Hickory, N.C. — Hickory police have canceled an Amber Alert for a missing 10-year-old and shifted their focus to a homicide investigation, after speaking with the girl’s stepmother Monday night.
Chief Tom Adkins said at a news conference Tuesday morning that Zahra Claire Baker’s stepmother, Elisa Baker, confessed to writing a ransom note found at the house where the girl lived.
She then asked for an attorney, he said.
Elisa Baker, who was arrested Sunday on unrelated charges, now faces one count of felony obstruction of justice in Zahra’s disappearance, Adkins said.
He did not take any questions and did not explain why the case was now being considered a homicide. He said that no one outside the immediate family has seen the girl, who was home-schooled, for a month.
Investigators also want to interview an inspector who had been or was scheduled to go to the home at 21 21st Ave. NW in Hickory.
“We need the public to come forward if they think they’ve seen Zahra within the time frame,” Adkins said.
Anyone with information that could assist investigators is urged to contact the Hickory Police Department at 828-328-5551 or their local law enforcement agency.
Zahra was reported missing Saturday by her father, but authorities have cast doubt on what he and the stepmother told them.
Uncertainty on when she was last alive has stalled efforts to enlist volunteers to search for her.
“We understand the public wants to help find Zahra. The problem is we cannot confirm with any confidence how long Zahra has been missing,” Adkins said. “Without this information, we cannot positively select the area to search for her.”
A search warrant made public Monday indicated that police dogs detected the scent of human remains on a sedan and SUV belonging to the Bakers.
Police responding to a fire in the family’s back yard on Saturday also found what appeared to be a ransom note on the windshield of Zahra’s father’s car, according to the warrant.
Adam Baker, who has not been charged in the case, said in an interview with “Good Morning America” on Monday that his wife told him that she last saw Zahra sleeping in her bed around 2:30 a.m. Saturday.
He said he was in a big panic after the fire, which was reported around 5 a.m., but that he didn’t check on his daughter.
Police were notified of Zahra's disappearance around 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
Family friends described Zahra as a girl who was slow to open up to new people but constantly smiled in spite of her health problems – two bouts of cancer that led to the loss of her left leg and hearing. She used two hearing aids, which were left at the house, and a prosthetic left leg from the knee down, police said.
Relatives, however, described the child’s life as miserable, saying she was locked in her room for most of the day and allowed five minutes out a day to eat.
“I just think this was something for a long time that we knew was going to happen, everybody that was close to the family,” relative Brittany Bentley said on CBS’ “The Early Show” on Tuesday.
“She was beat almost every time I was over there for just the smallest things,” she continued. “Elisa would get mad, she would take it out on Zahra – things the kid didn’t deserve. She just had a horrible home life.”