HICKORY, N.C. – A missing 10-year-old North Carolina girl was seen in public as recently as two weeks before she was reported missing, police said Saturday, narrowing an uncertain timeline that has hindered their investigation.
Investigators said previously they couldn't find anyone outside Zahra Clare Baker's household who had seen her alive in more than a month. That uncertainty has made it difficult for police to narrow places to search for the girl whose bone cancer left her with hearing aids and a prosthetic leg.
Zahra was reported missing Oct. 9, but investigators have said they don't believe the story given by her father and stepmother. Police believe the girl is dead.
A police news release said only that Zahra was seen in public on Sept. 25, and they declined to comment further.
That day, the girl and her stepmother visited a Hickory furniture store, its manager said. Pat Adams said she went to police after seeing the girl's picture on the news and recalling the visit.
"They had come in and the little girl, Zahra, was standing in the aisleway at a children's room and we have cartoons playing in there and she was just standing there in the middle of the aisle looking into the TV room, watching the cartoon," Adams told The Associated Press. "As I walked past her, I put my hand on her shoulder and said 'Excuse me, sweetheart,' and she looked up at me and smiled."
Adams said other employees were talking about the little girl's prosthetic leg.
"We were just wondering what had happened," said Adams, whose account was first reported by WCNC-TV in Charlotte.
The girl's stepmother, 42-year-old Elisa Baker, is charged with obstruction of justice in the case. Police say she admitted writing a ransom note found in the family's back yard the day the girl was reported missing.
Zahra's father Adam Baker said Friday that he hasn't talked to his wife and remains unsure if she had anything to do with his daughter's disappearance.
"Maybe," Baker, 33, told AP. "I'm still trying to figure it all out."
Hickory police searched Baker's house and property again Friday, though he insists he had nothing to do with her disappearance. Police have not ruled him out as a suspect.
Adams said she didn't observe the girl and her stepmother interact, but that others heard the woman call her by name and say it was time to leave. Adams said there was no indication that anyone had hurt Zahra.
"She was clean, she was dressed neatly, and she seemed like any other happy little girl," Adams said.