Elisa Baker, the prime suspect in the death of her stepdaughter Zahra Baker, was charged Monday with murder as an autopsy concluded that the 10-year-old Hickory girl died from "undetermined homicidal violence."
The autopsy, released Monday afternoon by the N.C. Medical Examiner, rules out the possibility that Zahra died a natural death, as Elisa Baker has claimed. It notes that many of the girl's bones were not present for the examination.
Also Monday, for the first time, social service agencies in Catawba and Caldwell counties acknowledged they had investigated four complaints that Zahra was being mistreated - but never found evidence of "maltreatment or child safety issues."
The last DSS investigation was closed six weeks before authorities say Zahra was killed by her stepmother on Sept. 24.
Never miss a local story.
Zahra wasn't reported missing until Oct. 9 - and became the subject of a massive search that gained attention worldwide as people saw photos of the girl's smiling face and heard the story of her difficult life and shocking dismemberment. Zahra survived cancer, lost a leg, lived with a hearing impairment.
On Monday, a grand jury returned a second-degree murder indictment against Elisa Baker, 42, who has been jailed since October, charged with obstruction for writing a phony ransom note to make it appear Zahra had been kidnapped.
The indictment says Baker had "a history and pattern of physical, verbal and psychological abuse of the victim." Grand jurors also allege that Elisa Baker had "secreted" Zahra from her family before the killing to delay detection of the crime. She also "desecrated (Zahra's) body to hinder detection, investigation and prosecution of the offense."
No charges have been filed against Zahra's father, Adam Baker, 33.
Authorities announced the murder charge at a news conference Monday, closing a wrenching chapter in an unprecedented death investigation for Hickory and its police department.
"The members of 'Team Zahra' have been working toward this milestone in this case since the first words spoken on the 911 call made on October 9, 2010," Police Chief Tom Adkins told a throng of reporters. "There has not been a day gone by without members of our team thinking about Zahra or this case."
Catawba District Attorney James Gaither Jr. told reporters: "At this time, the state has no credible evidence to suggest that anyone other than Elisa Baker was involved in the murder of Zahra Clare Baker."
Police and the prosecutor would not answer questions or provide more details about the case. Elisa Baker's attorney could not be reached Monday.
It's unclear how prosecutors will link Elisa Baker to what the autopsy calls "undetermined homicidal violence" - particularly since weeks elapsed between the alleged murder and the discovery of some of Zahra's body parts. The autopsy reveals that much of her body hasn't been recovered, including her skull, right arm and most of both legs.
Adam Baker said Monday he was pleased with the investigation's findings. Elisa Baker has accused him of dismembering his daughter's body after Elisa Baker had discovered the girl dead from an illness.
"I'm extremely grateful that Hickory police and everybody else has taken their time, gone through everything properly, and come to the conclusion that they should have come to," Adam Baker told WBTV on Monday afternoon. "I had no involvement with Zahra's death or dismemberment."
Hickory police said in November they believed the girl was dead, after Elisa Baker led them to remains that were later confirmed as Zahra's. Prosecutor Gaither has challenged a TV report saying he had struck a deal with Elisa Baker - agreeing to remove a first-degree murder charge and possible death penalty in exchange for Elisa's help in finding Zahra's body.
Gaither has refused to say if any deal was signed but insisted in December that "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."
Hickory Mayor Rudy Wright reacted to news of the charges Monday. "People have been waiting for this," he told the Observer. "This is going to stir up discussions. Some people will be satisfied. Some people will be unhappy. A lot of people wanted to see a first-degree murder charge. But there are a lot of things about this investigation we don't know."
Eddie Mitchell, who lived across the street from the Bakers and attended Monday's news conference, expressed disappointment that Elisa Baker wasn't charged with first-degree murder, which is punishable by life in prison or the death penalty.
"I want to see justice like everybody else does," Mitchell said. "What they did to this child, it's inhuman. It's a disgrace."
Second-degree murder is punishable by prison time ranging from about eight years to more than 30 years, depending on the killer's criminal record.
Elisa Baker has a minor criminal record of long-ago convictions for assault and worthless checks. In addition to murder and obstruction of justice charges, Elisa Baker - who has been married seven times - faces a current charge of bigamy, because police say she wasn't divorced when she married Adam Baker in 2009.
Social service agencies released some details about their investigation into reports that Zahra was being mistreated in the year before she died.
Caldwell and Catawba social services officials say they received four complaints involving the Bakers and claiming improper discipline and maltreatment. Two of the reports came just days apart - on Jan. 29, 2010, and Feb. 4, 2010.
All of the investigations ended the same way, with child protective workers finding "no evidence of maltreatment or child safety issues."
According to the agencies:
On Feb. 1, 2010, after receiving the Jan. 29 allegations of improper discipline, improper care and injurious environment, Caldwell County Social Services visited the Baker home and interviewed Zahra, Adam and Elisa Baker.
On Feb. 4, Caldwell received a second complaint making the same allegations. The case was combined with the earlier investigation and both were closed on Feb. 23.
On May 28, 2010, Caldwell received allegations of improper discipline and care of Zahra. Family members were interviewed, and the case was closed on June 23.
On July 12, Caldwell received another report of mistreatment, but discovered the Bakers had moved to Catawba County, so the case was transferred. Catawba social services visited the Baker house in Hickory the next day - and twice more, on July 22 and Aug. 5. They interviewed the Bakers and others and closed the case on Aug. 6.
Six weeks later, police say, Zahra was killed.
"Over the last four months, many different theories of how and who is responsible for the death of Zahra have been made by anyone who has followed this case," police chief Adkins said Monday.
"We will continue our investigation and follow every lead until the first day of trial."