NEWTON, N.C. — 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.
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.