HICKORY -- More than three months have passed since Zahra Baker was reported missing. Although police found her body in pieces, no one has been charged in the 10-year-old's death.
The delay worries those who want someone held accountable.
They fear the lack of criminal charges signals problems with the case. And the bizarre circumstances surrounding the girl's death have led some friends, family, even area prosecutors to wonder: Can there be justice for Zahra?
"Everyone is frustrated," says Hickory Mayor Rudy Wright, who has plastered a large photo of Zahra on his business along Fairgrove Church Road. "This little girl struck a chord with all of us. ... People want somebody charged."
Catawba County's District Attorney James Gaither Jr. won't discuss the case - or explain why so much time has passed without charges in the death. Experts say he is probably awaiting a complete accounting of evidence from police and medical examiners before deciding what charges he can prove.
Last week, Hickory police turned over the majority of their investigation to the D.A. Zahra's autopsy is not yet complete, but the file is stuffed with recorded interviews, reports and detailed backgrounds on Zahra, her parents and other relatives.
"I've been doing this 26 years, and I've never seen a case file this big," says Hickory police Major Clyde Deal. "That poor little girl went through things that no 10-year-old should go through."
Zahra's smiling face, broadcast in photos worldwide, has captured hearts from her Hickory home to places far beyond. Her story of surviving cancer, losing a leg, living with a hearing impairment and yet somehow remaining upbeat, has endeared her to people.
Many believe Zahra must have been killed because her body was dismembered and tossed along roadsides. "We just want whoever did this to be held responsible," says one of Zahra's relatives.
'Slowly and cautiously'
Murder charges often quickly follow killings, say prosecutors, because they're a police department's top priority. But it's not unusual for charges to lag in cases like Zahra's, with complicated evidence and few, if any, eyewitnesses.
"Taking it slowly and cautiously is the right thing to do," says former Mecklenburg prosecutor Steve Ward. "Prosecutors have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If they can't do that, there will be an acquittal."
Prosecuting anyone for killing Zahra won't be easy.
The girl's remains lay out in heat and rain for weeks, and only parts of her body were recovered. Finding a definitive cause for her death may be impossible, say experts, which would make it hard - but not impossible - to prove a killing took place.
Zahra's stepmother Elisa Baker says she found the girl dead after an illness on Sept. 24 - two weeks before the girl was reported missing and a month before any remains were found.
Elisa Baker says her husband, Adam Baker, dismembered his daughter's body, and that the couple disposed of it in various locations on Sept. 25.
Court documents don't say why the pair would do such a thing.
Relatives suggest the Bakers feared authorities because Elisa Baker, 42, had been under scrutiny by the Department of Social Services, and Adam Baker, 33, is in the country illegally from his native Australia.
But prosecutors in the Charlotte region are skeptical of those explanations.
"Dismembering the body is not what someone does to a loved one when they die of natural causes," says Ward.
More likely, he says, such desperate measures are an attempt to cover up a crime - and could help persuade a jury to support a murder conviction.
UNC Charlotte's criminal justice chair Beth Bjerregaard says: "Not knowing the cause of death is a stumbling block, but it's not insurmountable. Prosecutors will have to use circumstantial evidence. In this case, that would include what was done to Zahra's body after her death."
Even if a child dies naturally from illness, prosecutors say, juries have found parents guilty of manslaughter if they failed to seek proper medical treatment.
"Parents have an obligation to take their children to a doctor when they're sick," Ward says. "If they don't, they are recklessly disregarding the child's well being. Parents just can't let a sick child die."
Focus on Elisa Baker's role
Court documents suggest investigators remain focused on what role, if any, Elisa Baker played in Zahra's death. They have gathered a multitude of records from her life - from phone records; to DSS reports on her history with her biological children, as well as with Zahra; to medical records from nine locations including a state psychiatric hospital. Police have also studied Elisa Baker's relationships with an ex-husband and his cousins, and what interactions those men may have had with Zahra.
Adam Baker's explanation of events is less clear than his wife's.
He has denied wrongdoing, and police say a GPS device in Adam Baker's phone suggests he was not in the areas where Zahra's body was dumped.
