State News

Stepmother gets up to 18 years in prison for killing Hickory girl

Posted September 15, 2011

— The stepmother of Zahra Baker pleaded guilty Thursday to killing and dismembering the Hickory girl last year.

Elisa Baker, 43, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and obstruction of justice in the case and an aggravating factor of desecrating Zahra's body. She also pleaded guilty to unrelated charges of bigamy, four counts of obtaining property by false pretense and two counts of financial identity fraud.

After hours of sometimes emotional witness testimony following her plea, Baker was sentenced to between roughly 15 and 18 years in prison.

"I don't think Zahra will get true justice until Elisa Baker faces her maker, and He does what He has to do," the girl's father, Adam Baker, told Charlotte television station WBTV.

Emily Dietrich, Zahra's biological mother, also was in court for the plea and sentencing.

The disappearance of and search for Zahra, a 10-year-old girl who had lost a leg and her hearing to cancer, made international headlines last fall. She and her father had moved from Australia to North Carolina so he could marry Elisa Baker, whom he had met online.

The case initially prompted an Amber Alert when Adam and Elisa Baker reported Zahra missing following an October fire at their Hickory home. A ransom note that turned out to be fake was found on the windshield of the family's car.

After police dogs picked up the scent of human remains inside the Baker house, investigators switched their focus from a missing person case to a homicide. Authorities searched several locations for her remains, which were eventually found scattered at sites in Catawba and Caldwell counties.

Zahra Baker's stepmother pleads guilty to her murder

Court records in the case indicate that the girl was killed on Sept. 24, 2010, which was more than two weeks before she was reported missing.

Zahra's death was caused by "undetermined homicidal violence," medical examiners said in documents.

Investigators said Elisa Baker led them to some of the remains.

An autopsy was conducted even though authorities hadn't recovered many bones, most notably the girl's skull, months after she was reported missing. Several bones showed cutting tool marks consistent with dismemberment.

Catawba County District Attorney James Gaither said in a statement that a second-degree murder charge was a condition of Elisa Baker's cooperation in the investigation and that it would have been almost impossible to pursue a first-degree murder case against her without the evidence she provided.

"The risk in this case was that Elisa Baker would entirely avoid responsibility for her part in the death of Zahra," Gaither said. "The probability was that, without her cooperation, law enforcement would not locate Zahra’s body. The probability of a successful prosecution for first degree murder was likewise very unlikely."

"We hope and pray this conviction will bring closure to the family of Zahra and the community," he said.

Elisa Baker tried to implicate her husband in Zahra's murder, but investigators said cellphone records showed he was elsewhere on the days when the girl's remains were disposed of.

Adam Baker, who still faces several charges unrelated to his daughter's death, said Thursday's plea proved to the world that he played no role the murder.

"There are just so many mixed emotions," he said after the court hearing. "I'm going to be sick, happy, angry. … It's very hard to put into words."

Baker said he planned to return to Australia with Zahra's remains so she could be buried near her home.

Zahra Baker's biological mother, Emily Dietrich, traveled from Australia for the proceeding and wept when she heard details of her daughter's death recounted at the hearing. Dietrich called Elisa Baker "pure evil" and the slaying a "heinous act."

"My only hope now is she (Zahra) is in a place where she never feels pain. ... In a place where she can feel my love," she said.

During the hearing, Dietrich and Adam Baker begged Elisa Baker to tell them where the rest of the remains were located.
"What I truly want to see is Zahra be given the dignity and respect she deserves," Dietrich said.


Elisa Baker's lawyer, Scott Reilly, said his client was "truly sorry" for all the pain she caused and pleaded guilty to help bring closure to the girl's family and the community.

Police in court painted a picture of a woman who habitually bent the truth.

The case revealed Elisa Baker as a woman with a troubled past, constantly shifting addresses and staying one step ahead of bill collectors and county social service agencies investigating reports of child abuse. The Associated Press found that she has been married seven times, including several overlapping marriages.

During those marriages, former husbands told the AP that Elisa beat her three children and that social service agencies in several counties had investigated the abuse.

Those who knew Elisa described her as an attractive high school student who became manipulative, cunning and insecure, struggling with obesity. By the time she met Adam, she had immersed in an online world of assumed identities and grandiose stories about her past, according to records and friends.

Police during Thursday's hearing described three cases where witnesses saw Elisa beat Zahra. Once the child attended school with two black eyes and was afraid to go home.


