HICKORY (AP) — Elisa Baker had an uncanny ability to stay ahead of bill collectors, police, social workers and her multiple husbands, The Associated Press discovered in an investigation of the woman who led authorities to the dismembered remains of her disabled, 10-year-old stepdaughter.
Few saw her pattern because when she abandoned a relationship, she usually severed all ties. In seven years, she had no fewer than 42 different addresses. During a different three-year stretch, she was married to three men at the same time.
In interviews with three dozen people, and a review of hundreds of court and police documents, AP unraveled a life of deception described by friends, family and the vulnerable men she wed, including some with disabilities. At times, they said, she was physically abusive.
Elisa (eh-LEES'-uh) Baker is charged with obstructing the investigation of the disappearance of Zahra Baker, the freckle-faced girl who fought bone cancer, but no one has been charged in Zahra's death.
The stepmother has been the center of the investigation, though, and the details of her strained relationships and early family life help explain why.
Neither Elisa Baker, 42, who is jailed, nor her attorneys, responded to repeated requests for comment. Other members of her family, including her daughters, declined to speak with the AP.
Those who knew Elisa described an attractive high school student who became manipulative, cunning and insecure, struggling with obesity. Even as she got older and gained more weight, men were drawn to her.
At other times, she detached herself from society, immersed in the online world. There, she made herself over as E'lesa, a darkly glamorous woman whose allure reached Zahra's father, Adam Baker, an Australian who lived far from her economically depressed corner of Appalachia.
"This is a woman who thought she could talk her way out of anything, that she was smarter than everybody else. But she never told the truth," said Andrew Harris Jr., her third husband. "She hurt a lot of people."
Born Elisa Fairchild, she grew up as the middle child of three girls whose parents worked in the western North Carolina textile mills and furniture factories in the late 1960s. She was a pretty, chubby-cheeked girl with jet-black hair.
Her father doted on her while her mom was the disciplinarian. As she approached her teenage years, she began talking back, swearing at her mother, who would slap her, said Elisa's aunt, Bonzetta Winkler.
"That was just the way people around here disciplined their children," her aunt said.
In school, Elisa was popular.
"We went to football games. School dances — she was a good dancer," said Jerry Allen Winkler, who dated her off and on in high school. Winkler is not related to Elisa's aunt.
Elisa and Jerry Winkler both dropped out of school and lost touch for about a year before he ran into her at a local gas station. She was with her newborn, Amber, and told Winkler the baby's father had left her.
Jerry Winkler asked her out, and a week later, he proposed.
Since they were both under 18, they needed their parents' permission. They lied to Winkler's parents and told them he was the father. To prove it, they forged a copy of a blood test.
They were married Sept. 14, 1985. Within days, Winkler was overwhelmed. "I was 17 and married with a kid. It just hit me all at once and I wanted out," he said.
Winkler's father was upset, too, because he was tricked into giving permission. The father asked a judge to annul the marriage, which was done less than four months after it began.
Nearly a year later, she met Joseph Proctor, who walked with a limp from a near-fatal car accident. They dated for months, and when she told Proctor she was pregnant, he proposed.
They were married Sept. 5, 1987. She was 19; he was 28. Their son, Douglas, was born a few months later. A year later, they had their second child, Brittany.
The marriage was rocky. The couple lived in a home owned by Proctor's mother, Levirtis White. In April 1989, White asked a judge for a restraining order, claiming Elisa was stealing and destroying property in the home.
According to the mother-in-law, Elisa said: "If I have to get out of here, I'll burn the house down. I'm going to kill this baby. I'm going to wreck this car. I'll kill those kids."
Two months later, the couple reconciled. Proctor's mother dropped the complaint.
Their divorce wasn't final until 1992, but the relationship ended Christmas Day in 1990 when Elisa walked out. She gained custody of Amber and Brittany; Douglas went to live with Proctor.
Andrew Harris Jr. recalled the first time he spotted Elisa, nursing a Jack Daniels at a little honky-tonk in Lincolnton.
He had just walked into the Tri-County Bar after another long shift at the J.P. Stevens textile plant. She waved at him.
"We just hit it off," he said. "She was easy to talk to."
They married a few months later on April 17, 1992.
Soon her personality changed. She was often angry, and she took it out on her daughters, Harris said. She yelled and hit them, he said.
"I'd say to her, 'Why do you have them in their rooms again?' She'd just start mumbling about how she didn't want to deal with them. The truth is she treated them like dirt," he said.
After a fight in early 1994, Harris left the house for a few days. When he returned, it was empty. No furniture, guns or fishing rods.
