HICKORY, N.C. – To relatives and former neighbors, Elisa Baker had a short fuse. In interviews and court documents, they portrayed her as nasty-tempered and willing to use a gun or her fists to settle an argument and say her disabled stepdaughter usually bore the brunt of her rage.
Investigators said Tuesday they believe someone killed 10-year-old Zahra Clare Baker, who was reported missing over the weekend. Baker was scheduled to appear in court Wednesday, accused of trying to throw off investigators with a fake ransom note.
"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."
Police said the search for Zahra had shifted to a homicide investigation, canceling a missing child alert for the shy but upbeat girl who used hearing aids and a prosthetic leg because of bone cancer.
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 note, which asked for $1 million. She had already been in jail since the weekend on unrelated charges. Adkins said Baker has asked for an attorney, but none had been assigned late Tuesday.
At a news conference, Adkins said police can't find anyone outside the household who has seen Zahra alive in the last month. That uncertainty has stymied efforts to search for her, despite offers from volunteers in the city of 40,000 about 50 miles northwest of Charlotte.
"We understand the public wants to help find Zahra. The problem is we cannot confirm with any confidence how long Zahra has been missing," he said. "Without this information, we cannot positively select the area 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.
"I just think this was something for a long time that we knew was going to happen, everybody that was close to the family," relative Brittany Bentley said on CBS' "Early Show" on Tuesday.
Bentley, who is married to Elisa Baker's nephew, said she would have Zahra over for weekends and the girl would get angry when it was time to return home. The girl was being home-schooled, but had attended public schools in the past, police said.
Zahra "was locked in her room, allowed five minutes out a day to eat, that was it," Bentley said. "She was beat almost every time I was over there for just the smallest things. Elisa would get mad, she would take it out on Zahra, things the kid didn't deserve."
Adkins did not take any questions or further explain why the case was being treated as a homicide probe. A search warrant revealed on Monday that police dogs detected the smell of human remains on cars belonging to the father and stepmother.
Adam Baker has not been charged in the case, though the chief said previously he hasn't been ruled out as a suspect.
Caldwell County Court records show that Bentley filed a complaint May 13 against Elisa Baker, claiming she threatened to kill her and her young daughter in a dispute over money. She said Elisa Baker threatened them with a stun gun and a gun, and Bentley feared for their lives.
Ten days later, Yount said in her complaint that Elisa Baker made verbal threats against her child.
"She said my daughter and other girls were talking about her daughter. That wasn't true. She just started screaming and shouting and threatening to hit everybody," Yount said.
The ransom note found Saturday was the first sign that officers were faced with something more sinister. 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.
Officers investigated a yard fire at the girl's home hours before she was reported missing. Near the burnt limbs and grass, the note had been left on the windshield of the car belonging to Adam Baker.
It was addressed to Adam Baker's boss, though police quickly determined that man's family was safe.
Other neighbors say they also feared for the girl's safety.
"There were warning signs along the way, but you never want to think the worst," said former neighbor Kayla Rotenberry.
Her fiance, Bobby Green, said an investigator from the Department of Social Services visited the Bakers' house a few months ago: "I saw him when he knocked on their door. He said they were looking into whether the girl was being beaten."
The agency didn't return a phone message Tuesday.
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.