Zahra Clare Baker was reported missing from her Hickory, North Carolina, home by her father on Saturday, Oct. 9. Adam Baker told Hickory Police, who had already been to his property about 12 hours sooner in response to a yard fire, that his wife, Elisa, told him she heard his daughter cough around 2:30 a.m., about two-and-a-half hours before the fire.
At first, police suspected that the 10-year-old disabled girl had been abducted, and issued an Amber Alert. It didn’t take long before they believed otherwise. In fact, they have since been unable to find someone outside her father and stepmother who have seen Zahra in the last month.
What Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins said earlier in the week remains true as the search for Zahra Baker nears its second week.
“There are a lot of answers that I just don’t have now,” Adkins told reporters at a press conference. “There are some key questions that we’re trying to get answers to.”
Hickory Police first thought Zahra Baker might have been abducted because of a ransom note officers found on a windshield on one of the vehicles parked in the Bakers’ yard. The note was discovered when police responded to a call about a yard fire. But the note was addressed to Adam Baker’s boss, Mark Coffey, saying they had his daughter and, if he didn’t meet the kidnappers’ demands, they would kidnap his son as well. Police quickly ascertained that the Coffey family remained unharmed.
But Hickory investigators soon found problems with Elisa and Adam Baker’s stories. Search warrants were issued. What appeared to be blood samples were found in the Bakers’ SUV. Cadaver dogs were alerted to the scent of human remains in two of the vehicles in the yard. A reporter spotted burned clothing remnants in some ashes of the yard fire. Yet the most troubling of the gathered information in the missing person case was that Hickory Police could find no one outside the immediate family who had seen Zahra Baker in a month.
Neighbors said they had not seen the little girl, who suffered from bone cancer and had hearing aids and a leg prosthesis due to the degenerative nature of the disease, for quite some time.
Family members went on talk shows and spoke out about Zahra Baker’s alleged mistreatment by her stepmother, Elisa. Stories about the child being locked in her room all day, only being let out to eat, and being beaten over petty infractions were broadcast and published.
But had Zahra actually gone missing sometime Saturday, or had she been missing for far longer and just not reported as such?
Hickory Police discovered Monday that the ransom note was phony when Elisa Baker, arrested Sunday on several unrelated charges, confessed that she had written it. Along with evidence gathered from the house and the confession, Hickory Police announced Tuesday that the focus of the investigation would now be one of homicide. Presuming that the child had been killed (even though searches have continued in hopes of finding the little girl alive), the Amber Alert was canceled.
Then cadaver dogs discovered the scent of human remains on a wood chipper and a mulch pile on a Burke County property used to store equipment used by the company for which Adam Baker worked. Although cooperative before, Adam became less so, according to authorities, when they began searching the heavily wooded 5-acre property.
Not knowing exactly when Zahra actually disappeared has been problematic for authorities. It has made it extremely difficult to establish a timeline and launch searches accordingly. Finding the Bakers’ stories less than trustworthy has added to the problem.
Another factor that makes the search for Zahra more arduous is the possible state of her bodily remains. Working on the supposition that the 10-year-old somehow died or was killed and her body disposed of, a month of elapsed time allows plenty of time of decomposition, which could prove problematic in establishing time, manner, and cause of death — all of which are important if the investigation takes a criminal turn.
It also must be considered that if the wood chipper was used in the disposal of the body, and working from the position that the child has not been seen in a month, the elimination of the corporeal evidence would have occurred at a faster pace and left only bone fragments to work with, if they can be located. Since cadaver dogs have been alerted to the mulch pile on the Burke County property, investigators might be forced to take a closer look at the individual pieces of mulch.
The property has been searched five times to date. Law enforcement officials have reportedly found nothing of value to the investigation.
Elisa Baker has been charged with obstruction of justice for writing the fabricated ransom note. She has been named a person of interest in the case.
Adam Baker has not been charged.
There are indeed many key questions left unanswered. If Zahra Baker has been missing for a month, where has the father been in all of this? A month with his daughter being missing points to complicity in at least hiding her death from proper authorities. But if his daughter actually went missing on Saturday, how much of the story does Adam Baker know? Or is he completely in the dark about the entire matter? Was he somehow involved in the disappearance of his daughter, at least in the disposal of the body? What about the clumsy ransom note? And even though it is known that he had access to the Burke County property, did Elisa Baker?
Questions remain: Is Zahra still alive? Or has she died? Was she accidentally killed? Or was she murdered?
Those questions might be answered if authorities find the answer to the the most salient question: Where is Zahra Baker?