GAFFNEY, S.C. (AP) — The stepmother of the North Carolina girl whose dismembered remains were found in the western part of the state was married seven times, and she was wed to more than one man on several occasions, according to an Associated Press investigation.
Elisa Baker was indicted last month on a bigamy charge involving her marriage to Zahra Baker's father, Adam, and another man, but AP found documents at half a dozen county courthouses that showed at one point she was married to three men at the same time, calling into question the single charge.
The question of bigamy is unrelated to Zahra's case. No one has been charged in her death, although Elisa Baker is jailed on charges of obstructing the investigation into her stepdaughter's disappearance. Zahra's parents reported her missing Oct. 9, and her remains were found several miles apart a few weeks later.
A glimpse into Elisa Baker's personal life and her ability to stay ahead of a porous marriage-licensing system help explain how a woman burning through relationships in the Appalachian foothills eventually came to meet Adam Baker, who lived halfway around the world in Australia.
Elisa Baker's marriage trail starts in Gaffney, the seat of Cherokee County, about 60 miles south of where she sits in jail. In Gaffney, she married four different men between 1987 and 1998, according to marriage licenses. It's not clear why she chose Gaffney, since both North and South Carolina are like most states when it comes to requirements for two adults planning to get married: no blood tests, no background checks and no health records.
"When they complete an application for a marriage license, they understand they're signing it under oath," said Cherokee County Probate Judge Joshua Queen, and people can face legal penalties if they lie.
But essentially, he said, couples are on the honor system. Marriage licenses are maintained more for record-keeping purposes than as safeguards against lawbreaking.
"No one does a background check," said Suzanne Reynolds, executive associate dean at Wake Forest University School of Law. "The trend throughout the whole country is toward fewer marriage requirements rather than more."
Elisa Baker's earliest two marriages seem to have been valid, although the first, which occurred when she was a minor, was quickly annulled at the request of the teenage groom's father.
It was her third marriage, to Andrew Harris Jr., that raises questions. She was divorced from him on Dec. 14, 1995 — 10 months after she wed Darrell Putnam, getting her marriage license in Gaffney.
That likely means her marriage to Putnam was invalid, according to University of North Carolina School of Law professor Maxine Eichner.
"If you're in a valid marriage and you get married again, and the first marriage hasn't been dissolved by either divorce or by being annulled, then the second marriage has no effect," Eichner said.
Putnam eventually had the marriage annulled in 1999. By then, Elisa had married again — twice.
Husband number five was Jeffrey Allred, who married Elisa on Oct. 3, 1997. Allred told The Associated Press he walked out in the spring of 1998, and was so damaged by the experience he never got a divorce.
"She messed me up bad. To this day I won't get married. Never," he said.
The AP wasn't able to find any record of a divorce, and court clerks who checked statewide databases couldn't find any divorce filings involving the pair in North Carolina.
After Allred, Elisa wed again, marrying Aaron Young on Aug. 8, 1998, again getting a license in Gaffney. She had married three men in three years — and was not legally divorced from any of them.
That likely means her unions with both Young and Adam Baker are invalid, according to Reynolds, although a conviction for bigamy — punishable by up to five years in prison in North Carolina — is still possible.
It's not clear if prosecutors in Catawba County, where Baker faces the bigamy charge, have begun to unravel this thread. Calls to District Attorney Jay Gaither's office were not returned, and neither Elisa Baker nor her lawyers responded to calls or written requests for comment.
"This probably used to happen more, before the era of instant communication and computers," Eichner said. "Every now and then, though, a kind of outrageous case still comes up."