. She didn't want him to know. She knew he would be mad."
Brandy Stapleton, another former neighbor,
confirmed the injury to Elisa Baker's hand, saying that Elisa had
told her the same story about how she had injured it.
"She wasn't the person everyone thought she
was," Stapleton said.
Yet another person, a family friend who spoke
on condition of anonymity, believed that Elisa had been somehow
involved with Zahra's disappearance.
"I hate to say it, but I don't feel good about
this," the family friend said. "I really think Elisa had something
to do with it."
Elisa Baker had previously been the subject of
child abuse investigations, but caseworkers had not found any
evidence of wrongdoing, and the investigations had been closed.
On Wednesday morning, October 13, 2010, Elisa
Baker appeared in court on the obstruction of justice charge, and
the judge set bond on that charge at $40,000. When combined with
the additional charges she faced, her total bail amounted to
$72,200. Baker's court-appointed attorney, Scott Reilly, indicated
that he would file a motion to get her bail reduced.
Zahra Possibly Raped
On Thursday, October 14, 2010, police received
a tip from a known source that Zahra recently had been at a house
on Burke County Road with two men, according to a statement of
probable cause signed by Capt. Thurman Whisnant of the Hickory
Police Department. The source, according to the statement, was
told on October 12, 2010, about another man who had been told
about Zahra being at the house from a relative. Although the
information was third-hand hearsay at best, the informant told
police one of the men had said that he had "done something very
bad and needed to leave town." The source said that when the
mother returned, the little girl had blood on "private area and
legs" and that the two men had raped her. The informant claimed
that Elisa Baker and one of the men had "some kind of
relationship." The informant said that he had asked the man who
related the information to him if they had killed the little girl,
and the man said that they may have hit her in the head.
The next day investigators went to the house in
question where they found a large mattress lying on the ground in
the side yard. Detectives observed that it had a large dark stain
in the middle of the mattress. A male occupant of the house told
one of the investigators that the mattress was his and that he had
removed it from the residence to allow it to "air out" because he
had urinated on it. The man said that he knew Zahra Baker but to
his knowledge she had never been to the house. The mattress was
seized as possible evidence.
By this time police said that they were running
down more than 100 leads that had been reported by the public,
including people who said that Zahra may have been mistreated at
home. An apartment manager at one of the Bakers' former residences
said that she had seen Zahra when the family moved there in July
2009, but had never seen her again despite the fact that they
lived next door.
Meanwhile, investigators wrapped up their
search for evidence at the tree service company where Adam Baker
worked and announced that no evidence had been found there.
The next morning, Friday, October 15, 2010,
police conducted another search of the Baker residence after
obtaining Adam Baker's permission, according to the Hickory
Daily Record. K-9 units were part of the search effort and
evidence, including a mattress, was seized. The significance or
evidentiary value of that particular mattress was not immediately
revealed, nor was it stated publicly whose mattress it was or from
which bedroom it had been taken.
Investigators also searched the Baker's former
apartment in another county, where a bed frame and mattress were
removed. Managers of the complex told police they believed Zahra
had been kept in the attic there, and said there appeared to be
signs of a struggle inside a closet, according to WBTV News.
As concerned neighbors and well-wishers
continued to fill the Baker's lawn with flowers, notes, and
stuffed animals, Adam Baker thanked the police and the public for
their efforts to find Zahra.
"I just hope they keep looking," he said. "Try
to find my baby."
Black Eye, Bruises, Beatings
According to the Daily News, employees
at a Hickory furniture store had seen Zahra with her stepmother on
September 25, 2010. It was possibly the last time she had been
seen by anyone other than her parents. Workers remembered seeing
Zahra in part because they had noticed her prosthetic leg, and had
heard Elisa Baker refer to her by her name. One of the store's
managers said that Zahra had watched cartoons on television while
"As I walked past, I touched her on the
shoulder," floor manager Pat Adams said. "She just looked up at me
Meanwhile, a photo of Zahra that had been taken
by a family friend on a cell phone on August 9, 2010—the last day
the family friend ever saw Zahra—surfaced. It depicted a visible
bruise beneath her right eye, according to ABC News. Elisa Baker
at first had not wanted the friend to take the photo, but the
friend had insisted because Zahra had appeared down and the friend
had thought the photo might help cheer her up. The friend said she
hadn't thought much about the bruise at the time because Zahra's
stepmother had been always complaining that Zahra was clumsy.
