When will charges be filed in the death of Zahra Baker? That’s the question that has been asked since the 10-year-old girl’s death was confirmed in mid-November and one that continues to be posed now, four months after she was first reported missing.
The decision to pursue charges is up to 25th Prosecutorial District Attorney Jay Gaither. The DA’s Office received the prosecution summary from Hickory Police Department in December, and the case file was turned over to Gaither’s office Jan. 26.
“We are awaiting their decision when they would like for us to appear before a grand jury,” HPD Maj. Clyde Deal said. “The meat of what they need is with them.”
The case file certainly is a meaty one. It exceeds more than 11,000 pages and includes 117 DVDs and another 65 CDs with photos, maps, data and evidence related to the case. That does not include reports and files from State Bureau of Investigation agents working the case. That information will be sent to the DA’s Office from the SBI.
There are other materials that HPD will have to produce for a trial, if the case ever reaches that stage.
Gaither said last week that he and his assistants need to go through the file to determine what charges, if any, should warrant an indictment in the case.
“We’ve had possession of the file for a little more than a week and are in the process of organizing the file to make it capable for review,” Gaither said, adding that the files were too large to be processed by computers in the DA’s office and were taken to Raleigh on Thursday and Friday for assistance in downloading them from the Administrative Office of the Court. That was done so the files could be accessed, searched and printed, an important aspect in providing discovery to a defense team.
Gaither went on to say he needs time to go through the complete file once everything is returned to his office.
“In the coming weeks, the District Attorney’s Office will do an exhaustive review of all the evidence,” he said. “We will conference with law enforcement to determine what, if any, charges are appropriate in the disappearance and death of Zahra Baker.”
Numerous media outlets reported early in December that Gaither reached an agreement with Zahra’s stepmother Elisa Baker, the only person jailed in the case at this point, in exchange for information that helped investigators locate pieces of the Australian child’s dismembered body in Caldwell and Catawba counties.
Gaither did not comment on the initial reports but issued a statement by e-mail four days later indicating that reports of an agreement between the prosecution and Elisa are incorrect, stating that the death penalty and life in prison without parole remain options if Elisa is tried for and convicted of the death of her stepdaughter.
He still declined to comment on the matter of any potential agreement that may be in place between the prosecution and Elisa, though he said she has maintained her innocence.
Her attorneys argue that she gave law enforcement the only credible information leading to the discovery of Zahra’s remains and that should warrant a reduction in her bond, which stands at $107,700 with all her charges combined. She still is waiting for a bond reduction hearing that has been pushed into March.
No other arrests have been made in connection with the case.
Deal said investigators feel good about the work they have put into the case, which started as a report of Zahra’s disappearance Oct. 9.
“We’ve done as good a job with it as anyone could do considering the set of circumstances we’ve been dealing with,” he said. “We feel like an indictment will come. We just don’t know when.”
The case escalated from that initial report made by Zahra’s father Adam in a 911 call, leading to Elisa’s arrest the next day on an obstruction of justice charge for admitting to writing a bogus ransom note tied to Zahra’s disappearance.
Along the way, court documents – unsealed in late November by Superior Court Judge Nathaniel Poovey through an order that indicated the District Attorney’s Office did not file a motion to reseal in an appropriate manner of time – presented grisly details of how Zahra’s body was disposed of following her death and dismemberment. Additional documents unsealed in January revealed that Elisa still was married to a man named Aaron Young when she married Adam in 2008. That led to an indictment of Elisa on a bigamy charge.
Since then, The Associated Press has researched Elisa’s background and reported that she has been married seven times since 1987 and was, at one point, married to three men at once.
She and Adam both face a lengthy list of charges unrelated to the case in Catawba and Caldwell counties. Worthless checks and communicating threats are chief among them, and each has had several appearances in Caldwell and Catawba counties continued on those charges.