Elisa Baker, in her first public interview, insisted from jail Friday that she was innocent despite pleading guilty last month to murdering her stepdaughter Zahra.
Baker portrayed herself as a loving stepmother and an unwilling participant in covering up the 10-year-old's mysterious death.
But her sympathetic depiction is at odds with the one painted by police of a manipulative woman who faked a kidnapping in an attempt to thwart their investigation into Zahra's death. Family and friends accused Baker of controlling her husband and abusing her children, including Zahra.
Sitting behind a window at the Mecklenburg County Jail, Baker looked like a different person than the Elisa Baker who appeared in court pale and with a blank stare. The color had returned to her cheeks, and her long hair was neatly brushed.
At times, during a 30-minute interview, she cried and rubbed her eyes; other times she poked fun at investigators and berated her husband, Adam, again accusing him of the worst offenses - including dismembering and hiding Zahra's body.
"I pled guilty, but I'm not guilty," she said.
She told the Observer that Zahra was "the light of my eyes."
The investigation into Zahra's disappearance and death drew an outpouring of sympathy from around the world. Photos of the young Australian girl, who lost a leg and much of her hearing to cancer, fueled anger at her stepmother.
Pieces of Zahra's body were found scattered across Caldwell County, and authorities still don't know how she died.
Baker, who is 43, was sentenced Sept. 15 to 15 to 18 years in prison on second-degree murder charges in Zahra's death. Baker said her lawyer, Scott Reilly, told her accepting a plea deal was in her best interest.
"I wouldn't get a fair trial here, or anywhere," she said. "I'm going to be an old woman when I get out." Reilly said Saturday that he advised Baker to take the plea deal because the evidence against her was strong. He cited Baker's inconsistent statements, her acknowledgment that Adam wasn't around when Zahra died, blood splatter on Zahra's bedroom ceiling, and cellphone records that placed her where the remains were discarded.
"You take all that and put it together, and I think it's very likely that a jury is going to return a verdict of guilty in five minutes, and that is why I advised her to take the plea bargain," he said. "The chances of her ever getting out of prison were unlikely."
Reilly said he was surprised that Baker talked to Observer reporters, considering that she also faces federal charges of distributing painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs. Because those charges are pending, her new attorneys in the federal case objected to the Observer publishing her comments.
Despite the plea deal, many questions still remain about what happened to Zahra - and only Elisa Baker knows the truth.
The Observer wrote Baker asking for an interview. She wrote back requesting a face-to-face meeting. Baker didn't say what she wanted to talk about, only that she wouldn't discuss the drug-trafficking charges. She said she had received many requests for interviews and some offers of money.
"I would like for you to come sit down with me and will take it from there," she wrote.
A deputy escorted her into a small interview room. Dressed in a red jumpsuit, Baker hobbled in on crutches. She said she fell and broke her foot during a seizure last week.
Then, she apologized for not telling her side of the story sooner.
'It wasn't real'
Baker described in a halting voice about finding Zahra, dead in bed on Sept. 24, 2010. She said Zahra had been sick with a stomach virus the week before, but seemed fine that morning.
When she left to run an errand, she said Zahra was playing and doing math homework. But when she got back, Zahra wasn't moving.
"I walked over to the bed and shook her a little bit," Baker said. "She wasn't responsive at all."
She said she tried CPR.
"I can't get her back," she said, reliving the moment.
"She hadn't been gone long. She wasn't cold."
Baker said she called Adam Baker, who is Zahra's father, and he rushed home.
"She's not breathing," Elisa Baker said she told him. "We need to call 911. He said, 'No, I'll take care of it.'"
She said Adam Baker was afraid to contact officials because he and Zahra were living in the country illegally. Adam Baker moved here from Australia after meeting Elisa Baker online.
Adam Baker has not been charged in his daughter's death, and police say they have no credible evidence that he was involved in the cover-up. Adam Baker faces several unrelated charges, including identity theft and obtaining property by false pretenses and is scheduled to appear in court next month.
'Don't pay attention...'
In the jail, Elisa Baker looked down and began to tear up as she recounted her version of events.
