Search teams returned Wednesday to another area that was previously searched for signs of Zahra Baker.
Crews operating under the direction of Caldwell County Emergency Services spent another day involved with the search for evidence tied to the disappearance of Zahra when they gathered to probe a wooded area along Upper Little River off Dudley Shoals Road in the southeastern part of Caldwell County. Searches were made through the woods by ground crews, and dive teams went into the cold, murky waters trying to find anything related to the 10-year-old Hickory girl, who was reported missing Oct. 9.
Approximately 40 people from Emergency Services, Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office, Lenoir Fire, North Catawba Fire/Rescue, Hudson Fire/Rescue and Grace Chapel Fire — with meals provided to rescue workers by the American Red Cross — joined efforts with the Hickory Police Department to once again comb an area between Burns Road and Morris Creek Road near Dudley Shoals Baptist Church.
The area was sealed off to traffic shortly after noon Wednesday, and news helicopters were not allowed to fly over the search site.
While there were indications that something pertaining to the case was found, Hickory Police authorities did not confirm nor deny any findings.
“We’re still searching,” HPD Maj. Clyde Deal said. “From an investigative side, we are continuing the search. We’ve followed some leads that we’ve received and conducted some more interviews.”
Deal did not say what led to another sweep of the Dudley Shoals area, and he did not discuss what search teams had found, though he said any search of the area not finished Wednesday would continue Thursday.
He also reiterated that the investigative process narrowed down search sites, and those areas are the ones being targeted more heavily now by teams.
“We’ve determined places we need to focus our efforts, and we are devoting more time to those,” Deal said.
During a search of the same location more than two weeks ago, Zahra’s stepmother Elisa Baker was brought to the site in an unmarked SUV, riding through the area but never getting out of the vehicle. Elisa is still in Catawba County jail. Zahra’s father Adam is free after spending three days in jail on unrelated charges. He was evicted from the family’s home in Hickory, the site of another massive search that was concluded last week.
Deal said he has not communicated with Elisa Baker or her attorneys, Scott Reilly and Lisa Dubs, since last week. He said he has had some conversations with Adam Baker’s legal counsel, Mark Killian, the last few days. Deal declined to discuss details of those talks.
Caldwell County Emergency Services Director Tommy Courtner said the grid search conducted Wednesday was much tighter than previous searches of the area.
“We have trained staff to help locate any evidence for this case,” he said. “We have ground crews and dive teams searching the banks and stream. We’re trying to find any clues to help Hickory Police Department with this case.”
Courtner also said heavy mowing equipment was brought in to assist the search by cutting the thick brush to provide a better line of sight for ground crews.
The search, conducted with spacing of no more than 3-5 feet between team members, started around 8 a.m. and was expected to conclude by mid-afternoon Wednesday. However, it was expanded as the day wore on. It covered a radius of half a mile from an area Courtner described as “high probability,” adding that there were several “points of interest” for the search crews.
“We tightened the grid search to cover specific areas,” he explained, adding that water searches were finished before noon, though he did not discuss what, if anything, they revealed. Those searches were in water depths ranging from 6 inches to 5 feet, and the terrain under the water’s surface was very rough and rocky in some locations.
Like Tuesday’s search along Indian Grave Road in northern Caldwell County, crews had to pick through garbage dumped in the remote wooded area as well as numerous animal carcasses littering the search site.
“It is a bone-infested area,” Courtner said. “There are a lot of animal bones in the area due to hunters and animals that have been hit (by vehicles). It was very similar to the search on Indian Grave Road; people do illegal dumping in this area.”
Courtner said a staff member of the State Medical Examiner’s Office in Chapel Hill was on site to help with bone identification, discerning between animal and possible human bones.
“We’re looking for anything to help with this case,” Courtner said.
Search teams wrapped up operations on Christie Road just outside Hudson last week, the site where the prosthetic left leg belonging to Zahra was found two weeks ago. That search also covered an area plagued by illegal dumping through the years that also yielded a number of bones identified to be those of animals.
A bone, thought to be human, was found last week during one of the searches, though investigators have not revealed its recovery location. It has been sent for testing to see if it is related to the case.