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  • Dark_Horse Sep 16, 2011

    Wait: So the DA agreed to a plea deal where there was no allecution explaining why and how she did what she did? And if she was dead two weeks before she was reported missing, how could her father NOT know what had happened?

  • airbornemonty Sep 16, 2011

    Someone posted that they can't see how the judge can sleep at night after sentencing the stepmother to just 18 years.

    I can assure you that the judge and the prosecuters as well, will sleep soundly tonight. After all, they are politicians and politicians are a breed apart from the rest of us.

    When a politician is running for office you can call his mother the most contemptible name you can think of while shaking his hand and he will smile at you and thank you for your vote. Check it out if you don't believe me.

  • familyfour Sep 16, 2011

    Never in a million years could I go two weeks without laying eyes on my child.....and I'd be all up in it all. And, had I been in his shoes, I'd be on the stand for murdering whom abused my child.....not sitting back there crying and pouting. No way. And maybe, my child would still be here... there isnt much that goes on in my home i dont know about, simply from a walkthrough.

    No one will ever convince me he didn't know.

    BIG difference in not knowing, and ignoring.

  • Holli0224 Sep 16, 2011

    The father should be charged with 2nd degree murder too, even if he had nothing to do with the murder. He knew about the abuse and did nothing. My theory is that the last time that Elisa was beating Zahra, it went too far and she killed her. She is dead as a result of abuse that the father had FULL knowledge of. Zahra would still be alive if he had a backbone and got that poor child out of that environment. He is JUST as much to blame. I have no sympathy for him whatsoever and he kind of sickens me.

  • solarflare40 Sep 16, 2011

    so she killed, and chopped up an innocent child, and only got 15-18 years in prison???????? Our legal system sucks arsenic!

  • familyfour Sep 16, 2011

    I am having trouble believing he didn't know he had a deceased child in his home. familyfour

    The father had nothing to do with killing his child. It was the step-mother alone. Stop grabbing for nothing and pay attention in what you read and hear.

    I'm not grasping at a thing. Fact: two weeks of death involved before mutilation and disbursement.

    Was he not with his "wife", or child, or in his home for two weeks? Did he not ask to speak to his child if he was not home, or attempt to communicate with her in some way. Really? I'm grasping?

    What is grasping is me trying to wrap my mind around how anyone could think NOT knowing what a child that LIVES under YOUR roof is enduring. Or realizing you haven't seen, hugged, or looked into your child's eyes for two weeks. Sorry wildcat. I am afraid you are the one excuses. Are we not responsible for what happens in our our children?

    My goodness. I am going to pick my jaw from the floor

  • Jakethesnake Sep 16, 2011

    That poor girls life was only worth 15 years, no justice at all.

  • Jakethesnake Sep 16, 2011

    What!!!!!! 15 years!!! there are drug dealers doing longer sentences. Baby killer almost gets death penalty, nursing home shooter gets life, and this woman gets off with next to nothing!!! disgusting for the justice system, they should be embarassed to have made such a deal, they should have investigated and charged her with first degree and pushed for death.

  • Fireflies Rock Sep 16, 2011

    if any case ever screamed out for the death penalty - or minimum, life in prison - this is it. This disgrace of a human being should never see the light of day. It disgusts me that she is able to plea down to a 2nd degree murder charge for doing something so heinous and reprehensible. A father that was obviously complicit in some aspect of this crime not being punished is beyond belief. I don't care where his phone was during the crime; where he was is more relevant, and people aren't attached to their phones. That's what we're using for proof of innocence these days? Poor Zahra was obviously dead when the father was lying about her whereabouts on the day he finally called 911. I don't see how common sense can't be used here to charge him with complicity in the murder or coverup. Unbelieveable.

  • scarlett2 Sep 16, 2011

    The father was no innocent in this. He would have seen the signs of abuse for years and he did nothing about it. He could see that it was escalating yet chose to ignore it. He chose that woman over his daughter. He also participated in the kidnapping lie and ransom note scheme.

    The police state his cell phone records show that he was not in the area when her body was scattered. Hogwash. I have calls on my cell phone bill that I never made. The company stated that their records show which towers the calls were made from and that I had to have made those calls. They were made in a county that I have never even been to. My cell phone records are constantly wrong.

    18 years is not a punishment for this heinous crime. She will be out on parole in about 3 years; it will be just a holiday for her, she won't have to work, pay her bills, clean her house, take care of her family. She will have it easy at taxpayer's expense then will be set free to marry again.