US investigators said today they believe they have found the remains of a disabled Australian-born girl who was reported missing about a month ago in North Carolina.
Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins said investigators matched a bone found a couple of weeks ago with 10-year-old Zahra Baker’s DNA.
“I’ve been dreading this moment from early on in the investigation,” Adkins said. “We have recovered enough physical evidence to think we have found Zahra.”
Police also found a child’s remains earlier this week in western North Carolina in an area near where Zahra’s stepmother once lived. The remains will need to be tested to make sure they are Zahra’s, Adkins said.
The freckle-faced Zahra, who had bone cancer that forced her to use a prosthetic leg and hearing aids, was reported missing by her parents Oct. 9. They said she was last seen in her bed at their home in Hickory, about 80km northwest of Charlotte.
A couple of weeks later, her prosthetic leg and the bone were discovered in some brush, about 8km away from where the other remains were found buried.
Zahra was born in Australia and moved to North Carolina about two years ago after her father, Adam Baker, met his soon-to-be wife, Elisa Baker, online. Zahra’s friends and relatives in Giru, Australia, described her as an outgoing, happy girl despite the cancer, and said she didn’t want to come to the U.S.
Soon after Zahra was reported missing, investigators cast doubt on accounts given by Zahra’s father and stepmother. Police had trouble finding anyone other than Zahra’s parents who had seen her alive in the weeks before her disappearance, and a suspicious early morning fire occurred at the family’s home several hours before she was reported missing.
It was then that police discovered a ransom note addressed to Adam Baker’s boss on the windshield of Baker’s car. Police went to that man’s house, and found him and his daughter to be fine. Elisa Baker, 42, admitted writing the bogus ransom note and has been charged with obstruction of justice. She is still being held in jail.
Adam Baker, 33, was arrested on charges unrelated to Zahra’s disappearance and is free on bail. He is facing one count each of assault with a deadly weapon and failure to return rental property, two counts of communicating threats and five counts of writing worthless checks, authorities said.
Adkins did not take any questions at the news conference.
Neighbours and relatives have said that Elisa Baker had a short temper and was abusive toward her stepdaughter. Caldwell County Department of Social Services investigated the family because Zahra went to school with bruises and a teacher alerted school officials, who have said they are prohibited by law from discussing the case.
Zahra’s friends and family in Australia were less than thrilled when she moved away, especially since her medical treatments were free there. Kim Wright, who became something of a surrogate mother to Zahra in Australia, told The Associated Press they became friends four years ago at a cancer fundraising event. She was sitting in a chair waiting for her head to be shaved to raise money when Zahra approached, took her hand and told her not to be scared.
Zahra was diagnosed with bone cancer about five years ago. She had her leg amputated and a few months later, doctors discovered tumours in her lungs. She had chemotherapy, but the treatment led to a partial hearing loss. Still, she remained upbeat, attending a camp for children with cancer and inspiring her fellow campers by taking part in all the physical activities.
Zahra’s biological mother, Emily Dietrich, who lives in Australia, said she suffered postnatal depression after Zahra’s birth and handed over custody to Adam Baker. Later, though, she decided she wanted to be in the girl’s life and spent years trying to track the pair. But every time she found Baker, she said, he would disappear.
Using the internet, she discovered he was living in the US Just three days later, she said, Zahra was reported missing.