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Zahra Baker case: Both sides said they got best deal possible

TV camera's image of soiled mattress, though it contained no evidence, was breakthrough.

By Franco Ordoñez
fordonez@charlotteobserver.com

In the weeks before Elisa Baker pleaded guilty to murdering her 10-year-old stepdaughter, Zahra, the Catawba County District Attorney feared she might escape responsibility for the killing.

But Baker's attorney, Scott Reilly, feared his client could spend the rest of her life behind bars.

The deal they reached to resolve the case played out like a high-stakes poker match, with justice for Zahra on the line.

As Zahra's biological mother and others celebrated her memory Friday at a memorial, attorneys on both sides told the Observer they got the best deal possible under tough circumstances.

"To me, this was in her best interest," Reilly said of his client.

Elisa Baker, 43, was sentenced to between 15 and 18 years in prison after pleading guilty Thursday to second-degree murder.

"Given the facts and given the laws, this is the best result and the closest to justice you can get," District Attorney Jay Gaither said. "Would I want better facts and stronger laws? Absolutely."

While Gaither and Reilly hammered out the final agreement last weekend, the real wrangling began on Oct. 23.

According to attorneys from both sides this is how the deal was reached:

Zahra had been missing for two weeks and investigators had found no clues to her whereabouts. At some point, 18 pinpoint dots of blood were found in her bedroom, but it was not enough to confirm a death.

The search continued without any breakthrough. Then, a tip sent investigators to the Caldwell County landfill, where TV cameras on Oct. 22 showed a crane lifting a soiled mattress.

Although the mattress contained no evidence, Gaither said it appeared to the public, and perhaps Elisa Baker, that police were getting closer to the truth.

The next day, Gaither received a call from one of Baker's previous attorneys, Lisa Dubs.

Dubs told Gaither her client had information that would solve the mystery of the disappearance of Zahra Baker.

It was a short call. Gaither then contacted police.

"We have a defendant who wants to talk," he said.

A meeting was scheduled for the next day.

Gaither talked with his investigative team to determine the chances they would ever recover Baker's remains. They debated rejecting any offer of help from Elisa Baker. But the weather forecast called for rain the next three days and leaves were falling as the season changed. Coyotes and other scavengers were active in the rural area.

Investigators told Gaither there was little chance that Zahra would be found.

The defense team, meanwhile, gathered at the offices of their private investigator, Steve Ehlers. They visited Baker at the Catawba County Jail to confirm she'd sign off on the deal.

On Oct. 24, Gaither, a staff member, Reilly, Ehlers and Dubs met in her office for a tense meeting to hammer out the terms. Baker offered to give investigators the location of Zahra's remains, including details of how she died.

There were two conditions: Prosecutors could not seek first-degree murder charges as long as her statement was truthful. Second, if it was determined she was not honest, she could be prosecuted for first-degree murder, but her statements and evidence would be excluded. In other words, Elisa Baker's statements would be admissible only in a prosecution of second-degree murder or less.

"It never occurred to me that we would learn that she was dismembered," Gaither said of his thinking.

They struck the deal that night. The defense team later handed over to investigators one of the most important pieces of evidence in the case: the saw believed to have been used in the crime.

Their deal became the basis for the final plea agreement Reilly and Gaither finalized this week.

Reilly said his client came forward because she wanted to do the right thing, not because she thought the mattress was going to incriminate her.

Gaither had been stacking up charges against Elisa Baker in order to increase his bargaining power. In addition to second-degree murder, she was also charged with identify theft, bigamy, and obtaining property through false pretenses. If she'd been convicted of all those charges without the plea agreement, Reilly said his client could have faced as many as 60 years in prison.

Elisa Baker's statements led investigators to Zahra's dismembered body, but questions remain. Even with Elisa Baker's help, some parts of the child's body were never recovered.

Some still wonder about Adam Baker's role, if any, in the crime. Elisa Baker told authorities early on that Adam Baker dismembered his daughter's body, and that the couple dumped the remains in different locations.

Reilly said only his client and her husband know his true involvement in the case. But the lawyer questioned how Baker could not know his daughter's whereabouts from Sept. 24, when police believe she was killed, until Oct. 9 when she was reported missing.

"The whole involvement of Adam has been a mystery to me," Reilly said. "But ultimately my job my duty is to Elisa."

Calls to Adam Baker through his attorney were not returned Friday.

Gaither said he thinks Elisa Baker acted alone, killing Zahra, dismembering her body, and distributing the remains.

Phone records put Elisa Baker at the dump sites, but not Adam Baker.

The prosecutor expects she will spend more time in jail beyond her state court sentence. She faces federal drug-trafficking charges.

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