Stepmother gets up to 18 years in girl's killing

AP News
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Posted: Sep 15, 2011 9:27 PM
Stepmother gets up to 18 years in girl's killing

Staring angrily, Adam Baker confronted his wife in a courtroom Thursday after she admitted to murdering his 10-year-old disabled daughter and scattering her remains in the western reaches of North Carolina.

"There are no words to explain the hate I have for you," he told Elisa Baker, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder with aggravating factors that included desecrating the body of Zahra Baker, the freckle-faced girl who used a prosthetic leg and hearing aids after a bone cancer fight.

Elisa Baker also pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and to charges unrelated to Zahra's death, including obtaining property by false pretenses, financial identity fraud and bigamy.

She was sentenced to up to 18 years in prison.

Elisa Baker sat in the courtroom teary-eyed before making her plea deal with prosecutors.

Zahra Baker's biological mother, Emily Dietrich, traveled from Australia for the proceeding and wept when she heard details of her daughter's death recounted at the hearing. Dietrich called the 43-year-old defendant "pure evil" and the slaying a "heinous act."

"My only hope now is she (Zahra) is in a place where she never feels pain. ... In a place where she can feel my love," she said.

Superior Court Judge Timothy Kincaid said the crime would haunt the community for years.

"What kind of person would take the life of an innocent child?" he said.

Adam Baker, who came to the U.S. from Australia with his daughter in 2008 after meeting Elisa online, faces multiple criminal charges of his own, although none are related to his daughter's death.

Standing mere feet from Elisa Baker, he told her she had ruined his life. He also said Zahra had looked up to her stepmother, adding: "I trusted you with the most precious person in my life."

"Zahra will never get to go to high school, never have a real boyfriend, never get married and never have children," he said.

Afterward, he said he wasn't sure justice was done.

"It's pretty sad when you get less than 20 years for taking a girl's life," he said.

Elisa Baker's guilty plea comes nearly a year after Zahra was reported missing from her home in Hickory. Initially, Elisa and Adam Baker told police they believed their daughter had been kidnapped, but that story quickly unraveled as police arrested Elisa and charged her with forging a ransom note.

More details about the case _ including Elisa's abuse of Zahra _ were revealed during the hearing.

Zahra's death was caused by "undetermined homicidal violence," medical examiners said in documents.

An autopsy was conducted even though authorities hadn't recovered many bones, most notably the girl's skull, months after she was reported missing. Several bones showed cutting tool marks consistent with dismemberment.

During the hearing, Dietrich and Adam Baker begged Elisa Baker to tell them where the rest of the remains were located.

"What I truly want to see is Zahra be given the dignity and respect she deserves," Dietrich said.

Elisa Baker's lawyer, Scott Reilly, said without his client's help, Zahra's partial remains might not have been found. He said his client was "truly sorry" for all the pain she caused and pleaded guilty to help bring closure to the girl's family and the community.

Questions still linger, including why the child was killed.

Police in court painted a picture of a woman who habitually bent the truth.

Capt. Thurmond Whisnant, an investigator with the Hickory Police Department, said Elisa Baker told him the girl died Sept 24. Elisa told police Zahra was sick that day and went to bed shortly after eating that afternoon. About an hour later, Elisa said she checked on Zahra but she was "unresponsive." She said she tried and failed to revive the girl.

She also claimed that Adam dismembered Zahra and disposed of her body in white trash bags, but Whisnant said that was a lie.

Investigators found proof that Adam was working that morning with another man on a landscaping project.

One of the biggest questions facing law enforcement was whether Adam was involved in Zahra's death, Whisnant said. Police believe he wasn't. Whisnant said authorities believe that Adam would leave the house early in the morning and return late at night. When he came home, Elisa told him Zahra was sleeping and not to disturb the girl.

Police also described three cases where witnesses saw Elisa beat Zahra. Once the child attended school with two black eyes and was afraid to go home.

It was part of a pattern in Elisa Baker life. The case revealed her as a woman with a troubled past, constantly shifting addresses and staying one step ahead of bill collectors and county social service agencies investigating reports of child abuse. The Associated Press found that she has been married seven times, including several overlapping marriages.

During those marriages, former husbands told the AP that Elisa beat her three children and that social service agencies in several counties had investigated the abuse.

Those who knew Elisa described her as an attractive high school student who became manipulative, cunning and insecure, struggling with obesity. By the time she met Adam, she had immersed in an online world of assumed identities and grandiose stories about her past, according to records and friends.

Prosecutor James Gaither Jr. defended the plea, which stemmed in part from a deal his office made with Elisa Baker to help find the remains. Without her help, they probably wouldn't have found Zahra's body, and, in all likelihood, Elisa Baker would never have been charged in the girl's death.

"As the district attorney, it is my responsibility to weigh the risks and the probabilities in every prosecution. The risk in this case was the Elisa Baker would entirely avoid responsibility for her part in the death of Zahra," he said.