HICKORY, N.C. – After a disabled 10-year-old girl went missing in this small city in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, her family's former home became an impromptu memorial piled with stuffed animals and birthday cards.
Now it sits with its front windows smashed by vandals, while frustrated residents complain that the investigation into her death is taking too long, even as increasingly bizarre and potentially damning revelations about Zahra Baker's stepmother and father pile up.
The case has riveted followers in North Carolina and Australia, where she was born and where her biological mother still lives. She was reported missing on Oct. 9 and last week police confirmed everyone's worst fears: A bone from her body and other suspected remains were found in two remote spots.
No charges have been filed in her death, though her stepmother is accused of obstructing justice in the investigation and led police to the remains.
The area's top prosecutor is defending the pace of his investigation. In fact, similar cases have been notoriously difficult to prosecute and rushing into charges unsupported by evidence could be more disastrous than waiting.
"Once we have a complete picture of the events surrounding Zahra's disappearance and her death, we will meet with law enforcement to determine what, if any, charges are required," District Attorney James Gaither Jr. wrote in an e-mail in response to questions from The Associated Press.
After Zahra's disappearance, scrutiny immediately fell on her stepmother, Elisa Baker, and father, Adam Baker, after police publicly doubted their story of how she vanished from their home and neighbors talked about their suspicions of abuse.
Elisa Baker's attorneys have said in court documents that their client told police two weeks ago that Zahra "was deceased, that her body had been dismembered and that it would be recovered at different sites." Elisa Baker then accompanied police to sites where the remains were found.
In a letter that Elisa Baker apparently sent to a Florida dealer of crime memorabilia, she wrote, "We didn't really kill her but what he did after the fact is kinda horrifying," referring to Adam, who emigrated from Australia with Zahra after meeting Elisa online. "Makes me scared of him."
One of Elisa Baker's attorneys, Lisa Dubs, said Friday the letter appears to have been written by her client, but declined to comment further. Adam Baker's lawyer, Mark Killian, did not respond to requests for comment.
The ability of prosecutors to hold anyone accountable for Zahra's death depends on the evidence investigators can collect, forensics experts and former prosecutors say. That includes recovering what's left of the girl, who had a prosthetic leg because of bone cancer and wore hearing aids because of damage caused by chemotherapy.
Police have not said how Zahra died, and the lack of an intact body will make it more difficult to blame someone for it. But experts say suspects have been prosecuted in similar cases.
"You don't have to have a specific manner of death," said former Connecticut prosecutor Walter D. Flanagan. "All you have to do is show death."
Flanagan won a conviction in a notorious 1986 murder in which Richard Crafts tossed his wife's corpse into a woodchipper. Without the victim's body, prosecutors were never able to prove how the victim was killed or where.
But detectives recovered a piece of her skull, a bone pathologists said would have been impossible to live without, Flanagan said. He then persuaded a jury by weaving together other evidence: Crafts rented the woodchipper used to destroy the body, he cleaned his bedroom carpet soon after a previous cleaning, and small bits of hair embedded in wood chips were found in Crafts's car.
"All these little things that are innocuous in and of themselves acquired significance," Flanagan said. "When you put everything together, it sort of showed what was happening."
Elisa remains in jail, accused of hindering the investigation. Adam appeared in court on unrelated charges Friday, and refused to speak to members of the media. No one has been charged with causing the disappearance or death of Zahra, although the Office of Capital Defender has assigned Elisa Baker an attorney through a process normally used only after murder charges have been filed.
While the investigation continues, the now-abandoned home in Hickory where the Bakers lived has attracted mourning and wrath at the parents. Teddy bears, balloons, and cards surround a tree in the front yard, while increasingly bitter signs calling for punishment have been taped and tied to the front porch. "Stepmom and daddy need to be in jail," one sign read, while another said, "God please let someone pay for this." Some time between Tuesday night and Thursday afternoon, vandals smashed most of the front windows.
"I have kids, and I can't imagine how someone could do that," said Chasity Partin as she fought tears while visiting the memorial Thursday. "Everyone failed that child."
A crowd of more than 1,000 people gathered Tuesday for a vigil in Zahra's honor and there were chants of "We want justice" competing with the gentle speakers.
In the absence of major developments in Zahra's case, attention has shifted to unrelated charges against the couple, rumors and peripheral matters. On one day, a routine court appearance by Adam Baker's lawyer is chronicled by ranks of journalists; on another, the Hickory police begin looking into whether Elisa and Adam were wed while she was still legally married to a different man.
A vigil in a faraway Australian town is front-page news in Hickory, and speculation about the case is rampant in daily conversations at coffee shops and lunch counters.
"The high profile of this case and the public interest that it has created only strengthen our resolve to do our job fairly and impartially and to avoid any rush to judgment," Gaither, the prosecutor, wrote. "The job of the District Attorney's office is to follow the evidence and the law and to pursue justice no matter what."
Dalesio contributed from Raleigh.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects in 20th paragraph vigil was Tuesday instead of Wednesday. Adds photo links.)