Court date marks end of year-long mystery
An 11-month mystery started when 10-year-old Zahra Baker was reported missing on Oct. 12, 2010.
Since then, the story of her life, her disappearance and her death have captivated local and national communities. Along the way there have been an array of police investigations and a collection of criminal charges, press conferences, courtroom proceedings, and a few embarrassing gaffes.
The ordeal ongoing nearly a year is expected to end today.
When court convenes in Superior Court Room 2 at the Catawba County Justice Center at 9:30 a.m., all indications are that there will be resolution in the case of a 10-year-old cancer survivor who died, was dismembered and scattered across two counties.
During the proceedings, Elisa Baker is expected to have an opportunity to offer a "guilty" plea in exchange for an agreement that stipulates any punishment she might face. Elisa currently faces second-degree murder charges, along with other felonies in both Catawba and Caldwell counties, including bigamy and obstruction of justice.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys have declined to comment on specific details included in any plea agreement being considered.
Details that are available in the story of Zahra Baker first emerged in October 2010 and have continued up until today's court proceedings.
A timeline of events surrounding Zahra Baker's disappearance, death and ensuing criminal charges and court proceedings follows.
Zahra is reported missing by her father Adam Baker and stepmother Elisa Baker, saying she last was seen around 2:30 a.m.
Elisa Baker is arrested on outstanding charges not related to the disappearance of Zahra. Adam Baker is questioned in the case. Elisa Baker later is charged with obstruction of justice after admitting to writing a fake ransom note.
Investigators narrow the timeline to the last moment someone other than a family member saw Zahra to Sept. 25. A furniture store manager from Hickory reported seeing her on that date.
Lisa Dubs is appointed as provisional counsel for Elisa Baker by the N.C. Capital Defender’s Office.
The recording of the 911 call made by Adam Baker to report his daughter missing is released. In the call, Adam Baker said a ransom note, supposedly meant for his employer, was left on his company vehicle saying that the daughter had been taken and the son would be next. Adam Baker told the operators that the kidnapper must have taken his daughter Zahra instead.
A team from Hickory Police Department along with agents from the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation, Evidence Recovery Team, Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Marshal Service begin a search at the Foothills Environmental Inc., landfill off Cheraw Road in western Caldwell County with support from Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office and Hickory Fire Department.
Search teams conclude their search of a 100- by 200-foot grid of the landfill. The search, focused on a mattress belonging to Zahra that allegedly had been disposed of by her parents during early October, was not found.
Teams converge on a wooded piece of property along Dudley Shoals Road to search for clues leading to information about where Zahra may be. Elisa Baker is brought to the scene in an SUV but does not get out of the vehicle. Adam Baker goes to Hickory Police Department and is arrested on several misdemeanor charges not related to the case after returning from Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
Search crews move to Christie Road just outside Hudson and conduct a ground search that also includes a cadaver dog. Crews locate a prosthetic leg in a brushy area. A mattress is found at the Foothills landfill by workers at the facility while doing some regrading work at the search site.
Search teams return to Christie Road for another search, while investigators begin digging and conducting a more exhaustive search of the property at the Baker home in Hickory. Adam Baker makes his bond and is released from jail.
Mark Killian is appointed as provisional counsel for Adam Baker by the N.C. Capital Defender’s Office.
Hickory Police confirm that the prosthetic leg found on Christie Road in Hudson is the left prosthesis of Zahra Baker. Medical records from Australia where the leg originally was fitted for Zahra match the serial number on the leg.
A bone is located by search teams. The bone is sent to the Medical Examiner’s Office in Chapel Hill to determine if it is related to the case.
Teams return to an area off Dudley Shoals Road for another search along Little River near Burns Road. They find evidence that could provide valuable information in the case, though they won’t divulge what was found. It is sent to the SBI Crime Lab for testing.
Teams return to Christie Road for select site searches.
Tests confirm that the bone found Nov. 3 matches Zahra’s DNA. Police say they believe they have gathered enough physical evidence to determine that Zahra is dead.
Saying Elisa Baker’s cooperation led law enforcement to the discovery of key evidence and Zahra’s remains, defense attorneys Scott Reilly and Dubs file a motion to have bond reduced. District Attorney Jay Gaither said his office will fight the motion.
