NEWTON, N.C. – A judge deemed the stepmother of a missing 10-year-old girl a flight risk and raised her bond Wednesday after the woman's grown daughter testfied that she's carrying on an online relationship with a man in England who was sending her thousands of dollars.
While the bond hearing unfolded, dozens of investigators searched a nearby North Carolina landfill for key evidence in the disappearance of Zahra Clare Baker, but police said they don't expect to find the girl's body there.
Catawba County District Judge Robert Mullinax Jr. said there were "disturbing and unsettling allegations" in the case as he increased Elisa Baker's bond from $40,000 to $65,000. Defense attorneys had asked him to lower bond to $10,000, which they said fits legal guidelines for her charge of obstructing justice.
Investigators said Baker wrote a bogus ransom note found Oct. 9, the day she and her husband reported Zahra missing. Police have said they think someone killed the girl who used hearing aids and a prosthetic leg because of bone cancer, but have not found her body and haven't charged anyone with killing her.
Testimony from one of Baker's adult children, Amber Fairchild, helped convince the judge that the woman is a flight risk. Fairchild said she feared her mother after a childhood spent frequently moving houses.
Fairchild said that her mother rarely worked and had been sent $10,000 over the last year by a man in England with whom she had an online relationship, despite her marriage to Zahra's father. She said Baker told her she wanted to leave North Carolina the day before she was arrested.
Elisa Baker had also met Zahra's father, Adam Baker, online. Fairchild testified that her mother visited Adam Baker in early 2008 and when she returned from Australia later that year, they were married. Adam Baker also brought Zahra to live with them.
But things didn't go as planned. First, Elisa Baker and her family moved in with the woman's father, but he kicked her out "over bad checks," Fairchild said.
Then they moved four more times — the last time in September, when they moved to the house where Zahra's disappearance was reported.
"Has your mother ever had a stable residence," Prosecutor Eric Ballas asked.
"No," Fairchild whispered.
Baker appeared by video camera, and two of her other children were in the courtroom.
Bellas said Baker has routinely missed court appearances over the last 20 years on previous charges ranging from traffic offenses to communicating threats.
"The only time this defendant comes to court is when the sheriff's office brings her to court," Bellas said.
However, derense attorney Scott Reilly argued that Baker's bond was already excessive before the judge raised it. Reilly said legal guidelines call for a bond of $10,000 in obstruction cases, and he blamed media attention for causing the judge to exceed that.
"It's difficult for her to make any bond ... She has no income," he said.
At a news conference, Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins said investigators were searching the landfill for a piece of evidence that's critical to establishing a timeline for Zahra's disappearance. Adkins said they didn't expect to find her body in the mounds of trash but wouldn't elaborate on what they were looking for.
Investigators said the day before they were seeking a serial number and other details about the artificial leg the girl used since surviving bone cancer.
The girl was last seen in public Sept. 25, but investigators want to know if anyone else outside the family had seen her more recently to fill in gaps in the case's timeline, Adkins said. While investigators believe Zahra is dead, they haven't ruled out the possibility she'll be found alive.
"We're continuing to have hope, but we're still calling it a homicide investigation," Adkins said.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects name to Fairchild, instead of Fairfield in 9th paragraph. AP Video.)