Almost a year after Zahra Baker was reported missing from her Hickory home, the world finally got an explanation behind what happened to the 10-year-old Australian girl who won two battles against cancer.
While the complete story of her apparent disappearance, death and dismemberment may never be known, a special sentencing hearing in Catawba County Superior Court gave insight into the puzzle pieces that investigators have been able to fit into place. The image created by five law enforcement witnesses delivered a first-time understanding into the development of the investigation, explanations offered by Elisa Baker and at least some hint into the way Zahra may have died inside her bedroom in northwest Hickory.
According to N.C. District 25 Attorney Jay Gaither, much of that information may have never come to light without the cooperation of the woman who on Thursday pleaded guilty to the second-degree killing of the little girl. Elisa Baker will now spend the next 15 to 18 years in prison for that guilty plea, keeping with her many of the secrets swirling around Zahra's death.
Mattress image spurs deal
Two weeks after Zahra was reported missing, law enforcement were engaged in a three-county search for the child. Acting on a tip, investigators sorted through a landfill in Caldwell County, looking for mattresses that may have been key evidence to Zahra's disappearance or death.
"As the search wound down, a media helicopter broadcast the image of a crane lifting a soiled mattress from the dump," Gaither said. "Although the mattress contained no evidence linking it to the search for Zahra, it appeared to the public — and perhaps the defendant — that law enforcement had uncovered a key piece of evidence."
Gaither said this may have prompted Elisa Baker to attempt to reach out with information behind the child's death. Already incarcerated for writing a fake ransom note connected to Zahra's disappearance, Elisa Baker told prosecutors she was "ready to cooperate," Gaither said. In exchange for providing this information, her defense attorney orchestrated a deal to insure Elisa Baker wouldn't face first-degree murder charges or the death penalty. Gaither said law enforcement and prosecutors, united as "Team Zahra" had little choice but to accept her help.
"The team concluded that it was near certain that without the cooperation of Elisa Baker, the disappearance of Zahra would remain unsolved and those responsible for her murder would go unpunished," he said after Thursday's hearing.
From the outset of the deal, with the help of capital defense attorney Lisa Dubbs and her investigators, Elisa Baker led investigators to dismembered pieces of Zahra's body at three locations in Caldwell County. Elisa Baker's defense team at the time also produced a saw from a drain on Industrial Boulevard in Caldwell County — a saw that was suspected to be used to cut apart Zahra's body.
Some of her body parts were found — her prosthetic leg, vertebrae, a shoulder bone, a leg bone, an arm bone. Many of those body parts, according to State Bureau of Investigation Agent Heath McBride had marks that indicated they had been "sawed into." According to law enforcement who testified Thursday, much of Zahra's body have not been recovered: her head, right arm, upper left leg or lower right leg.
Still police assembled evidence to build a murder case.
A phony alibi
Along with leading investigators to parts of Zahra's body, Elisa offered an explanation into what happened.
"She basically told us what happened the entire day Sept. 24," said Hickory Police Captain Thurman Whisnant. "She said she found Zahra in her room, unresponsive somewhere around 4 p.m."
Elisa Baker told police she fed Zahra an hour earlier, and later went into her bedroom and found her. She was not breathing.
"She said she attempted CPR for 20-25 minutes following that. She was unsuccessful in reviving her," Whisnant testified. "She said she called Adam at work and sometime thereafter — 5-5:30 p.m. — Adam arrived home."
Elisa Baker told police she informed Adam of what happened, and that the two of them collectively decided they could not call 9-1-1. Whisnant said Elisa Baker's story was that she convinced Adam that since he was in the nation illegally, reporting Zahra's death would only lead to more problems.
"She said Adam said he would take care of it," Whisnant said, adding that according to Elisa Baker's account, on the following morning, "Adam went into the bathroom for a period of time, got some white trash bags and shortly thereafter, told her she would have to assist him in finding places to, in essence, take Zahra's remains."
According to Assistant District Attorney Michael Van Buren, Elisa Baker told police Adam went into the bathroom, cut apart the body of his dead child, and with Elisa Baker they hid her body parts.
As this story unfolded publicly for the first time in the courtroom Thursday, Adam hung his head low and shook it.
Shortly after Elisa Baker gave her account to police, Whisnant said police began to discover inconsistencies.
"Primarily it was the historical cell phone records we had," he said."If we know a cell number and provider, cell companies can provide a general area of range (of where a call is made)."