Court records unsealed by Superior Court Judge Nathaniel Poovey reveal gruesome details of how Zahra’s body was disposed of following her death and dismemberment. The judge’s order indicates the documents were unsealed because the District Attorney’s Office did not file a motion to reseal in an appropriate manner of time.
An SBI Crime Lab report indicates a DNA match between remains found along Dudley Shoals Road and DNA sample taken from personal belongings of Zahra’s taken from the family’s home in Hickory. Hickory Police indicates it will no longer discuss the case with the media, providing information only in the form of press releases or formal briefings. The Capital Defender’s Office removes Dubs and Killian as provisional counsel for Elisa and Adam Baker. Both later say they will continue to represent their clients.
Television reports indicate that Elisa Baker has an agreement with the District Attorney’s Office to take the death penalty and life in prison without parole off the table if she ever is tried and convicted for the death of Zahra Baker. Gaither will not comment on the reports.
In an e-mailed statement, Gaither indicates that multiple media reports about an agreement between the prosecution and Elisa Baker are incorrect, stating that the death penalty and life in prison without parole remain options if Elisa is tried for and convicted of the death of her stepdaughter. The DA’s Office later issues a statement that it will not comment further on the case.
Warrants unsealed by Superior Court Judge Robert C. Ervin show inconsistencies in accounts from key players in the case. Elisa Baker told authorities that Zahra died Sept. 24 and that Adam Baker dismembered the child and scattered her remains the next day. GPS tracking shows Adam’s cell phone was not in the areas where the remains were found on Sept. 25, but Elisa’s was. Information also indicates that Elisa still was married to Aaron Young when she married Adam, and that she remained involved with him and Timothy “Sammy” Young, with whom she allegedly had a sexual relationship.
Workers with a logging company find a briefcase with a blanket inside while cutting timber on Christie Road, just across the highway from the site where Zahra’s prosthetic leg and one of her bone was found. Investigators with Hickory Police Department take possession of the briefcase and send it to the SBI crime lab for testing to see if it is related to the case. Elisa Baker also is indicted by a Catawba County grand jury for bigamy after marrying Adam Baker in December 2008 while still married to Aaron Jesse Young.
Elisa Baker is arraigned at the Catawba County Jail on a bigamy indictment and issued another worthless check charge, increasing her bond by another $10,500 to a total of $107,700. Adam Baker’s court appearance on worthless check charges is delayed to April 29.
In a press conference at Hickory Police Department, Gaither announces that Elisa Baker was indicted on a second-degree murder charge in the death of Zahra.
Elisa Baker appears before Judge Ervin and is read the charges against her while being informed that she could face a maximum prison term of 481 months. Reilly also is appointed by the court to represent Elisa on the charge.
Dubs confirms that she negotiated a deal between Elisa Baker and Gaither to avoid a charge of first-degree murder. Gaither, who has maintained there was no deal in place, declined to comment on Dubs’ assertions.
Lead prosecutor in the Zahra Baker case Eric Bellas is arrested and charged with riding a bike while impaired while attending a statewide district attorney’s conference at Sunset Beach. Bellas was placed on administrative leave and relieved of his prosecutorial duties as assistant district attorney.
Eric Bellas is reinstated to his position as assistant district attorney, but Gaither announces that he is taking the lead in the prosecution of Elisa Baker
Reilly files a motion for a change of venue, saying the trial should be moved out of Catawba County because of publicity surrounding the case, arguing that the “pretrial publicity in this case has been such that the entire county is ‘infected’ with prejudice.” Gaither said he could seat an impartial jury from Catawba County.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Kincaid agrees that extensive media coverage will make it difficult to seat an impartial jury in Catawba County and grants the change of venue, though he does not divulge the location, setting a September hearing to do so.
Kincaid moves the hearing to Sept. 14, which later is changed to Sept. 15, allowing defense attorney Reilly to meet with Gaither to deal with issues that have surfaced. Neither attorney will discuss the “issues.”
Case timeline compiled by Lenoir News-Topic Editor Nathan Key.