CHARLOTTE (AP) — A North Carolina woman charged in the death of her 10-year-old disabled stepdaughter made her first appearance in federal court Thursday on unrelated charges of trafficking prescription medications.
U.S. Magistrate David Keesler in Charlotte ordered that Elisa Baker, 43, be held until a detention hearing on June 2.
Federal prosecutors said Baker distributed and planned to distribute drugs including oxycodone and hydrocodone between 2006 and last October. They also say she conspired with others to distribute the drugs.
Baker faces seven counts. Conviction on all the charges could bring a prison sentence of up to 140 years.
She also is charged in Catawba County with second-degree murder in the death of Zahra Baker, the freckle-faced Australian girl who had a prosthetic leg and hearing aids because of her fight with bone cancer. Authorities say Baker dismembered the girl's body to cover up her killing. If convicted, she faces up to 30 years in prison in that case. She will be arraigned on the second-degree murder charge on June 27.
During the federal hearing, Keesler said Baker was entitled to a court-appointed attorney, who would be assigned before the detention hearing.
Steven Slawinski, an attorney with the public defender's office, sat next to Baker as the magistrate read the charges aloud. Dressed in a pink jail-issued jumpsuit with her pulled back in a ponytail, she showed no emotion.
Some of the alleged drug offenses took place in homes where she lived with Zahra's father, Adam Baker, documents shows. The couple met online, and they were married in Australia in July 2008, before moving to North Carolina.
Adam Baker has not been charged in connection with Zahra's disappearance or death, but he faces charges in unrelated matters, including identity theft and obtaining property by false pretenses. He has been barred by immigration officials from leaving the United States.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Dana Washington declined to comment on whether the drug investigation was ongoing, including whether Adam Baker was a suspect. He also declined to comment about how federal prosecutors were alerted to the case.
But federal prosecutors say Elisa Baker sold drugs out of three homes where Adam Baker and his daughter lived — including the house where she disappeared in October. Neighbors say they saw Elisa Baker abuse the girl and that they suspected drug trafficking because of the number of cars that pulled in and out of the homes at all hours of the day. Social service agencies in Caldwell and Catawba counties had been investigating allegations that Zahra had been abused by her stepmother.
The drug charges are the latest filed against Elisa Baker, a woman with a troubled past. The Associated Press found that she has been married seven times, including several overlapping marriages.
Zahra was reported missing in October, but police almost immediately doubted the Bakers' story that Zahra had been kidnapped. A few days after the girl was reported missing, Elisa Baker was charged with obstructing the investigation into Zahra's disappearance. Police say Elisa wrote a ransom note purportedly from kidnappers who were trying to snatch a different little girl.
Elisa Baker told police in interviews that Zahra had been dismembered, and led them to some of her remains at sites in Catawba and Caldwell counties, according to search warrants. She told police that Adam Baker helped scatter the remains, but cell phone records showed he was in different locations on the days when Elisa said Zahra's body parts were disposed of.
Since then, she has been charged with two dozen crimes that are unrelated to Zahra' death. They include bigamy and obtaining property by false pretenses. She was being held in the Catawba County jail on bonds totally more than $350,000.
In one case, she was accused last year with communicating threats — and it was that May 2010 complaint that gave a hint she might have been involved with drugs.
In the Caldwell County complaint, two people say Elisa Baker threatened to hurt them unless they repaid money she said they owed her. The man and woman say she threatened them with a gun and they feared for their lives. They also told police that Elisa Baker was an "unemployed drug dealer."