Elisa Baker will serve 15-18 years in prison for the murder of 10-year-old Zahra Baker.
While Thursday’s sentencing ended a nearly year-long criminal follow-up to Zahra’s disappearance and death, law enforcement officials said that many questions surrounding the mystery of her death remain.
“As a defendant, (Elisa) has a right to tell us what she wants to tell us and what she doesn’t want to tell us,” Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins said after the hearing. “Sure, everybody here wants to know what happened. But as you heard today, there’s only one person that knows and she’s not talking.”
Adkins and District Attorney Jay Gaither said, however, that investigators have no evidence that Zahra’s father, Adam Baker, was responsible for her death.
Elisa entered the Catawba County Superior Court room just after 9:30 a.m., wearing a pink jumpsuit and with her hair pulled back and braided. Speaking in nearly a whisper, Baker pleaded guilty to felony charges of second-degree murder, obstruction of justice and bigamy. She also pleaded guilty to charges in Caldwell and Catawba counties of obtaining property by false pretenses and identity theft.
She also admitted to a history of psychological and verbal abuse of Zahra, and to dismemberment and desecration of Zahra’s body to hinder the criminal investigation. Prosecutors said these were aggravating factors in Elisa's sentencing.
After the hearing, Gaither said he was pleased with the sentence but that a sentence for first-degree murder was what the state wanted. He discussed the development of a deal in which Elisa aided law enforcement during the investigation in exchange for a maximum charge of second-degree murder.
Gaither said he weighed whether or not to accept Elisa’s assistance. If Elisa’s help was accepted, Gaither said, there was a still a probability that Zahra’s body would not be found. Gaither said the ultimate risk in the case was that Elisa would go free of all responsibility and consequences.
“This woman gave evidence to the state and left the death penalty on the table,” Gaither said. “No one gives assistance unless there’s something in it for them. We’ve never been quite sure, and I’m still not quite sure, why the defendant chose to come forward and give information.”
He said investigators could not anticipate which direction Elisa would point. He said possibilities included that Elisa would truthfully say Zahra’s murderer was another person and that she was an accomplice, that Elisa was truthfully Zahra’s murderer or that Elisa would be untruthful.
“We spent three months on a daily basis, virtually around the clock, racking our brains and doing everything we could to make sure second-degree was the best we could get,” he said. “I can honestly tell you, I was the last one through the door.”
Elisa led investigators in October to three Caldwell County locations, where some of Zahra’s remains where found.
Gaither said Thursday’s hearing was unique because information about the investigation and plea deal were shared in detail.
Before Baker received the sentence of 177 to 222 months in the North Carolina Department of Correction, Superior Court Judge Timothy Kincaid said that the individual charges would be consolidated for sentencing. Before delivering the sentence, Kincaid paused for a moment. Then he said two questions remained for the court – what exactly happened to Zahra and “what prompts a person to take the life of a helpless, defenseless child?”
Kincaid applauded the work of lawmen during the investigation and trial process. He said factual evidence supported each guilty plea.
“None of that takes the place of the tragedy that happened,” he said. “This will be the case that haunts this community from now until I leave to take to a rocking chair.”
Elisa did not make a statement prior to sentencing. Defense attorney Scott Reilly spoke for her.
“She is emotionally devastated right now,” Reilly said. “The only thing she wants me to convey to the family and the community is she’s sorry for the hurt she has caused. By pleading guilty today, I and Elisa hope this brings closure to the family and the community. There’s nothing I can say to defend the actions of Elisa.”
Adkins said the sentence achieves the goal that law enforcement and the state have been working toward since Oct. 9, when Zahra was first reported missing.
“It brings some closure to Team Zahra, for her family, our nation and the world,” Adkins said. “We must all continue our efforts to remember Zahra and what we’ve learned in the last year.”
Elisa still faces federal charges. Gaither would not comment on those charges.
“The charges will likely run until the expiration of her sentence,” he said. “Unless she changes her stripes, she’ll serve the better part of the 18 years.”