HICKORY, N.C. — A community mourned the loss of a Hickory girl with a vigil on Tuesday – what would have been the child’s 11th birthday.
Zahra Baker’s remains and the prosthetic leg she needed after an amputation because of her cancer were found at remote sites around Hickory, a town of about 41,000 about 50 miles northwest of Charlotte, last week, according to court documents.
The documents revealed that she was dismembered and police needed her stepmother's help to find the remains because they were in such remote locations.
“We didn’t meet Zahra in her brief life, but we feel like we know her,” Hickory Mayor Rudy Wright said during the vigil.
Wright noted Zahra’s resiliency through a difficult life.
Despite her disability, those at the memorial said Zahra enjoyed swimming and would often visit to inspire other children with cancer.
"She wanted no pity. She wanted to be like any other child," one speaker said.
Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins spoke at the vigil, but not about the investigation. He talked about Zahra's brave struggle with cancer.
"I encourage you to use her strength and her determination and her smile to celebrate her life," Adkins said.
Zahra’s story has resonated with many in the community.
“It’s just been heartbreaking for everybody because, I mean, even though we didn’t know her, we can feel the empathy for her and to think a child was treated that way and nobody did anything. I just can’t imagine,” said Edna Cardwell from Lenior.
Edie Richardson, of Hudson, said Zahra used to attend church and school about 2 miles from her home. She said the crime has caused trauma in her neighborhood.
“I haven’t been able to sleep or do my daily chores really,” Richardson said. “It’s been a horrific crime. I can’t remember anything like this before.”
"I think everybody has been tragically upset," Hickory resident Janette Hollar said. "It's been so close to home and you just don't think of anything like that happening here."
Zahra’s stepmother, Elisa Baker, faces obstructing justice and 15 lesser charges unrelated to Zahra's disappearance.
Attorneys for Elisa Baker have argued the woman's bond should be lessened because she helped police. Elisa Baker has been in custody since the day after Zahra was reported missing, and she is accused of trying to throw off investigators by writing a fake ransom note for another child.
Zahra's father was also arrested on a host of charges unrelated to the girl's disappearance, but is free on bail. Calls to his lawyer were not returned.
No one has been charged in Zahra's death, but police have cast doubt on her parents' claims they last saw her alive Oct. 9.
The Children's Protection Council of Catawba County held Tuesday's vigil. People attending brought birthday gifts that will be donated to children in need.
The memorial ended with the crowd singing "Happy Birthday" before releasing white balloons into the air.