"There was nothing nice about that woman," he said.
In the fall of 1994, a neighbor told Darrell Putnam she had found the perfect woman for him. Putnam was 30 and had been deaf nearly his entire life. He can understand speech with his hearing aids on, but his disability made it difficult for him to find dates, said his mother, Margie Putnam.
Elisa and Darrell Putnam went to a bar. She told him about her girls, but lied and said 8-year-old Amber had cancer.
Within weeks, they moved in together.
About this time, Elisa's mother died of cancer, and she had ballooned to more than 300 pounds.
"I wouldn't see her for days," Darrell Putnam said, at times using sign language as his mother interpreted. "She would go out and get drunk and carry on. She was never home."
Worse, when she was there, she would "smack around" her children, Darrell Putnam said.
They married Feb. 4, 1995, but their relationship quickly disintegrated.
One day after work, Putnam found her in bed with another man. He walked to his mother's house, and returned a few days later. Everything was gone, including his expensive hearing aids.
"All he wanted was a family," Margie Putnam said. "He loved those girls. He stayed with her because of those girls. But in the end she broke his heart. She was pure evil."
Jeffrey Allred remembers, with a shudder, the last time he saw her in the spring of 1998.
She had put her daughters in the car and headed to Walmart for groceries. When the tail lights receded in the night, he pulled a packed suitcase from a bedroom closet, jumped in his truck and headed in the opposite direction.
"I just couldn't take the abuse anymore," said the 6-foot-2 Allred, who weighs 260 pounds.
He said she beat him with a baseball bat and threw rocks at him. He was so spooked that he never divorced her; he was too afraid he might see her in court.
The relationship didn't start out that way. There were nights when they would drive around the upscale neighborhoods of Hickory, and she would tell him her dream was to live in one of the grand houses.
They married Oct. 3, 1997, then she changed. "It was like a light switch went off and she said: 'I got him now,'" he said.
Aaron Young, who met Elisa while she was married to Allred, picked up the pieces. It was the first time a woman had paid attention to him.
As a child, he had rickets, a bone disease often caused by poor nutrition that can cause skeletal deformities. He had several operations on his left leg, and there was a steel rod in the other, a condition that made him self-conscious and shy.
The couple were married Aug. 8, 1998. She was 30; he was 20.
"He was a very responsible kid," said Young's brother, James. "When he married her, he grew up overnight. He took being married seriously and was a stable influence in those kids' lives."
It was during their marriage that Elisa discovered the Internet. She would spend long hours in front of a computer.
She got tattoos and changed her hair color from blonde to black with fire-engine-red streaks. Aaron Young's mother spotted her kissing another man in a car in 2007, and her sixth marriage ended.
In early 2008, Elisa said she was headed to Australia and she wouldn't be returning.
"We thought she was making that stuff up, just like she always did," James Young said. "I guess we were wrong."
By this time, she had left a string of eviction notices, small claims judgments and liens against her from landlords, utility companies and other bill collectors, according to court documents reviewed by the AP.
The first time Adam Baker saw his future wife in person was at the airport. They had met through Instant Messaging Virtual Universe, a website where users create three-dimensional characters to represent themselves, using the avatars to interact in a virtual world.
He was 33; she was 40. The couple lived with Adam Baker's mother in Giru, in the southern part of Australia. But his friends and family had their doubts.
"Her stories seemed very outrageous. We kept wondering: What is she doing here?" said Kim Wright, a family friend.
Wright had become something of a surrogate mother to Zahra, whose biological mother left when she was a baby.
They were married in his family's backyard July 8, 2008. A few months later, Adam Baker told his mother he was moving to the U.S.
His family was worried. In Australia, Zahra's medical treatments were free. But Adam Baker told his friends and family Elisa Baker had money and would take care of the bills, Wright said. By now, Zahra was using a prosthetic leg and chemotherapy left her partially deaf, forcing her to use hearing aids.
When the couple returned to North Carolina, they moved in with her father, but he quickly kicked them out, presumably over the treatment of Zahra.
Family members and neighbors recalled Elisa Baker hitting Zahra and locking her in her room. Social service agencies in seven counties investigated abuse allegations, but the agency has said they are prohibited by law to discuss the cases.
In September, the couple moved into a house in Hickory. On Oct. 9, they reported Zahra missing. About a month later, Zahra's prosthetic leg was found. Then her remains, in locations 5 miles apart.
"She was always looking for attention," said Allred, her fifth husband. "She always wanted to be known, to be famous. Well, I guess she got what she was looking for after all."