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Zahra's father speaks out

October 15, 2010

HICKORY (AP) — The father of a missing 10-year-old said Friday that he is still not sure whether his wife was involved in the girl's disappearance.

Baker said he just wants to find Zahra Clare Baker and take her back to the family's native Australia if she wants to go. Police believe the girl is dead.

Baker and his wife Elisa, the girl's stepmother, reported her missing Oct. 9. They said they had last seen Zahra — who used hearing aids and a prosthetic leg because of bone cancer — in her bed at their home in Hickory, about 50 miles northwest of Charlotte. But police don't believe them.

Investigators said Zahra may have been alive when the family moved to a new home in North Carolina in mid-September, but they've had trouble finding anyone else who has seen her in recent months.

Elisa Baker, 42, is being held on an obstruction of justice charge after police say she tried to throw them off with a fake ransom note. Her court-appointed attorney says she is "scared to death" and very emotional.

Adam Baker, 33, said Friday that he hasn't talked to his wife and remains unsure if she had anything to do with his daughter's disappearance.

"Maybe," Baker told AP. "I'm still trying to figure it all out."

Hickory police searched his house and property again Friday, though he insists he had nothing to do with her disappearance. Police have not ruled him out as a suspect.

The ordeal has worn on him, he said, "but the last thing I'm worried about is myself. I just want to find her."

He would not comment on allegations that his wife abused Zahra, who never showed up to start fifth grade this fall at Hudson Elementary, where teachers remember her as a warm, caring child. Elisa Baker said she was going to home-school the girl.

"This whole thing is just so tragic," said Caldwell County school district spokeswoman Libby Brown.

Last year, Brown said, Zahra and a friend picked up litter around the school and later told the principal they were going to start an environmental club in the fall.

"They were so thrilled about it. They were so enthused. They wanted to do something to beautify the school," Brown said.

Then Zahra told the principal he should head up the club because he would "be a great president."

But the girl's home life was less than happy, according to friends and neighbors who said in interviews with the AP and court records that Elisa Baker had a short temper and hit Zahra.

Former neighbor Kayla Rotenberry said Elisa Baker told her the Caldwell County Department of Social Services investigated the family because Zahra went to school with bruises and a teacher alerted school officials.

Brown said Friday that while she couldn't comment on specifics, teachers tried to help Zahra.

"The school personnel did not drop the ball on Zahra," she said. "And they made all the contacts needed for all the available resources for her well being. I can say that with confidence."

The social services department issued a statement Friday saying it was prohibited by law from discussing the case.

Meanwhile, friends anxiously awaited word in Australia, where Zahra lived with Adam Baker until he met his wife online and moved to North Carolina, where she was raised.

"This has really hit us hard," Kim Wright, 44, a close friend of the family, said in a phone interview from Giru, Australia. "We just want her to come home.

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