The search of the landfill in Caldwell County for evidence related to the disappearance and possible death of 10-year-old Zahra Clare Baker came to a conclusion Friday afternoon after three days, and teams scouring the piles of trash did not find the evidence they were seeking.
Hickory Police Department released a statement late Friday indicating that teams completed their search of the Foothills Environmental, Inc. landfill off Cheraw Road in western Caldwell County at 3 p.m., also confirming that they had been looking for a mattress.
Authorities had not been divulging exactly what they were looking for at the landfill. During a press conference Wednesday, HPD Chief Tom Adkins said only that they were looking for a “piece of evidence” they felt would be crucial in establishing a viable timeline for the disappearance of Zahra, which was reported by her father Adam and stepmother Elisa Baker Oct. 9.
They also said the probe could last up to five days, but it came to a conclusion much earlier. The search had focused on a mattress belonging to Zahra that had been disposed of by her parents sometime during early October, days before Zahra was reported missing.
According to the press release issued Friday, investigators had hoped to use the mattress to confirm interviews with people associated with the investigation and reinforce the timeline that has been called crucial to the case. They also were hopeful the mattress might provide DNA evidence.
Members of the media covering the disappearance and possible death of Zahra were allowed access to the site being searched at the Foothills Environmental Inc. landfill Friday, getting an idea of the conditions crews faced as they sifted through mounds of trash for the mattress.
The smell of the trash mounds was stifling at times with winds whipping dust across the refuse piled up, and buzzards circled overhead when not perched on nearby hillsides ready to scour for scraps. In the midst of that, investigators with the Hickory Police Department, and agents with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Marshal Service were looking for evidence, sometimes sorting through it and other times allowing heavy equipment to move it.
Authorities were evasive about what they were searching for at the landfill, but reports on various television news stations and footage by some of them showed investigators at the landfill site removing mattresses from piles of garbage through the use of tractors and excavators. There was no confirmation that mattresses were part of the evidence being sought by investigators until late Friday after the probe had come to its conclusion.
Investigators had been searching a 100- by 200-feet section in the 40-acre area of landfill used for garbage collection from the nine counties served by the facility.
Investigators think that Zahra, who had a prosthetic leg as a result of bone cancer, wore hearing aids and once attended school in Caldwell County, may have been missing two weeks before her disappearance was reported by the family. They believe that the child is dead. Her body has not been located, and the case is being treated as a homicide investigation.
Searching the landfill proved to be a massive undertaking, but the probe was aided by the use of tractors equipped with GPS tracking systems. Information from the GPS was downloaded to give the date, time and location of garbage brought to the site. That technology was used to help narrow the search at the landfill, allowing crews to narrow the scope of their hunt for the mattress in question, though they had to dig through layers of trash that could have been brought to the landfill at least a month ago.
Hickory PD Maj. Clyde Deal said Friday that search team members felt good about the area they were combing to find the mattress.
“Obviously, any kind of landfill search is difficult, but everyone is giving 100 percent,” he said. “It’s difficult to pinpoint if is this is the area where it (the evidence) has been put, but chances are good we’re in the right area.”
“Everyone is working to bring closure to this incident.”
As it turned out, the mattress was not in the landfill, leaving investigators with more questions about what happened to Zahra Baker.
Caldwell County Crimestoppers, Cleveland County Crimestoppers, Alexander County Crimestoppers and High Point Crimestoppers each will offer up to $1,000 cash for information pertaining to the disappearance and whereabouts of Zahra Baker. Those agencies can be reached at the following numbers: Caldwell (828-758-8300), Cleveland (704-481-8477), Alexander (828-632-8555) and High Point (336-889-4000).
Zahra’s father Adam has not been charged with any crime, though his wife Elisa has been jailed and charged with obstruction of justice in the search for her stepdaughter after she admitted to writing a fake ransom note. Her bond was increased by $25,000 to $65,000 on the charge earlier this week by Catawba District Court Judge B.J. Mullinax, who indicated prior charges for failure to appear and outstanding unserved warrants make Elisa Baker a flight risk.
The Observer News Enterprise has reported that Elisa Baker’s biological daughter Amber Fairchild testified in court that her mother had been sent $10,000 over the last year by a man in England with whom she had an online relationship, despite her marriage to Zahra’s father Adam. She said Elisa Baker told her she wanted to leave North Carolina the day before she was arrested.
Elisa Baker also had met Zahra’s father, Adam Baker, online. Fairchild testified that her mother visited Adam Baker in early 2008. When the couple returned from Australia later that year, they were married. Adam Baker also brought Zahra to live with them.
Caldwell County Sheriff Alan Jones said people need to remain hopeful that Zahra will be found, even though a search that investigators thought may lend some concrete evidence turned up dry.
“You always want to have hope,” Jones said. “It’s tragic anytime you have to look for a missing person. It’s hard on the community; it’s hard on the family; it’s hard on those people searching. Our hearts go out to them. Just continue to pray.”
In its press release, the Hickory Police Department indicated that it would continue to pursue leads, go wherever and do whatever necessary to find Zahra and seek justice for her.