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Plea deal gets Zahra's killer 15 to 18 years in prison

By Bruce Henderson, Joe DePriest and Franco Ordoñez
Staff Writers

NEWTON - Elisa Baker's guilty plea ends the yearlong investigation into the death of her stepdaughter Zahra Baker, but many questions remain.

Some left the Catawba County Courthouse Thursday still wondering how the 10-year-old died, whether justice was served, and what, if any, responsibility her father had in the case.

Elisa Baker, 43, was sentenced to 15 to 18 years in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder, obstruction of justice, bigamy, four counts of obtaining property through false pretenses, and two counts of identity fraud.

The sentence handed down by Superior Court Judge Timothy Kincaid came after an extraordinary day of police testimony and emotional statements from Zahra's father, Adam, and her biological mother, Emily Dietrich, who traveled to North Carolina from her home in Australia to attend the hearing.

"This is the case that will haunt this community until the time I take to a rocking chair and leave this place," Kincaid said.

The disappearance of the freckle-faced girl with the winning smile and polite manners riveted people from North Carolina to Australia, where Zahra was born. She was hailed as a survivor after overcoming two bouts with cancer that left her without one leg and with a hearing impairment.

The Bakers reported her missing on Oct. 9, and said she might be kidnapped. Police arrested Elisa Baker days later for writing a fake ransom note they said was intended to thwart their investigation.

Authorities still couldn't find Zahra, however, and launched a massive search. It wasn't until weeks later that they found parts of Zahra's body scattered across rural Caldwell County.

They made the discovery only after Elisa Baker offered to help. She offered a deal: She'd help them find Zahra, but only if prosecutors agreed not to charge her with first-degree murder in exchange for telling the truth.

Prosecutor Jay Gaither said he anguished over the decision. The public's demands for justice and retribution were overwhelming, but he feared Elisa Baker might go free if he didn't accept her help.

He decided to take it.

Without her assistance, he said, law enforcement probably never would have found Zahra's remains. Despite Elisa Baker's help, some parts of the child's body were never recovered.

Steve Ward, a Mecklenburg prosecutor for 25 years, told the Observer prosecutors must make such tough decisions to get justice.

Gaither faced the "monumental challenge" of trying to prove Baker killed her stepdaughter without clear evidence to show exactly how Zahra died, Ward said. He pointed out how a Florida jury found Casey Anthony not guilty earlier this year in the death of her daughter, Caylee, when prosecutors couldn't establish how Caylee died.

"If the prosecutor operated just on emotion, which is what the public is doing, we wouldn't be effective," he said. "If you push for first degree, there is good chance she might not have been convicted at all and you end up with nothing. At least this way she receives a substantial sentence."

After the hearing, relatives of both Zahra and Elisa Baker said the sentence wasn't enough.

"Pretty sad when you get less than 20 years for taking a child's life," Adam Baker said.

Elisa Baker's youngest sister, April Fairchild, 35, told the Observer she wasn't happy with the plea agreement.

"It's hard for the family but I believe she should have gotten more, if anything," she said.

She hoped her older sister would get help in prison. "We pray she comes out a different person."

Elisa Baker still faces federal drug-trafficking charges. She is accused of distributing painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs.

The courtroom was nearly filled for the hearing, with a large number of journalists joining family members of Elisa Baker and Zahra Baker. The group included at least one reporter from Australia.

During a hearing prior to the sentencing, the prosecution called police investigators to the witness stand to lay out the case against Elisa Baker.

Capt. Thurman Whisnant testified of three instances in which Elisa Baker apparently abused Zahra, sometimes after Zahra accidentally urinated on herself. Teachers at Hudson Elementary, the Caldwell County school that the girl briefly attended, were so concerned that they kept a box of records documenting apparent abuse, he said.

Given a chance to address the court, Adam Baker stood and looked across the courtroom at his wife, 15 feet away.

"There are no words to explain the hate I have for you, and the pain and loss I suffer every day," he said. "...If there is any more love left in you, please tell us where the rest of Zahra's remains are so she may lie at rest."

Elisa Baker stared straight ahead, not looking at him.

When Dietrich addressed the court, she wondered aloud if her daughter is at peace.

"Is she cold, or is she somewhere the sun always shines?" she said.

When Judge Kincaid asked Elisa Baker if she wanted to speak, she said "no."

Her attorney, Scott Reilly, asked the judge for mercy and apologized to Adam Baker.

"Elisa is emotionally devastated and wrecked," he said. "The only thing she wishes me to convey is that she is deeply sorry for the hurt she has caused."

Reilly added: "Elisa had a choice. She could have kept her mouth shut, and this case never would have been solved. For once, she did the right thing."

Some still question what, if any, role Adam Baker, 34, played in his daughter's death.

It was Adam who called 911 and reported that Zahra might have been kidnapped after a fire broke out in their backyard.

"I don't know if they set a fire in the yard to distract us to go out, and they snuck in the door," he said in his 911 call.

Elisa Baker told authorities Adam Baker dismembered his daughter's body, and that the couple dumped the remains in various locations. Phone records retrieved in the investigation placed Elisa Baker's phone at the dump sites but not Adam's.

Whisnant testified Thursday that Adam spent long days away from home, at work, leaving Elisa as the primary caregiver.

"Since May, I've spent more time smoking marijuana than with my daughter," Whisnant quoted Adam Baker as saying.

A lie detector test Adam Baker took indicated deception, Whisnant said, but it was unclear in answer to which questions.

"We have no credible evidence that links Adam Baker to the crime," Hickory police Chief Tom Adkins said.

Gaither said everybody still wants to know what happened to Zahra.

"Only one person knows," he said. "And she's not talking."

Staff writer Steve Lyttle contributed.

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