HICKORY, N.C. – Grim police trying to solve the disappearance of a 10-year-old North Carolina girl confirmed Friday what they've long suspected: The freckle-faced child with a prosthetic leg and bone cancer is dead.
But the mystery of how Zahra Baker perished deepened as authorities gave a terse briefing, revealing that one of her bones was found five miles away from other remains they believe belonged to the girl.
"I've been dreading this moment from early on in the investigation," said Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins, who explained that investigators matched the bone with the child's DNA. "We have recovered enough physical evidence to think we have found Zahra."
Police said earlier this month they found the bone in some brush alongside Zahra's prosthetic leg in an area in Caldwell County, where she lived with her father and stepmother until mid-September.
Zahra's stepmother, Elisa Baker, is currently in jail, charged with trying to throw off investigators with a bogus ransom note. Zahra's father, Adam Baker, has been arrested on charges unrelated to her disappearance and is free on bail.
Elisa Baker recently began cooperating with police and led them to the areas where the remains were found. She has not been charged in Zahra's death.
Soon after Zahra was reported missing, investigators cast doubt on accounts given by Zahra's father and stepmother. Police had trouble finding anyone other than Zahra's parents who had seen her alive in the weeks before her disappearance, and a suspicious early morning fire occurred at the family's home several hours before she was reported missing.
It was then that police discovered a ransom note addressed to Adam Baker's boss on the windshield of Baker's car. Police went to that man's house, and found him and his daughter to be fine. Elisa Baker, 42, admitted writing the note and has been charged with obstruction of justice, police said.
Adam Baker, 33, is facing one count each of assault with a deadly weapon and failure to return rental property, two counts of communicating threats and five counts of writing worthless checks, authorities said.
Zahra, whose cancer forced her to use a prosthetic leg and hearing aids, was reported missing by her parents Oct. 9. They said she was last seen in her bed at their home in Hickory, about 50 miles northwest of Charlotte.
Zahra was born in Australia and moved to North Carolina about two years ago after her father met his soon-to-be wife online. Zahra's friends and relatives in Giru, Australia, described her as an outgoing, happy girl despite the cancer, and said she didn't want to come to the U.S.
"Investigators, agents, officers and staff who worked on this case are devastated that we were not able to find Zahra alive and bring her home safely," said Adkins, who wouldn't answer any questions at a news conference.
District Attorney James Gaither Jr. refused to say if the girl was dismembered or if any more charges were imminent.
"I'm not going to discuss that right now," Gaither said.
Neighbors and relatives have said that Elisa Baker had a short temper and was abusive toward her stepdaughter. Caldwell County Department of Social Services investigated the family because Zahra went to school with bruises and a teacher alerted school officials, who have said they are prohibited by law from discussing the case.
Zahra's friends and family in Australia were less than thrilled when she moved away, especially since her medical treatments were free there. Kim Wright, who became something of a surrogate mother to Zahra in Australia, told The Associated Press they became friends four years ago at a cancer fundraising event. She was sitting in a chair waiting for her head to be shaved to raise money when Zahra approached, took her hand and told her not to be scared.
Zahra was diagnosed with bone cancer about five years ago. She had her leg amputated and a few months later, doctors discovered tumors in her lungs. She had chemotherapy, but the treatment led to a partial hearing loss. Still, she remained upbeat, attending a camp for children with cancer and inspiring her fellow campers by taking part in all the physical activities.