A former neighbor said that Zahra had
frequently had bruises, but that her stepmother always had an
explanation for them.
"It's always she fell down, or she rolled out
of bed, or she didn't have her leg on right and couldn't walk
right and fell," the former neighbor said. "It's always Zahra's
fault for her injuries."
According to Brittany Bentley, a relative of
the missing girl, Zahra "was beat almost every time I was over
there for just the smallest things." Bentley said the beatings
were carried out by Elisa Baker.
"Elisa would get mad, she would take it out on
Zahra, things the kid didn't deserve," Bentley said on CBS's
The Early Show. "She just had a horrible home life."
According to Bentley, Zahra had been kept
locked in her bedroom most of the day and was only let out for
about five minutes to eat. She said that nearly everyone close to
the family believed Zahra's disappearance had been inevitable,
that it "was something...we knew was going to happen."
Former neighbors, including Renee Bobbitt,
described Elisa Baker as a cold and harsh parent to the little
"Just the way she yelled and screamed at her,
and I did see her hit the child a couple of times," Bobbitt said.
She said Zahra had been sent to school once with black eyes, prior
to school officials being notified that Zahra would be home
schooled. "I should have called and said something then. I wish I
had a million times, because no child deserves anything like this.
It's really got the whole neighborhood upset because we all loved
"I think the images you see, the smile, a
handicapped girl that age, is just emotionally upsetting,"
District Attorney Jay Gaither said. "Law enforcement doesn't show
it, but I think that they are affected by it."
Gaither said the investigation was a "very
emotional time" for the law enforcement community.
At one point it was reported by ABC News that
Elisa Baker's MySpace page featured a slideshow that included
several photos of Zahra. The caption for one of Zahra's photos
read, "The Dark Child!!!lol."
Searching th Landfill
Later that same month, investigators turned
their attention in their search "for a piece of evidence" to a
Caldwell County landfill located about 20 miles from Zahra's home.
Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins would not say what investigators
were looking for, but acknowledged they had been searching many of
the services used by the Baker family, including trash disposal.
"We hope that if we find this evidence that it
will provide a good, solid timeline that will assist us in working
this case," Adkins said, according to ABC News.
Police decided to search the landfill after
conducting a number of interviews. They also made the decision to
search the landfill after determining the model and serial numbers
for Zahra's prosthetic leg from her medical records. But when the
search was completed they had not found Zahra's leg, nor any other
evidence related to the case.
During this time, police released the 911 calls
from Adam Baker related to his daughter's disappearance. During
the call he claimed to have last seen his daughter at 2:30 a.m. on
Saturday, October 9, 2010, yet only days later he said on Good
Morning America that he had not seen Zahra since Thursday due
to his work schedule.
"The police were out here last night after
finding a ransom note for my boss's daughter," Baker said to a
dispatcher in the 911 call. "I got up a little while ago and it
appears they took my daughter instead of my boss's daughter ... I
don't know if they set a fire in the yard to distract us to go out
and then they snuck in the door, or, I don't know ... My
daughter's coming into puberty so she's in that brooding stage, so
we only see her when she comes out, when she wants something."
Meanwhile, additional investigation into Elisa
Baker's background found that she had been married at least seven
times, according to the Associated Press. Detectives learned of
one period in her life in which she was married to three men at
the same time. The bigamous marriages seemed to start in the
1990s, and police found that she had been still married to another
man when she had wed Adam Baker. Bigamy was added to the growing
list of charges she faced.
Searching for Remains
By now having doubts they would ever find Zahra
alive, police on October 24, 2010, drove Elisa Baker to a location
near her former home in Hudson, N.C., to search for the missing
girl. Police would not say at that time what prompted them to take
the action. Later, however, police said she had led them to the
location and had allegedly told investigators that they could find
Zahra's blood, bones, and bodily fluids in the drain pipes of the
residence. Elisa Baker's cell phone records may have also played a
part in determining the areas police would search. The sudden
perceived cooperation by her spurred speculation that some kind of
plea deal with the district attorney's office may have been
reached, though such speculation was swiftly downplayed by the
The process was repeated the next day when
investigators took her to another location off Dudley Shoals Road
and Christie Road, also near where the family once resided,
according to WBTV News.
