DA to lead Zahra case

Twenty-fifth Prosecutorial District Attorney Jay Gaither reinstated Eric Bellas to active status in his role as chief assistant district attorney this week, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Bellas will be handling prosecution of Elisa Baker if and when her case goes to trial.

In an emailed response to inquiries by the (Lenoir) News-Topic, Gaither indicated that he is taking the lead in the case against Elisa Baker, who was charged in February with second-degree murder in the death and dismemberment of her 10-year-old stepdaughter Zahra Baker.

“I have taken the lead in the prosecution against Elisa Baker and intend to meet with ‘Team Zahra,’ the prosecutorial and law enforcement team, early this coming week to begin the final stages of preparation as we head into hearings to determine schedules for motions and trial priorities,” Gaither wrote in the email.

Bellas was the lead prosecutor for the case, as he was with a number of the district’s high-profile cases in recent years.

However, he was placed on administrative leave June 21 following an arrest for allegedly operating a bicycle while impaired at Sunset Beach. He was on leave until July 5 when his active status with the DA’s Office was reinstated. 

An emailed statement from the DA’s Office on Thursday gave an explanation for the reinstatement, citing a review that determined the allegations did not warrant further action to be taken against Bellas.

The email read, “On Tuesday, July 5, Mr. Eric Bellas’ status within the District Attorney’s Office was returned to active. Following a charge of operating a bicycle while impaired Mr. Bellas was placed on administrative leave. An administrative review of the allegations against Mr. Bellas was made by the district attorney. It was determined following the review that the allegations did not rise to a level that would require further censure or dismissal.”

Bellas, 45, was arrested and jailed at about 2 a.m. June 21, charged with operating a vehicle while subject to an impairing substance. Reports from Sunset Beach Police Department indicated Bellas was not cooperative when the officer questioned him about what happened. Sunset Beach Police Chief Lisa Massey said Bellas made no statement and refused to take a Breathalyzer test to determine his blood-alcohol level. 

Gaither indicated in an email that the charge was not enough to warrant further disciplinary action against Bellas.

“There are a number of factors that I might consider in determining whether or not to keep an employee,” Gaither wrote. “However, there first must exist a situation that would require his or her discharge. The charge of operating a bicycle while impaired standing alone is not sufficient to require an employee’s dismissal. I have reviewed the circumstances surrounding the charge, and there is nothing, in my opinion, that aggravates the charge.”

Gaither went on to write that the decision was one that he feels is in the best interest of the citizens in the 25th Prosecutorial District, covering Caldwell, Catawba and Burke counties.
“Mr. Bellas is an excellent prosecutor with a reputation for honesty, thoroughness and toughness,” Gaither wrote. “I know him to be an honorable professional and a dedicated family man. His departure from the District Attorney’s Office might look good politically, but it would not benefit the people. ... I base my decisions on what is right and what is best for the people that I represent.”