National News

NC city mourns for disabled girl who was killed

Posted November 15, 2010 8:55 a.m. EST
Updated November 15, 2010 6:52 p.m. EST

— Residents devastated by the death of a disabled North Carolina girl left stuffed animals, balloons and birthday cards at a makeshift memorial in front of her old house Monday, the day before she would've turned 11.

Authorities haven't said how Zahra Baker was killed, but they have cast doubt on her parents' claims they last saw her alive Oct. 9, when she was reported missing. Zahra's stepmother is in jail accused of trying throw off investigators by writing a bogus ransom note for another child. Zahra's father was arrested on a host of charges unrelated to the girl's disappearance, but is free on bail.

As police continue their investigation, a mountain of remembrances accumalated at the Bakers' now-abandoned home, with pictures and angels hanging from a tree outside the home in Hickory, about 50 miles northwest of Charlotte. One man stopped to kneel in prayer.

A candlelight vigil for the freckle-faced Zahra, whose cancer forced her to use hearing aids and a prostetic leg, was scheduled for Tuesday.

"The vigil is really about her life and her story, since we don't have all the facts about what happened to her," said Adrienne Opdyke, one of the organizers of the event planned by the Children's Protection Council of Catawba County.

Police said Friday they had found a bone that matches DNA from Zahra in an area near where the family lived until mid-September, and believed they had found her other remains about five miles away.

Zahra's parents told authorities she was last seen in her bed at their home in Hickory. Soon after she was reported missing, police had trouble finding anyone other than Zahra's parents who had seen her alive in the weeks before her disappearance. A suspicious early morning fire occurred at the family's home several hours before she was reported missing.

It was then that police discovered a ransom note addressed to Adam Baker's boss on the windshield of Baker's car. Police went to that man's house, and found him and his daughter to be fine. Elisa Baker admitted writing the note and faces an obstruction of justice charge, police said.

Adam Baker, 33, is facing one count each of assault with a deadly weapon and failure to return rental property, two counts of communicating threats and five counts of writing worthless checks, authorities said.

Cassie Deal, a retired daycare operator who lives two miles away from Zahra's old home, said both of her own grown children had died within the past three years, and she felt a connection with Zahra.

"I would have taken her home with me," Deal said.

"I'd have loved to have her," she said. "I know what it's like."

Calls about the vigil have come in from across the country, Opdyke said. Candles will be distributed, and a choir is expected to sing. Birthday gifts will be donated to needy children in the area.

"There are so many people who want to give back and recognize Zahra for who she was," Opdyke said. "They're thankful to have a place to come and be around others who have the same heart for children."

Some 100 miles northeast of Hickory, Kristie Pope was organizing a vigil in Greensboro. Mourners will gather at a local Ben & Jerry's, which is making a special birthday cake for Zahra.

"We all got attached to her," Pope, a mother of three, said. "You see this cute kid who looks like the kid next door and everyone falls in love."

Pope has also started an online group called The Zahra Project, which she hopes will be a way to prevent similar deaths. Pope was incensed by news coverage of Zahra's home life that quoted neighbors saying they knew the girl was being mistreated.

"Our goal is to see someone held accountable for this," she said. "We can't do anything to bring Zahra Baker back, but maybe we can stop it from happening to another little kid."

Zahra's biological mother had traveled from Australia to Hickory last week until returning Sunday night, WCNC-TV reported. Emily Dietrich, from Wagga Wagga in New South Wales province, told the Australia-based Seven Network Sunday she hopes to be able to return her daughter's remains to her native country.

Spending her lunch break to pay respects at the growing pile of toys and flowers left in Zahra's memory, retail grocery worker Cathie Price cried as she talked about how the community is dealing with the girl's death.

"Most little kids, they're afraid of having monsters under the bed or in the closet," Price said. "This poor little child, she was living with monsters right out there in the open."

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Associated Press Writer Tom Breen in Raleigh contributed to this report.