HICKORY — The stepmother of a 10-year-old disabled Hickory girl whose disappearance and gruesome death made headlines on two continents was charged Monday with murder.
A grand jury indicted Elisa Baker for second-degree murder after an autopsy ruled out the possibility that Zahra Baker died a natural death, as her stepmother has claimed. The autopsy released by the N.C. Medical Examiner said the girl died of "undetermined homicidal violence." Many of the girl's bones were not present for the examination, the report said.
Also Monday, for the first time, social service agencies in Catawba and Caldwell counties acknowledged that they had investigated four complaints that Zahra was being mistreated - but never found evidence of "maltreatment or child safety issues."
The last DSS investigation was closed six weeks before authorities say Zahra was killed by her stepmother on Sept. 24.
Zahra wasn't reported missing until Oct. 9 - and became the subject of a massive search that gained attention worldwide as people saw photos of the girl's smiling face and heard the story of her difficult life and shocking dismemberment. Zahra, a native of Australia, survived cancer, lost a leg and lived with a hearing impairment.
Elisa Baker, 42, has been jailed since October, charged with obstruction for writing a phony ransom note to make it appear Zahra had been kidnapped.
Monday's murder indictment says Baker had "a history and pattern of physical, verbal and psychological abuse of the victim." Grand jurors also allege that Elisa Baker had "secreted" Zahra from her family before the killing to delay detection of the crime. She also "desecrated [Zahra's] body to hinder detection, investigation and prosecution of the offense."
No charges have been filed against Zahra's father Adam Baker, 33.
Authorities announced the murder charge at a news conference Monday, closing a wrenching chapter in an unprecedented death investigation for Hickory and its police department.
"The members of 'Team Zahra' have been working toward this milestone in this case since the first words spoken on the 911 call made on October 9, 2010," Police Chief Tom Adkins told a throng of reporters. "There has not been a day gone by without members of our team thinking about Zahra or this case."
Catawba District Attorney James Gaither Jr. told reporters: "At this time, the state has no credible evidence to suggest that anyone other than Elisa Baker was involved in the murder of Zahra Clare Baker."
Police and the prosecutor would not answer questions or provide more details about the case. Elisa Baker's attorney could not be reached Monday.
It's unclear how prosecutors will link Elisa Baker to what the autopsy calls "undetermined homicidal violence" - particularly since weeks elapsed between the alleged murder and the discovery of some of Zahra's body parts. The autopsy said her head, right arm and all of her left leg were not available for examination.
Adam Baker said Monday he was pleased about the investigation's findings. Elisa Baker has accused him of dismembering his daughter's body after Elisa Baker had discovered the girl dead from an illness.
"I'm extremely grateful that Hickory police and everybody else has taken their time, gone through everything properly, and come to the conclusion that they should have come to," Adam Baker told WBTV Monday afternoon.
"I had no involvement with Zahra's death or dismemberment."
Hickory police said in November they believed the girl was dead, after Elisa Baker led them to remains that were later confirmed as Zahra's. Prosecutor Gaither has challenged a TV report saying he had agreed to remove a first-degree murder charge and possible death penalty in exchange for Elisa Baker's help in finding Zahra's body.
Gaither has refused to say if any deal was signed but insisted in December that "if there is sufficient and credible evidence to prove that Elisa Baker was involved in the death of Zahra Baker, the state is under no obligation to limit charges."
Hickory Mayor Rudy Wright told The Charlotte Observer on Monday: "People have been waiting for this. This is going to stir up discussions. Some people will be satisfied. Some people will be unhappy. A lot of people wanted to see a first-degree murder charge. But there are a lot of things about this investigation we don't know."
Eddie Mitchell, who lived across the street from the Bakers and attended Monday's news conference, said he was disappointed that Elisa Baker wasn't charged with first-degree murder, which is punishable by life in prison or the death penalty.
"I want to see justice like everybody else does," Mitchell said. "What they did to this child, it's inhuman. It's a disgrace."
If convicted, Elisa Baker could serve from about eight years to more than 30 years. Elisa Baker has a minor criminal record of long-ago convictions for assault and worthless checks. In addition to murder and obstruction of justice charges, Elisa Baker - who has been married seven times - faces a current charge of bigamy, because police say she wasn't yet divorced when she married Adam Baker in Australia in 2009.
Social service agencies released some details about their investigation into reports that Zahra was being mistreated in the year before she died.
In all, Caldwell and Catawba social services officials say they received four complaints involving the Bakers and claiming improper discipline and maltreatment.
Two of the reports came just days apart - on Jan. 29, 2010 and Feb. 4, 2010.
All of the investigations ended the same way, with child protective workers finding "no evidence of maltreatment or child safety issues."
According to the agencies:
On Feb. 1, 2010, after receiving the Jan. 29 allegations of improper discipline, improper care and injurious environment, Caldwell County Social Services visited the Baker home and interviewed Zahra, Adam and Elisa Baker.
On Feb. 4, Caldwell received a second complaint making the same allegations. The case was combined with the earlier investigation and both were closed Feb. 23.
On May 28, 2010, Caldwell received allegations of improper discipline and care of Zahra. Family members were interviewed over the next month, and the case was closed June 23.
On July 12, Caldwell received another report of mistreatment but discovered the Bakers had moved to Catawba County, so the case was transferred. Catawba social services visited the Baker house in Hickory the next day - and twice more, on July 22 and Aug. 5. They interviewed the Bakers and others and closed the case Aug. 6.
Six weeks later, police say, Zahra was killed.
At Monday's news conference, Police Chief Adkins told reporters: "We will continue our investigation and follow every lead until the first day of trial... Over the last four months, many different theories of how and who is responsible for the death of Zahra have been made by anyone who has followed this case.
"Not every case is clear cut, and only the facts and evidence of the case can dictate who is charged and for what offenses. We concur with the decision made today by the Catawba County grand jury."