Doubt cast on accounts of missing NC girl
HICKORY, N.C. -- Neighbors in a North Carolina city feared the worst in the case of a missing 10-year-old girl with the bright smile who stayed upbeat even as she battled bone cancer that left her with a prosthetic leg and hearing aids.
A search warrant revealed that police dogs detected the smell of human remains on cars belonging to the father and stepmother of Zahra Clare Baker. Hours earlier Monday, the police chief said investigators were having trouble finding anyone outside the household who had seen the girl alive in the last few weeks and cast doubt on what the couple had told them. A police news conference was scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Tuesday
"There were warning signs along the way, but you never want to think the worst," said former neighbor Kayla Rotenberry, who said Zahra's stepmother, Elisa Baker, had a short temper.
The couple had told police they discovered the girl was missing Saturday. The stepmother said she last saw Zahra sleeping in her room hours earlier. Yet Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins said investigators don't know the last time anyone saw her. "We're having a difficult time establishing a true timeline," he said.
When the search warrant was filed hours later, police declined to comment further.
Zahra's father, Adam Baker, said during a morning TV interview that it was possible his wife could be involved in the disappearance, which was reported after a fire in the home's yard. Elisa Baker was arrested Sunday on about a dozen charges unrelated to the girl's disappearance.
Adkins, the police chief in a city of 40,000 residents about 50 miles northwest of Charlotte, said the father was cooperating with police, but Elisa Baker wasn't.
A reporter saw what appeared to be remnants of clothes among burned branches from the fire at the house.
Zahra had two hearing aids, which were left at the house, and a prosthetic left leg from the knee down, police said. She was being home-schooled, but had attended public schools in the past.
Police responded to the fire early Saturday and found what appeared to be a ransom note addressed to Adam Baker's boss on the windshield of Baker's car, the search warrant said. Police went to that man's house, and found him and his daughter to be fine.
"Mr. Coffey, you like being in control now who is in control we have your daughter," the warrant quoted the ransom note as saying. It asked for $1 million dollars and said "no cops."
On Saturday afternoon, Adam Baker called to say his daughter was missing.
Zahra was described by family friends as shy but constantly smiling, in spite of her health problems. The stepmother could be short-tempered toward her, two former neighbors said, but the woman also fought tears when a charity fitted her for hearing aids a few months ago.
"I just hope I can get my daughter back. I miss her so much," Zahra's father, Adam Baker, told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Monday.
The girl's stepmother told her husband she last saw Zahra sleeping in her bed at 2:30 a.m. Saturday, about 2 1/2 hours before the fire was reported. Adam Baker said he was panicked after the fire, but didn't immediately check on his daughter.
The police chief said he wouldn't rule out any suspects, including Adam Baker.
Adam Baker was asked if he thought his wife was involved and said, "I wouldn't like to think so. On what I've heard so far, it could be possible."
Rotenberry said she and her fiance were good friends with the Bakers when they lived in the nearby town of Sawmills, and saw Zahra often. About six months ago she noticed that Elisa Baker's hand was swollen, Rotenberry said.
"She told me that she was trying to spank Zahra, but hit her on her prosthetic leg," she said. "When Adam asked her about the injury, she said she fell and hurt her hand. She didn't want him to know. She knew he would be mad."
Another former neighbor, Brandy Stapleton, 22, of Lenoir, said that Elisa Baker told her the same story about how she injured her hand. "She wasn't the person everyone thought she was."
Adam Baker was from Australia, and met his current wife over the Internet, Stapleton said. Zahra's mother lives outside the U.S.
The child had lost part of her hearing during chemotherapy for two bouts of cancer, her stepmother told the Independent-Tribune of Concord-Kannapolis in May during a charity event where she got free hearing aids.
Family friends said the girl also had the prosthetic leg because of cancer.
"She just loved to be around other kids," said Rotenberry, who added that Zahra spent most of the time indoors. Whenever Rotenberry brought her 4-year-old daughter to visit, Zahra would spend time watching her and helping her color. "She was so patient. A good teacher."
Elisa Baker was arrested Sunday on charges including communicating threats, writing worthless checks, larceny and driving with a revoked license. It was unclear whether she has an attorney.
She has two daughters and a son from a previous marriage.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)