It was the outcome no one wanted but everyone expected.
Police recovered enough physical evidence to believe they located the remains of Zahra Baker, the 10-year-old girl reported missing more than a month ago.
Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins announced Friday during a brief press conference that a bone located last week on Christie Road in Caldwell County matches a DNA sample taken from inside Zahra Baker's home.
"It is with great regret I stand before you today," Adkins said. "I have been dreading this moment from early on in this investigation. As investigators, we are trained to follow the leads, but never give up the hope the evidence will take us in a new direction."
That new direction, however, didn't come, and investigators' worst fears were confirmed. Police matched DNA samples from items found at Zahra's home at 21 21st Ave. NW that they believe belonged to the child.
Search crews discovered human remains this week during a search of Dudley Shoals Road in Caldwell County, further confirming the grim news that Zahra wouldn't be found alive. Staff from the State Medical Examiner's Office told police remains recovered from the site are consistent with a child's remains.
The remains were sent to the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation lab for positive identification. A known DNA profile of Zahra will be created from cheek swabs collected from her biological mother and father. Police sent those swabs to the SBI crime lab to create the profile.
Police can't confirm the remains belong to Zahra until the SBI tests are complete. Adkins said Friday police don't know how long it will take to process those results.
"We understand the concerned interest in the case by the public, but we must be cautious about releasing further information so it will not jeopardize future court proceedings," Adkins said. "The release of information from this point on will be very limited."
The grim news had an obvious effect on Adkins as he fought back tears during Friday's press conference. He said law enforcement personnel working on the case are "devastated" by Zahra's presumed death.
"Today, our community mourns. Our state mourns. Our nation mourns, and our world mourns," Adkins said.
Zahra's freckle-faced smile captured the hearts of people worldwide after her father, Adam Baker, reported her missing Oct. 9.
A memorial located around a tree in the front yard of Zahra's former home continues to grow as community members leave stuffed animals, posters, cards and letters with words of encouragement.
Doreen Morales, of Hickory, stopped at the memorial Friday afternoon to pray for Zahra and leave a stuffed bear.
"I came by with my kids yesterday, but we didn't have anything to leave, so I came back today," she said. "It's just terrible for the whole community."
Zahra would have celebrated her 11th birthday Tuesday. She lost her lower left leg to cancer and wore a prosthetic leg to walk. She also used hearing aids after cancer treatment made hearing difficult.
Zahra's stepmother, Elisa Baker, was arrested Oct. 10 on charges unrelated to the child's disappearance. Elisa Baker later admitted to writing a bogus ransom note found on the Baker property, and police charged her with felony obstruction of justice. She remains in Catawba County jail under a $97,200 bond.
Adam Baker was also arrested on unrelated charges during the course of the investigation into Zahra's disappearance. He is out of jail on bond.
Police haven't ruled anyone out as a person of interest in the case, including Adam and Elisa Baker. The discovery of Zahra's remains doesn't mean the investigation into her murder is closed.
Police continue to follow up leads and ask anyone with information in the case to contact Hickory Police at (828) 328-5551.
"This case isn't over," Adkins said, "and we won't rest until we have all the information we need to bring the people to justice who hurt Zahra."