The morning after she found Zahra, Baker said Adam Baker took several white trash bags and a small saw from the kitchen.
"Don't come back here," she said he told her. "Stay in the kitchen. Don't pay attention to nothing."
He went into Zahra's bedroom and shut the door, she said. Later, she said, he put filled trash bags in the back of their SUV.
She said she confronted him:
"You need to tell me what you've done with her."
"I had to do what is going to save us both."
'I couldn't look'
Sitting in the SUV, Adam Baker told her to take him to at least three locations where Zahra's remains couldn't be found, Elisa Baker said. She said she grew up in nearby Granite Falls and knew the area.
They stopped first, she said, on Burns Road in Caldwell County.
"He said not to turn around," she said. "He got something out of the trash bags. I couldn't look. It would have killed me what he had done."
Elisa Baker, speaking behind a jail window, then thrust her right arm out as if throwing something away.
At the next stop, off Christie Road, she said Adam raised the hood and told her to act as if they were having car trouble. She said she caught a glimpse of him carrying a heavier bag down toward a creek.
In court, Hickory police Capt. Thurman Whisnant testified that there were several inconsistencies in Elisa Baker's story. Cellphone records place her in the area where Zahra's remains were later found. He said records showed Adam Baker's cellphone was not in that area.
"On the 24th, during the same period of time, his phone was in the Burke County area," Whisnant said.
His attorney, Mark Killian, said Friday that Elisa Baker is bringing up old allegations that already have been disproven.
"This is part of her effort," he said, "to evade ultimate responsibility for what she has already admitted to doing in open court - killing Zahra."
'You don't argue'
Growing up in Granite Falls, 65 miles west of Charlotte, Baker said she learned the "man makes the decisions and you don't argue."
She said Zahra always called her Mom.
"She never called me stepmom," she said.
But family and investigators describe Baker as far from a subservient, doting mother. They described Baker as a compulsive liar who constantly manipulated and abused Adam and other family members.
During her sentencing hearing, Adam Baker told her in court that she took advantage of Zahra's love.
"Zahra will never get to go to high school, never have a real boyfriend, never get married and never have children," he said.
Department of Social Services agencies conducted numerous investigations into abuse allegations by Elisa Baker going back as far as 1999, according to court records. Investigators sought DSS records from eight counties around Hickory regarding Elisa Baker and her three biological children.
A July 2010 DSS report included allegations that Elisa Baker had been physically abusing Zahra, who reportedly had a black eye.
In addition to the murder charge, Baker also pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, bigamy, identity fraud and obtaining property by false pretenses.
Police said Elisa and Adam Baker had been married a year before Elisa Baker divorced her former husband of 10 years in 2009.
Court documents obtained by the Observer revealed that investigators sought Elisa Baker's medical records from nine locations, including Broughton Hospital, a state psychiatric center.
Elisa and Adam Baker reported their daughter missing on Oct. 9, 2010, saying that she had been kidnapped. Police searched for weeks without finding any trace of Zahra. As part of a plea deal not to charge her with first-degree murder, Elisa Baker eventually agreed to help police find Zahra's remains.
Parts of her body - including her head, right arm, right leg and upper left leg - were never recovered. Asked where those remains are, Baker said Friday:
"I'm assuming the head is up (NC highway) 268 going toward Blowing Rock," she said.
Baker said she took Hickory police to that site. Police declined to discuss the specifics of the case Friday because of the pending federal charges.
Throughout the interview, Elisa Baker deflected blame for the crime, saying she had no choice but to follow her husband's orders.
"I took blame for everything and I shouldn't have," she said. "I'm very angry he's not here."
In fact, Baker said, she helped investigators. Police stated in court that they would not have found any of Zahra's body without Baker's assistance.
"Quite honestly, I'm going to be blunt," she said. "If it hadn't been for me, the Hickory police would still be going around chasing tail and eating doughnuts."
"I wanted her found," Baker told the Observer. She talked for a few more minutes about her case and revealed that her three biological children have not visited her. She mentioned writing a book when a sheriff's deputy opened the door and cut off the interview.
Leaving many questions unanswered, Elisa Baker grabbed her crutches and waved goodbye as she was escorted away.