HICKORY, N.C. – Investigators used a police dog to search among tree-trimming equipment and piles of mulch for a missing 10-year-old North Carolina girl on Wednesday, a day after authorities said they believed the girl had been killed.
Hours earlier, Zahra Clare Baker's stepmother showed no emotion in court as a judge explained she could be sentenced to up to 30 months in prison if convicted of obstruction of justice. Elisa Baker is accused of trying to throw off investigators with a fake ransom note.
The girl, who used hearing aids and a prosthetic leg because of bone cancer, was reported missing over the weekend, but police have indicated they don't believe her father and stepmother's story.
Baker's court-appointed attorney, Scott Reilly, said she was "scared to death" and very emotional about everything.
"She's upset about being held in jail. She's upset about being away from her family," he said.
In nearby Morganton, seven officers and a police dog searched for Zahra on a wooded lot among piles of mulch and a wood chipper on Wednesday. The property has equipment belonging to the tree services company that employs her father. Hours later, about 150 people gathered for a vigil in honor of the girl.
An officer who asked for anonymity because he's not authorized to discuss the case confirmed the site was among several where officers are searching for the girl. The officer said a different dog got a "hit" at the scene a day earlier, but nothing was found then.
Investigators also were draining a pond near a Burke County tree-trimming company where Zahra's father worked, though Hickory Police Deputy Chief Clyde Deal said there was nothing specific they were looking for.
"We always want to err on the side of doing more than you need to than not doing as much as you should have done," he said.
District Attorney James Gaither Jr. said he couldn't discuss details about the case.
"I'm upset. The facts are disturbing. You saw the images; she is such a darling child," Gaither said.
Friends have described Zahra as shy but upbeat despite her health problems.
Elisa Baker is the only person accused in the case so far. Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins said she was charged with felony obstruction of justice after admitting she wrote the ransom note, which asked for $1 million. She had already been in jail since the weekend on unrelated charges.
Adkins has said police can't find anyone outside Zahra's household who has seen her alive in the last month. The uncertain timeframe has made it difficult for investigators to narrow down places to search for her.
Zahra's father, Adam Baker, has said it was possible his wife could be involved in the disappearance, and other relatives echoed those remarks. The father has not been charged in the case, though the chief said previously he hasn't been ruled out as a suspect.
The ransom note found Saturday was the first sign that the case would turn sinister. Officers discovered it on the windshield of Adam Baker's car when they came to investigate a yard fire at their home. It was addressed to a man Adam Baker had worked for, though police quickly determined that man's family was safe.
Zahra was reported missing that afternoon. The stepmother said she last saw Zahra sleeping in her room about 12 hours earlier, though Adkins has indicated he doesn't believe the timeline the couple gave him.
Relatives and former neighbors, meanwhile, described Elisa Baker as nasty-tempered and violent in interviews and court documents. Zahra usually took the brunt of her wrath, they say.
"She was always beating her," former neighbor Karen Yount said Tuesday. "I told her to stop but she wouldn't listen to anyone. That poor girl."
Caldwell County Court records show that Yount and the woman's relative Brittany Bentley each filed a complaint in May accusing Elisa Baker of making violent threats against them on separate occasions.
Other neighbors say they feared for the girl's safety. One said he spoke to an investigator from the Department of Social Services who visited the Bakers' house a few months ago to investigate claims Zahra was being beaten.
Those at the vigil sang religious songs, held hands and implored each other to love their children and report signs of child abuse to authorities.
David King, a deacon at East Hickory Baptist Church, said everyone is praying for her.
"Kids should be having fun. No one should have to go through what she did," he said. "This is just a tragedy."
Douglas Proctor, son of Elisa Baker, said some family members attended the service and he was acting as a spokesman for the family. He asked to be left alone.
"We just want our privacy observed and respected," he said.
Adam Baker was from Australia, and met his current wife over the Internet, a family friend said. Zahra's mother lives outside the U.S.
Associated Press Writer Tom Breen in Raleigh contributed to this report.