Editor's note: For complete details from this story, including reporting on autopsy reports and a timeline of events for investigations conducted by departments of social services in Caldwell and Catawba counties, be sure to see the Tuesday print edition of The Observer News Enterprise.
HICKORY, N.C. (AP) — More than four months after a 10-year-old disabled girl disappeared, her jailed stepmother was charged with murdering her with the indictment coming the same day authorities revealed that they haven't been able to find the dismembered girl's head.
Elisa Baker, 42, was charged with second-degree murder Monday and authorities said she desecrated Zahra Baker's remains to cover up the slaying. Zahra's death was caused by "undetermined homicidal violence," medical examiners said in documents.
An autopsy was done even though authorities haven't recovered many bones, most notably the girl's skull, months after she was reported missing. Several bones showed cutting tool marks consistent with dismemberment. The revelation of the missing skull came in documents released by the state's chief medical examiner shortly after officials in western North Carolina held a news conference about the charge against Baker.
Prosecutor James Gaither Jr. said at the news conference that there was no credible evidence to suggest anyone else was involved in Zahra's slaying. Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins called the murder charge "a milestone of holding someone accountable that members of team Zahra have been working toward since the first words spoken on that 911 call."
Attorneys for Elisa Baker did not return calls seeking comment Monday.
Investigators would continue to pursue leads until the trial begins, Adkins said.
Documents show that police learned months ago that the girl was dismembered after she died. The lack of a head may help to explain the absence of an exact cause of death — and why it took four months for a charge.
Warrants in the case have indicated that Elisa Baker at one point was providing police information about what happened to Zahra's body. The warrants have never revealed how Zahra, who was reported missing Oct. 9 but was last seen weeks earlier, may have died.
Police eventually found the girl's remains in different places around western North Carolina, and Elisa Baker told authorities that she had been dismembered, according to warrants. Elisa Baker has been jailed since the weekend Zahra disappeared, charged with obstructing justice in the investigation by writing a fake ransom note that was found when the girl was reporting missing.
The second-degree indictment cites aggravating factors, saying Elisa Baker had a history of physically, verbally and psychologically abusing Zahra, who used a prosthetic leg and hearing aids after being stricken with cancer.
Two social services agencies said Monday they investigated reports just months before Zahra was killed that she was being improperly treated. Officials in Caldwell and Catawba Counties said investigators interviewed each family member in those cases but closed each one by concluding that there was no evidence of maltreatment or child safety issues.
The reports included allegations of improper discipline, improper care and an injurious environment.
Elisa Baker has claimed that her husband, Adam Baker, dismembered the body. Adam Baker has denied that, something he reiterated in an interview Monday with WBTV. He also told the station that he's "grateful" for how the investigators handled the case.
The warrant also said cell phone records indicate Adam Baker was not in the locations where Zahra's remains were found on the day Elisa Baker indicated, but that cell phone records showed she was in those places.
Elisa Baker led a nomadic life, with dozens of different addresses over a seven-year period. She was also married seven times and was wed to more than one man on several occasions. She met Adam Baker, seven years her junior, on a website where users create three-dimensional characters to represent themselves.
Adam Baker is free on bond, facing numerous charges not related to his daughter. He moved to North Carolina with Zahra from Australia after meeting Elisa online.