Adam Baker called 911 on Oct. 9 to report his daughter missing.
He told the dispatcher in the 2 p.m. phone call: "We checked (on Zahra) last night about 2:30 and she was there."
He went on to say his daughter might have been kidnapped.
He then explained with a chuckle why he hadn't seen Zahra in nearly 12 hours: "My daughter is I think coming into puberty so she's hitting that brooding stage. So we only see her when she comes out when she wants something."
But as investigators plunged in, Adam Baker's story changed. Police say he told investigators later on Oct. 9 that he hadn't seen Zahra since Wednesday, three days earlier.
It remains unclear whether Adam Baker knew his daughter had been missing for days or possibly weeks - or whether he believed she was somewhere safe. He has declined to discuss the case.
Investigators almost immediately ruled out the Bakers' initial story that Zahra must have been snatched by unwitting kidnappers who had intended to abduct the child of Adam Baker's boss. He owns the Hickory house the Bakers were renting, so maybe - the Bakers suggested - confused kidnappers accidentally took Zahra.
But just one day after Zahra was reported missing, police jailed Elisa Baker on a charge of obstructing justice, saying she'd admitted writing a phony ransom note that claimed a kidnapping had taken place.
Area prosecutors say a phony ransom note would almost certainly be used at trial to suggest the author was covering up something.
Other circumstantial material might include any evidence that Elisa Baker abused Zahra or her biological children.
DSS has refused to discuss what social workers did - or failed to do - to protect Zahra. But an attorney for Elisa Baker has said that DSS investigated allegations but did not substantiate that abuse took place.
If prosecutors decide such evidence is persuasive, they'd probably find it difficult to introduce historical behavior in a trial. Judges often fear so-called "bad acts" from someone's past can unfairly influence a jury and distract them from focusing on evidence of the crime at hand.
High-profile case for Gaither
The case of Zahra Baker - the little Australian girl who moved to America with her dad - now rests with Gaither for possible action.
The Hickory lawyer beginning his third term as District Attorney has never had such a high-profile case.
In a written statement, he offers no hint that Zahra's case is any different from others.
"In every case we seek justice for the victims of crime and the community...," he says. "In determining what charges are appropriate we are guided exclusively by the evidence, the law and our duty to seek justice."
But area prosecutors agree Gaither must feel heat to punish someone.
Gaither was quick to challenge a TV report in December that he'd signed a deal with Elisa Baker, removing the death penalty and first-degree murder charges as possible punishment in exchange for her help recovering Zahra's body.
Gaither won't say whether any deal was signed but he insisted "if there is sufficient and credible evidence to prove that Elisa Baker was involved in the death of Zahra Baker, the State is under no obligation to limit charges."
A first-degree murder conviction carries life in prison without parole - or possibly the death penalty.
Second-degree murder is punishable by prison time ranging from about eight years to more than 30 years, depending on akiller's criminal record.
Prison time for manslaughter also depends on past convictions, and ranges from 10 months to four years.
If Gaither decides he can't prove that Zahra was killed, he might be left only to seek lesser charges in the case.
Elisa Baker already faces the obstruction charge, and was recently charged with bigamy: Police say she married Adam Baker in 2008, a year before divorcing her previous husband. Concealing a death is also a crime in North Carolina.
Convictions for all those crimes would probably result in about a year's prison time - or possibly probation - for someone with a minor criminal record, like Elisa Baker. She has long-ago convictions for assault and worthless checks, and both she and her husband face pending charges of communicating threats, worthless checks and failing to return rental property.
Police Major Deal isn't shy about describing Zahra's case as extraordinary.
His department has thrown all available resources into investigating leads and gathering evidence. "Everyone is committed to doing the best job they can," he says.
Mayor Wright applauds the painstaking approach.
"People here are being patient," he says. "They understand the need to make sure the charges are right.
"But people are frustrated that we have not been able to solve the case as yet.
"They want the case solved. If the case can be solved, we want charges. ... We want to be able to say justice has been served."
Staff Writer Liz Chandler and researcher Maria David contributed.
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