HICKORY - With lifted candles glowing, more than 1,000 people sang "Happy Birthday" to Zahra Baker at a vigil in her honor Tuesday night in downtown Hickory.
Balloons flew and people cheered as the song ended, but the celebration for the girl - who would have turned 11 on Tuesday - was quickly followed by a chant from the crowd: "We want justice!"
In a community saddened by Zahra's disappearance and then shocked this week by gruesome details that revealed the young cancer survivor's body was dismembered and the remains hidden across several rural areas, people are becoming increasingly anxious for answers. Many are angry.
Although police are investigating the case as a homicide, no one has been charged.
"I don't know what kind of person could do this," said Kayla Daughtrey of Hickory as she waited for the vigil to begin Tuesday.
Although speculation has centered around Zahra's stepmother and father, Elisa and Adam Baker, since her father first reported her missing Oct. 9, both have denied any wrongdoing in the case.
Adam Baker, in an interview Tuesday with WBTV, said, "there is no way in the world I would ever hurt my daughter."
Baker did not attend the vigil because he said he was afraid of what people would say to him. Instead, he watched a broadcast of the event. The station reported that he said he had nothing to do with disposing of Zahra's body.
"It's very hard to try to grieve for my daughter with everything that's going on," he said. "It's hard to do stuff without people looking at you, saying things."
Elisa Baker was arrested on Oct. 10 on unrelated charges, then charged with obstruction of justice two days later, after investigators say she admitted writing a bogus ransom note to throw off investigators.
A motion filed Monday seeking to reduce Elisa Baker's bond revealed that Zahra's remains had been scattered and that Elisa Baker had helped investigators locate key evidence, including a bone later identified as Zahra's and the gel liner of her prosthetic leg, near Christie Road in Hudson.
Planning for the vigil, which was hosted by the Children's Protection Council of Catawba County, began before Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins announced Friday that investigators had found what they believe are Zahra's remains.
"It's really impacted our community," said Adrienne Opdyke, vice chairwoman of the children's advocacy group.
Other vigils were held across the state and in Australia.
Richard Hoke arrived in Union Square nearly two hours before the vigil began and watched as camera crews set up their equipment.
"Lived here all my life," said the 85-year-old. "Never seen anything like this."
During the vigil, Adkins described the freckle-faced girl who moved to the United States from Australia in 2009. She wore a bright smile despite losing part of her hearing and a leg to bone cancer, he said.
"She didn't want pity from anyone, as a family member told me," he said. "She wanted to be like any other child."
He told stories about her passed on to him by her family, including one about how she once hopped from one hospital room to another to cheer up other young patients.
"Zahra is in a better place tonight," Hickory Mayor Rudy Wright told the crowd, stirring a murmur of "amen."
Outside the Hickory home where Zahra lived with Elisa and Adam Baker, a memorial for Zahra continues to grow as visitors stop to add to the mound of stuffed animals, balloons and angel figurines.
Signs placed outside the home are pointing blame at both Elisa and Adam Baker. Neither has been charged in connection with Zahra's death.
"Stepmom and daddy both need to be in jail," reads one sign placed on the home's front porch.
Alice Tuttle of Taylorsville attended the vigil for Zahra. Allegations that Zahra might have been abused touched her, Tuttle said. "No child in this world should have to feel that way."
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