NEWTON — Dozens of investigators searched a North Carolina landfill Wednesday for evidence in the disappearance of a disabled 10-year-old girl, but they said they didn't expect to find the girl's body there.
As Hickory police and FBI agents checked mounds of trash in Caldwell County, a judge at a nearby court house increased bail for the girl's stepmother, Elisa Baker, from $45,000 to $65,000 after prosecutors convinced him that she was a flight risk.
Catawba County District Judge Robert Mullinax Jr. said there were "disturbing and unsettling allegations" in the case as he dismissed a request by Baker's lawyers to reduce her bail on a charge of obstructing justice to $10,000.
Investigators said Baker wrote a bogus ransom note found Oct. 9, the day she and her husband reported Zahra Clare Baker missing. Police have said they think the girl is dead, but they have not found her body and haven't charged anyone with killing her.
At a news conference, Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins said investigators were searching the landfill for a piece of evidence that's critical to establishing a time line for Zahra's disappearance. Adkins said they didn't expect to find her body in the mounds of trash but wouldn't elaborate on what they were looking for.
Investigators said the day before that they were seeking a serial number and other details about the artificial leg the girl used since surviving bone cancer.
The girl was last seen in public Sept. 25, but investigators want to know if anyone else outside the family had seen her more recently to fill in gaps in the case's time line, Adkins said. Though investigators think Zahra is dead, they haven't ruled out the possibility that she'll be found alive.
"We're continuing to have hope, but we're still calling it a homicide investigation," Adkins said.
Baker appeared at her bail hearing Wednesday by video camera, while three of her children were in the courtroom.
One adult daughter, Amber Fairchild, testified that they frequently moved when she was growing up and that she was afraid of her mother.
Fairchild also said her mother has been talking to a man from England on the Internet over the last year, and he sent her $10,000. Zahra's father, Adam Baker, met Elisa Baker online and moved from Australia to live with her several years ago.
Fairchild said Baker told her she wanted to leave North Carolina the day before she was arrested.
Prosecutor Eric Bellas said Baker has routinely missed court appearances over the past 20 years on previous charges ranging from traffic offenses to communicating threats.
"The only time this defendant comes to court is when the sheriff's office brings her to court," Bellas said.
However, her defense attorney, Scott Reilly, argued that Baker's bail was already excessive before the judge raised it. Reilly said legal guidelines call for bail of $10,000 in obstruction cases, and he blamed media attention for causing the judge to exceed that.