On October 27, 2010, police found Zahra's
prosthetic leg at the Dudley Shoals Road location. The discovery
prompted an intensive search of the area, including along the
banks and water of a nearby creek, for additional evidence. They
eventually found a bone in that area in early November and sent it
to the crime lab for DNA testing. A week later, on November 10,
less than a week before Zahra's 11th birthday,
searchers found additional possible human remains along the banks
of Little River, the same general area where the bone had been
Later a logger working across the road from
where Zahra's prosthetic leg had been located discovered a
briefcase in the woods. It contained a blanket stained with a dark
substance, possibly blood. Investigators said the briefcase and
its contents were sent to the crime lab in Raleigh, N.C., and
emphasized that they would not know if it was related to the case
until the items had been forensically examined.
According to The Charlotte Observer and
MSNBC, a number of the police search warrants indicated that
investigators now believed that Zahra had been dismembered.
Although the various warrants did not indicate how the young girl
had died, police now believed her remains had been concealed in a
bed comforter and car cover and discarded in a trash receptacle
behind a grocery store.
Zahra's Biological Mother Speaks Out
Meanwhile, in early November 2010, Emily
Dietrich—Zahra's biological mother—gave her first media interview
since Zahra's disappearance and told a reporter for Australia's
Channel 7 News that she had not seen Zahra since relinquishing
custody of Zahra to Adam Baker while Zahra was still an infant.
She said she granted custody to the girl's father because she
suffered from post-partum depression. She told Australian reporter
Robert Ovadia that Adam Baker had disappeared with the child
shortly after she had granted him custody, and that she had tried
time and again to find him and Zahra. Problem was, she claimed,
that he had disappeared each time she found him.
"He had no right to do any of it, to keep her
from me," she said in the Channel 7 News interview, which has
since made its way onto YouTube.
Dietrich, from Wagga Wagga, said she had most
recently tracked Zahra and her father using the Internet and found
them in North Carolina only three days before Zahra disappeared
and was feared slain.
"Why did it happen that I only found her and
three days later this happens?" she said, sobbing. "I never got to
say goodbye. I never got to say hello."
Dietrich said she believed Zahra was dead.
"I don't feel it [that she is still alive],"
she said. "Mothers just have this bond with their children and
just having no hope in me makes it hurt even more, with what
they're finding and the way they're saying she was treated. The
only hope I have in me now is that she is gone, so that she's not
being hurt anymore."
She said she feared that the police in North
Carolina would find additional evidence in Zahra's disappearance,
evidence that "would tell a story I don't want to hear."
Dietrich's interview occurred around the same
time that Hickory investigators revealed that they had found the
bone that could be Zahra's.
A week later, Dietrich traveled to the U.S.,
along with an Australian news crew, and visited the memorial
outside the home where Zahra had lived with her father and
stepmother. She wept almost incessantly as she viewed the stuffed
animals, photos, notes and letters placed at the shrine by those
mourning Zahra. Many of them were from other children about the
same age as Zahra.
Dietrich provided her DNA to detectives so that
it could be compared to the DNA of the bone that had been found,
as well as to any other body parts that might be located.
"She [Elisa Baker] had no place to just dispose
of something that was in the way," Dietrich said later, according
to The Charlotte Observer.
"I want her to sit in jail and I want her to
live every day of her life remembering why she's there and what
she's done," she added. "She needs to sit there and rot."
According to Chief Adkins, the remains found at
the various locations were finally positively identified as
Zahra's. He said that detectives had found sufficient evidence to
prove that Zahra was dead.
"It is with great regret that I stand before
you today," Adkins said at a news conference. "I've been dreading
this moment since early on in this investigation. As investigators
we are trained to follow leads, but never give up the hope the
evidence may take us in the wrong direction and the outcome may be
different ... Investigators, agents and officers who worked on
this case are devastated that they could not find Zahra alive and
bring her home safely...we have recovered enough physical evidence
to believe we have found Zahra."
Adkins said that DNA taken from the bone
matched a DNA sample taken from Zahra's belongings where she
lived. The additional remains were still being checked against
Zahra's DNA sample, but they were consistent with those of a
child, Adkins said. Police were also using DNA samples obtained
from Adam Baker and Zahra's birth mother to test against the
"This case isn't over and we won't rest until
we have all the information we need to bring the people to justice
who hurt Zahra," Adkins added.
"We're continuing to put a case together,"
District Attorney Gaither said. "The DA's office is working with
law enforcement and hope to see some resolution in this case that
will result in charges being filed in the near future."
