Opinion mixed on plea agreement

Superior Court Judge Timothy Kincaid’s sentence was loud and clear on Thursday – Elisa Baker will serve at least 15 years in state prison. What is less lucid is if her sentence is just.

Elisa’s family members are “torn,” the public thinks “no,” and Zahra Baker’s biological mother seems content with the ruling, but offered no public comment.

After 11 months, the Zahra Baker case has come to an end. Elisa Baker will serve a sentence of 177 to 222 months in state prison – a term that could be increased based on the outcome of federal charges pending against the woman who on Thursday pleaded guilty to dismembering, concealing and abusing 10-year-old Zahra.

No one may ever know exactly how Zahra died or if Elisa’s husband, Adam Baker, had anything to do with the child’s death. Elisa is not walking free, but also not serving the maximum sentence she would have if the case had gone to trial. On Thursday, Elisa’s family, the public and Zahra’s biological mother reacted to these issues and her sentencing in detail.

“Our family is torn about the decision (Elisa) made, and we’re having a hard time making understanding of what she did,” said April Fairchild, Elisa’s sister, adding that her family has differing opinions about the sentence Elisa received. “No matter what, we are not in support of her either way.”

Cathy Winkler, another of Elisa’s relatives, did not have an opinion of her sentence moments after it was read. She called the situation a nightmare.

“I’m going to try to get a book together of what our family has gone through,” Winkler said. “We’re just hoping this brings closure and that we can move on now. We hope others can learn from this.”

Fairchild said the events of the past year have been hard on the family, and added that she and a cousin have visited Elisa in jail.

“It was more for closure,” Fairchild said. “She is my family, but I can’t support her decision in this.”

Elisa’s direct family members who were in court on Thursday were frustrated that Adam Baker is not being connected to the murder. Testimony from Hickory Police Department investigators on Thursday reiterated that there is no evidence linking Adam to the murder, but Fairchild and Winkler both contend that Elisa’s former husband is guilty of something.

“There’s a lot of red flags where he is concerned,” Fairchild said, adding that it’s hard to believe Adam did not notice Zahra was missing from Sept. 24, 2010, when it is believed Zahra died, until Oct. 9, 2010, when Adam reported the child missing. “We think he knew what was going on.”

Fairchild hopes that Adam can be brought to justice for his involvement, but her “gut feeling is that he’s going to walk free.”

“They seem partly content that he has no involvement,” she said. “But even if Adam did know about it, Elisa should have done something after Zahra died of natural causes.”

Elisa’s biological mother, Emily Dietrich, attended the sentencing on Thursday. When Kincaid read Elisa’s term to the court and court was adjourned, Dietrich jumped out of her seat and embraced her mother, and Zahra’s grandmother, Joy Box.

Dietrich seemed to approve of the plea deal the state reached with Elisa, but she declined to comment on the issue. She did, however, deliver an emotional and touching statement to the court, addressed at Elisa and Adam.

“Today we sit in court to see justice carried out, but I fear there will be no real justice for Zahra because her life was taken by evils and selfishness we will never understand or comprehend,” Dietrich said, adding that Elisa’s act was “pure evil.”

She did seem to agree with Elisa’s sentence during a press conference after the sentencing. As N.C. District 25 Attorney Jay Gaither discussed the plea deal, Dietrich nodded her head in the background in approval.

“(Ms. Dietrich) has not expressed any real issues with the sentence,” Gaither said.

After Dietrich spoke, Adam addressed the court. He made it clear that Elisa’s sentence will never do justice to the crime she committed. “You may not get everything you deserve on this earth for taking Zahra’s life, but you have to face your judgment in the afterlife and his judgment will be worse than any man would give you,” Adam said.

After the sentencing, Adam left the courtroom, and then returned to be gang rushed by the media. He shuffled around to avoid comment, but after being surrounded by nearly 20 people.

“It’s pretty sad when you get 20 years for a life,” he said while mumbling a few other words.

Members of the public present at the sentencing did have issues with the plea deal, however. Many citizens felt that the only just sentence for Elisa would be exactly what she took away from Zahra – life.

“We don’t think the sentence is long enough,” said Edie Richardson, who lives in Caldwell County on Christie Road, where Zahra’s remains were found. “I have no sympathy for her. There was no justice in it for Zahra.”

Edna Cardwell, also of Caldwell County, drives a school bus and picks up children on Christie Road. She, too, felt Elisa’s sentence was “way too short.”

“I’m glad she’s going to get some time, and I don’t think they should have went to trial unless they get her for life,” Cardwell said. “But it is way too short, and I don’t think anybody is very happy about it.”

Danny Propst, a Catawba County native, has followed the Zahra Baker case from the beginning and thinks Elisa deserves life without parole.

“I cannot believe that they plea bargained. I just find that unreal,” Propst said. “That’s a smart thing for her to do, but I can’t believe the state did that. I would prefer capital punishment in the case, but life would have been a good sentence as well.”

Like Elisa’s family, Propst thinks Adam knew about Zahra’s death.

“It was a sorry fatherhood,” Propst said. “He sure was not a fatherly example if he didn’t check on her for two weeks.”

Propst said he has followed court cases in Catawba County most of his adult life.

“It’s the most gruesome and worst I’ve ever heard of,” Ehlers said. “It’s a shame and a terrible tragedy.”