Elisa Baker gets up to 18 years in stepdaughter's murder

Elisa Baker gets up to 18 years in stepdaughter's murder

Elisa Baker gets up to 18 years in stepdaughter's murder

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by MICHELLE BOUDIN and RAD BERKY / NewsChannel 36

Bio | Email | Follow: @RadBerkywcnc

WCNC.com

Posted on September 14, 2011 at 11:48 PM

Updated Friday, Sep 16 at 5:20 PM

HICKORY, N.C. -- Elisa Baker has been sentenced to up to 18 years in prison for the murder of her disabled 10-year-old stepdaughter.

Elisa Baker pleaded guilty Thursday to second degree murder, nearly a year after the Australian girl was reported missing from her home in the western North Carolina town of Hickory.

After hours of sometimes emotional witness testimony following her plea, Baker was sentenced to between roughly 15 and 18 years.

She chose not to speak, instead her lawyer said she was devastated and sorry for all that she’d caused.

Zahra Baker's biological mother flew in from Australia for the hearing and read a statement in court before Elisa was sentenced.

“My only hope now is that she is in a place where she will no longer feel the pains for mortality, when she can rest and no longer have the need to be so courageous. I hope she is in a place where she can feel my love and the immense love she has drawn out from people all across our planet.”

"While today we sit here in this courtroom to see justice be carried out, I feel there will be no real justice for Zahra," Emily Dietrich said.  "Her life was taken by an evil selfishness that none of us will ever understand or comprehend."

Elisa also pleaded to aggravating factors of hiding the crime and desecrating the body of Zahra. She pleaded guilty in obstruction of justice, and to other charges unrelated to Zahra.

Those charges are bigamy, identity fraud, and obtaining property by false pretenses.

Parts of Zahra's remains were found in multiple sites around Hickory shortly after her reported disappearance. The case captivated the attention of communities here and in Australia. Her father moved to the United States from Australia to marry Elisa after the two met online.

Zahra had a prosthetic leg and hearing aids after a battle with bone cancer.

Hickory Police Capt. Thurman Whisnant said during testimony police did approximately 15 to 20 interviews with Elisa trying to accurately piece together her story.  Thurman testified that Elisa told police on September 24, 2010 she found Zahra at  4 p.m. not breathing. He said Elisa tried CPR for 20 to 25 minutes.

Adam was at work at the time, according to police.  Elisa called him and he arrived between 5 p.m.--5:30 p.m. They decided not to call 911 and Adam said "he would take care of it," Whisnant said Elisa told them.

Elisa continued to tell police that on September 25, 2010 Adam went into Zahra's room, got trash bags and told Elisa he needed help finding places to take Zahra's remains, according to Whisnant's testimony.

Whisnant says police tracked the cell phone records of Elisa and Adam.  The records placed Elisa near where Zahra's bones were found. Adam's phone record shows him nowhere near there.

Whisnant continued to say that they established that Adam was working at the determined time and date of Zahra's death, and when the body was moved.

After a brief recess, Whisnant continued his testimony talking about text messages sent between Elisa and Adam.  The investigator stated one text from Elisa to Adam on October 6, 2010 that said Zahra is still alive.

The testimony continued with description of how Elisa was abusive toward Zahra. One example given from Whisnant was of witnesses describing a time when Elisa screamed at Zahra for urinating on herself.  The little girl also showed up at school with two black eyes.

The defense questioned Whisnant about Adam's involvement in Zahra's death. Whisnant stated that Adam did fail a lie detector test but said law enforcement is confident he was not involved in his daughter's death.

The testimony also revealed that Hickory police believe Adam went from September 24, 2010 to October 4, 2010 never knowing Zahra was missing from their 800 square foot house.

The prosecution also called a North Carolina State Bureau Investigator that was involved in Zahra's case to the stand just before a recess for lunch.

The agent testified that they found blood drops on Zahra's bedroom walls, ceiling and floors. The prosecution showed photos of Zahra's bedroom wall where drops of blood were found.

"Some of them appear to be covered up," the agent said in his testimony about the blood spots.

Police said Zahra's bedroom was painted pink to cover the blood.

Court took a recess until 2 p.m.

When court resumed, Zahra's biological mother Emily Dietrich addressed the court in an emotional speech about the constant pain she feels for the loss of her daughter.

“The pure evil that Elisa has committed.. I should reach down and find the strength to discuss how Zahra was pulled apart like some human puzzle and discarded like rubbish for wildlife to graze on.”

After Dietrich spoke, Zahra's father Adam addressed the court about the hurt and anger he has toward his wife Elisa.

“I trusted you with the most precious person on my life," Adam said. "You not only lied to me, but you also lied to Zahra.”

“Zahra loved you more than anything in the world.  She looked up to you, wanted to be like you, yet you filled her life with lies.”

"There are no words to explain my hate for you," Adam said. "Zahra will never get to go to high school, have a boyfriend, get married or have kids."

"You have destroyed my life."

Elisa declined to speak on her own behalf,  but had her attorney read a prepared statement.   The statement expressed Elisa's sorrow for what had happened to Zahra and apologized to the community for what she had done.

Finally, the judge closed the hearing with his statement of how this crime will haunt the community for years to come, and  the frustration of never truly figuring out how Zahra died.

"This case will haunt the community until I'm in a rocking chair," the judge said.

Zahra's mother travels from Australia for hearing

Elisa was charged with killing 10-year-old Zahra last year. Her body was found in pieces across two counties.

Emily Dietrich was last in North Carolina when her daughter's remains were finally identified last November.

At the time, she stayed with a family who lived on the same street where Zahra once lived - and she’s kept in touch with that family ever since.

The Ridgeways mailed what they could of the street memorial to Dietrich. They met Emily by happenstance the week Zahra's remains were identified last November.

“We just want to wrap our arms, give her a great big hug. Tell her much we love her. Praying for her and how much we hope this will give her some peace,” said Lisa Ridgeway.

Lisa’s husband David said of Emily, “She’s not looking forward to seeing these people with the stepmother, but at the same time she wants it to be over. She knows she needs to be here because she is the voice and she will be the face for Zahra.”

Elisa Baker, Adam Baker and Dietrich were in the same room together, face to face, for the first time.

They said Emily Dietrich does not believe Zahra's father, Adam Baker, played a role in her death - but that she does think he was an absent father.

“She’s furious with him but I don’t think she holds him responsible for anything that happened to [Zahra] physically,” said Ridgeway. “I don’t think we'll ever know exactly what happened and I don’t know, as a mother, that Emily would truly want to know.”

An autopsy failed to determine an exact cause of death.  The Medical Examiner's report listed the cause as "undetermined homicidal violence."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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