According to ABC News, jailhouse letters
allegedly written by Elisa Baker to a crime memorabilia dealer
claimed that neither she nor her husband had killed Zahra. She
contended, however, that Adam had done something "horrifying" to
the child after she had died.
"We really didn't kill her, but what he did
after the fact is kinda horrifying," she purportedly wrote. "Makes
me scared of him ... he knows what happened to Zahra, and yet I'm
the one in here at least for now ... the cops know where she is
and what he has done ... So I probably am gonna go ahead and file
[for divorce]. I have lost my whole life anyway."
In January 2011, according to court documents
and The Charlotte Observer, it was revealed that Elisa
Baker had allegedly told police that Zahra had died on September
24, 2010, two weeks before she had been reported missing, and that
Adam had dismembered her body. She allegedly claimed that Zahra
had died naturally. She claimed that she and Adam had disposed of
her body parts the following day. She claimed that she and her
husband's actions had resulted from them not knowing what to do
after the girl died. The date provided by Elisa Baker conflicted
with information provided earlier by the furniture store manager,
who had stated that he had seen Zahra and her stepmother in his
store on September 25.
Police uncovered additional information
indicating that Elisa Baker, and possibly her husband, along with
another man, had participated in role-playing games on the
Internet site where she had met Adam. One of the games involved a
"chainsaw massacre" and had allegedly been played on September 22,
two days before Elisa Baker's claim that Zahra had died on
Adam Baker, meanwhile, denied any involvement
in his daughter's dismemberment.
"There's no way I would do that to my baby,"
Baker told WBTV News. "There's no way in the world I would hurt my
Adam Baker's attorney said that Elisa Baker's
claims were only a "desperate" attempt at distraction.
Autopsy and Charges
In February 2011, an autopsy released by the
North Carolina Medical Examiner ruled out the possibility that
Zahra had died a natural death, countering Elisa Baker's claims.
Noting that many of Zahra's bones were not available for
examination, the autopsy concluded that she had died from
"undetermined homicidal violence." Her skull, right arm and most
of both legs have not been recovered.
On Monday, February 21, 2011, a grand jury
returned a second-degree murder indictment against Elisa Baker
stating that she had "a history and pattern of physical, verbal
and psychological abuse of the victim." The grand jury also
alleged that she had "secreted" Zahra from her relatives prior to
the homicide to hinder the investigation and "desecrated (Zahra's)
body to hinder detection, investigation and prosecution of the
No charges related to Zahra's disappearance or
death have been filed against Adam Baker.
"At this time, the state has no credible
evidence to suggest that anyone other than Elisa Baker was
involved in the murder of Zahra Clare Baker," Gaither told
reporters at a news conference.
Adam Baker also spoke about how he felt
regarding the investigation into his daughter's disappearance and
"I'm extremely grateful that Hickory police and
everybody else has taken their time, gone through everything
properly, and come to the conclusion that they should have come
to," Adam Baker said to a reporter for WBTV. "I had no involvement
with Zahra's death or dismemberment ... Elisa is very
manipulative, um, abusive to me. Very controlling. Plus with my
work, I was gone first thing in the morning and didn't get home
'til late. Um, was told that Zahra was in bed because Zahra
normally went to bed early. I checked every night and from what I
could tell she was in bed. It looked like she, something was in
He said he believed Zahra would still be alive
if he had not brought Elisa into their lives.
"The members of 'Team Zahra' have been working
toward this milestone in this case since the first words spoken on
the 911 call made on October 9, 2010," Chief Adkins said. "There
has not been a day gone by without members of our team thinking
about Zahra or this case."
According to a former lawyer of Elisa Baker's,
the defendant avoided a possible death penalty case by agreeing to
help investigators find Zahra's remains.
She had not entered a plea to the murder
charges at the time this story was written. Under heavy guard, she
did plead not guilty in May 2011 to two counts of identity theft
and two counts of obtaining property by false pretenses, both of
which are felonies. In June 2011 she pleaded not guilty to a
variety of federal charges that she had distributed and planned to
distribute drugs, including oxycodone and hydrocodone.
No trial date has been set on the federal
charges, but she is slated to go to trial in August 2011 on the
second-degree murder charges. If convicted of the murder charges
she could be sentenced up to 30 years in prison. She is being held
in the Catawba County Jail without bond. There are still many
unanswered questions related to this case that may be answered at
trial. Chief Adkins has vowed that his investigators will continue
in their search for evidence until the first day of trial.