HICKORY, N.C. — The stepmother of a 10-year-old disabled Hickory girl was indicted Monday on charges she killed the child and then desecrated her remains to cover up the slaying, according to court documents.
A grand jury in Catawba County charged Elisa Baker, 42, with second-degree murder in the death of Zahra Baker, who was reported missing in early October.
The indictment alleges that the girl, who used a prosthetic leg and hearing aids after being stricken with cancer, was killed on Sept. 24.
After a massive search, police found the girl's remains in different locations around western North Carolina. According to an autopsy report released Monday, only a few bones were recovered, and medical examiners were never able to determine how she died.
The indictment lists five aggravated factors in the case that could enhance the penalty Elisa Baker might face if convicted.
According to the document, Elisa Baker had a history of physically, verbally and psychologically abusing Zahra; she kept the girl from her family to conceal the crime; she desecrated Zahra's body; and she abused a position of trust she had with the girl. It also notes that Zahra was young and disabled.
Attorneys for Elisa Baker did not return calls seeking comment Monday.
Police initially arrested Elisa Baker on Oct. 10 on a charge of obstructing justice in the investigation. Police said she wrote a fake ransom note that was found the morning the girl was reported missing.
She has been held in the Catawba County jail under a $100,000 bond, but it was unclear Monday how much the murder charge would add to her bond.
A search warrant unsealed last month said Elisa Baker led police to the places where they found Zahra's remains. She claimed Zahra's father, Adam Baker, dismembered the body, but Adam Baker called the allegation a lie.
"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," Catawba County District Attorney Jay Gaither said Monday.
Adam Baker, who moved to North Carolina from Australia, reiterated his claim this weekend in an interview on a news magazine in that country.
"Zahra had been my life, you know, and now she's gone. I don't know what to do. I feel very, very empty," he said.
Cell phone records indicate Adam Baker was not in the locations where Zahra's remains were found on the day Elisa Baker indicated, but the records show she was present in those locations, according to the search warrant.
Yet, some Hickory residents continue to believe that Adam Baker played a role in his daughter's death.
Eddie Mitchell, who lives across the street from the Baker family, said he doesn't think a single second-degree murder charge is enough in the case.
"I don't know all the exact details, but I think it should be first-degree murder, and there is no mention (in the indictment) of Adam Baker," Mitchell said.
Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins called the indictment "a milestone of holding someone accountable" in the case.
"Not a day goes by that members of this team of professionals (who investigated the case) has not thought of Zahra or this case," Adkins said.
"Over the last four months, many different theories of how and who was responsible for the death of Zahra have been made by anyone who has followed this case," he said. "Not every case is clear-cut, and only the facts and evidence of the case can dictate who is charged and for what offenses."
Mitchell, who is writing a book about the case, said anger continues to swell in the Hickory community over the girl's death.
"If they let Elisa and Adam Baker into downtown Hickory, (people) could stone them to death," he said. "I've heard normal, sane human beings saying that."
Records show that Elisa Baker led a somewhat nomadic life, with dozens of different addresses over a seven-year period. She was also married seven times and was wed to more than one man on several occasions. She met Adam Baker, seven years her junior, on a website where users create three-dimensional characters to represent themselves.
Adam Baker is free on bond, facing numerous charges not related to his daughter. He moved to North Carolina with Zahra from Australia after meeting Elisa online.
He said in the television interview that, once Elisa Baker's trial is over, he plans to take Zahra's remains back to Australia and try to move on with his life.