Whisnant said investigators were able to identify locations where Adam utilized his T-Mobile cell phone. They also identified locations where Elisa Baker utilized hers, and those locations did not corroborate her story.
Whisnant testified that phone records illustrated that Elisa Baker completed a series of phone calls on Sept. 24 that indicated she was leaving her residence in Hickory and traveling north on U.S. 321. She made three phone calls near Christie Road, where police discovered Zahra's prosthetic leg. She also used her cell phone near Industrial Boulevard where a saw was recovered. Other calls were made north of International Boulevard, according to phone records, Whisnant testified.
He added that while it was not unusual for Elisa Baker to be near Wal-Mart on U.S. 321, trips to Christie Road, International Boulevard and Dudley Shoals were outside of her routine.
"These are kind of rural areas," Van Buren said. "There are not any shopping malls or anything in these areas for people to go to for business purposes."
Meanwhile, Whisnant said Adam's cell phone usage revealed he was not in those areas. Further, on Sept. 25, when Elisa Baker said he was dismembering and disposing of the body, Adam was in the Newton-Conover area making phone calls. His presence in eastern Catawba County was backed-up by a resident for whom he completed landscaping work.
More inconsistencies in Elisa Baker's explanation became clear as police examined text messages she sent to Adam, Whisnant said.
"On Oct. 7, there was a text that was sent to Adam from Elisa," Whisnant said explaining that nearly two weeks after Elisa Baker told police Zahra died, she texted to Adam "I fed Zahra."
On Oct. 8, Elisa Baker sent Adam a text talking about a birthday present she bought for Zahra, Whisnant said.
"She is sending a text as if Zahra is still alive," Whisnant said, adding those texts continued after the investigation began. "On Oct. 10 (after the investigation begins), we are conducting an interview and Adam and Elisa are apart from one another. She sent a text to Adam that says, 'Hello. I guess you are not talking to me. They got me convinced I did something.'"
Elisa Baker also texted to Adam, "Are you just going to leave me to go through all this by myself;" and "You should know I would never do anything ... She loves me, but I guess they have you convinced I am a monster."
"Our interpretation is that she is trying to convince Adam she didn't do anything," Whisnant said.
Whisnant also said that while Adam admitted to smoking "marijuana more than I spent quality time with my daughter," police did not believe he was involved in her death.
"It was the collective conclusion of law enforcement, including Hickory Police Department and other agencies helping in the investigation, that Adam was not involved," Whisnant said.
After Elisa Baker led police to parts of Zahra's dismembered body. They returned to the home at 2120 21st Ave. Northwest. While there, SBI's agent McBride said police discovered blood-stained pants in a closet adjacent to Zahra's room. That turned the home into a crime scene and investigators found more evidence, including pin-sized blood spots on the wall, ceiling and floor of Zahra's bedroom, he said.
"We tested about 18 drops, and they tested positive for the chemical indications of blood," he said, adding the spots were on a wall that had been painted pink and a floor painted black. "Some of them appeared to be covered up. We don't know what was over it, especially on the floor. Some spots on the floor just looked black, but we got a positive indication test for blood."
With photos displayed to the court, McBride also explained other methods apparently used to cover up the crime. On a wall behind where Zahra's bed once rested, there "appears to be a clean-up pattern with something running down the wall, bleach or some other substance," McBride said.
"It appears to be a clean-up, Clorox or some kind of bleach where it ran down the wall and discolored it," he said. "Our conclusion from what we observed at the residence, and examination of the crime scene showed biological evidence of Zahra Baker and it was inconsistent with death by natural causes."
While police investigators pieced together enough details and evidence to determine Zahra died in an unnatural manner, they still aren't precisely sure what happened. There are plenty of questions unanswered.
"The question this court has is two-fold," said Superior Court Judge Timothy Kincaid. "The big question the court has is what prompts a person to take the life of a helpless, defenseless child?
"The second question is that other than a violent homicide, we really don;t know how this child died to this day, and we may never," he continued.
Only one person knows the answer to those questions.
"She has the right to tell us what she wants to tell us and what she doesn't want to tell," Hickory Police Tom Adkins said. "Sure, everybody wants to know what happened. But as you heard today, there's only one person knows who knows what happened, and she is not talking."
Elisa Baker was given an opportunity to speak during proceedings Thursday, but she declined.
"Zahra Baker was a wonderful child and drew a lot of attention. She had a magnetism that drew people to her ... For people, all the attributes of a child goes to the parent," Gaither said, pondering the motive for Zahra's murder. "Maybe her value was diminished. None of this makes sense."