HICKORY — Relatives of a missing 10-year-old Hickory girl whose bone cancer left her with a prosthetic leg and hearing aids described the child's life as miserable, saying she was locked in her room for most of the day and was punished over little things.
Zahra Clare Baker was reported missing Saturday, but police said they have had trouble finding anyone outside the household who had seen the girl alive in the last few weeks. Authorities also cast doubt on what the couple had told them.
"I just think this was something for a long time that we knew was going to happen, everybody that was close to the family," relative Brittany Bentley said on CBS' "Early Show" on Tuesday.
Zahra's father, Adam Baker, has said it was possible his wife could be involved in the disappearance and other relatives echoed those remarks.
Zahra was reported missing after a yard fire at the home. The girl's stepmother, Elisa Baker, was arrested Sunday on about a dozen charges unrelated to her disappearance. It's unclear whether she has an attorney.
Bentley, who is married to Elisa Baker's nephew, said she would have Zahra over for weekends and the girl would get mad when it was time to return home.
Zahra "was locked in her room, allowed five minutes out a day to eat, that was it," Bentley said. "She was beat almost every time I was over there for just the smallest things. Elisa would get mad, she would take it out on Zahra, things the kid didn't deserve. She just had a horrible home life."
Neighbors also feared the worst. A search warrant revealed that police dogs detected the smell of human remains on cars belonging to the father and stepmother.
"There were warning signs along the way, but you never want to think the worst," said former neighbor Kayla Rotenberry.
Police scheduled a news conference for 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.
The stepmother said she last saw Zahra sleeping in her room about 2:30 a.m. Saturday, yet Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins said investigators don't know the last time anyone saw her. "We're having a difficult time establishing a true timeline," he said.
After the search warrant, police declined to comment further.
Adkins, the police chief in a city of 40,000 residents about 50 miles northwest of Charlotte, said the father was cooperating with police, but Elisa Baker wasn't.
Zahra had two hearing aids, which were left at the house, and a prosthetic left leg from the knee down, police said.
She was being home-schooled, but had attended public schools in the past.
Police responded to the fire early Saturday and found what appeared to be a ransom note addressed to Adam Baker's boss on the windshield of Baker's car, the search warrant said. Police went to that man's house, and found him and his daughter to be fine.
"Mr. Coffey, you like being in control now who is in control we have your daughter," the warrant quoted the ransom note as saying. It asked for $1 million dollars and said "no cops."
Zahra was described by family friends as shy but constantly smiling, in spite of her health problems. The stepmother could be short-tempered toward her, two former neighbors said, but the woman also fought tears when a charity fitted her for hearing aids a few months ago.
The police chief said he wouldn't rule out any suspects, including Adam Baker.
Rotenberry, the former neighbor, said she and her fiance were good friends with the Bakers when they lived in the nearby town of Sawmills. About six months ago she noticed that Elisa Baker's hand was swollen, Rotenberry said.
"She told me that she was trying to spank Zahra, but hit her on her prosthetic leg," she said. "When Adam asked her about the injury, she said she fell and hurt her hand. She didn't want him to know. She knew he would be mad."
Another former neighbor, Brandy Stapleton, 22, of Lenoir, said that Elisa Baker told her the same story about how she injured her hand. "She wasn't the person everyone thought she was."
Adam Baker was from Australia, and met his current wife over the Internet, Stapleton said. Zahra's mother lives outside the U.S.
The child had lost part of her hearing during chemotherapy for two bouts of cancer, her stepmother told the Independent-Tribune of Concord-Kannapolis in May during a charity event where she got free hearing aids.
Elisa Baker was arrested Sunday on charges including communicating threats, writing worthless checks, larceny and driving with a revoked license. It was unclear whether she has an attorney.
She has two daughters and a son from a previous marriage.
Associated Press Writers Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C., and Martha Waggoner and Mike Baker in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.