HICKORY, N.C. -- It’s been a year since all of North Carolina first got the Amber Alert that a freckle-faced, ten-year-old girl had disappeared from her northwest Hickory home.
Even as the Hickory Police Department sent out the alerts for Zahra Baker late Saturday night, October 9th, 2010, they suspected the little girl’s father and step-mother weren’t quite telling the truth about her supposed abduction.
Major Clyde Deal spoke to NewsChannel 36 shortly before the 11 p.m. news that night, saying investigators were getting conflicting statements from Adam and Elisa Baker.
Police also thought it was suspicious that the young cancer survivor with a prosthetic leg and a hearing loss in both ears would leave without something she really needed.
"The child is hearing impaired in both ears and her hearing aids were left in the house," he said that night.
By the next morning, the Piedmont was learning Zahra’s story about her battle with cancer and her unshakable smile, as video from a Speedway Children’s Charities event flashed across their TV screens. In it, young Zahra was being fitted for the hearing aids Deal said she left behind.
That morning, police led Elisa Baker away in handcuffs for outstanding warrants on unrelated charges, and she would later admit writing a fake ransom note about Zahra’s supposed abduction.
Hickory Mayor Rudy Wright remembers watching the story unfold and thinking that cases like these rarely end well.
"It became more heartbreaking that she had overcome more in her short life than most of us will have to endure if we live to be 100," he recalled.
But the little girl’s story touched a lot of hearts in Hickory. Over the next few weeks, Wright saw the town pull together.
“I learned a lot about people -- about how giving and caring they are,” he said.
People called in tips about where they’d last seen Zahra, and dozens left flowers and stuffed animals next to a tree in her front yard along 21st Avenue NW.
A little more than a month later, police chief Tom Adkins addressed the media again -- but this time his voice cracked as he announced the Amber Alert was cancelled.
“This has turned from a missing person's case to a homicide,” he said. Part of Zahra’s prosthetic leg, found in the woods, had been positively identified.
Zahra Baker’s biological mother, Emily Dietrich, had traveled from her native Australia to Hickory for the announcement. She had given custody of Zahra to Zahra’s father at birth because of post-partum depression, and had been trying to find her for years. She found out where Zahra lived just a few days before she disappeared.
She visited the memorial tree, grief-stricken, but comforted by the outpouring of support for her daughter.
The house is now boarded up, and the tree has been cut down. Elisa Baker has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and other charges, and is headed to prison.
Police said they can’t find evidence that Adam Baker was involved in Zahra’s death. He still faces charges for identity theft and obtaining property under false pretenses.
Mayor Wright said he’s proud of the people of Hickory for their support, and for wanting to remember Zahra Baker in a positive way. A playground for children of all abilities is in the works at Kiwanis Park.
Organizers have received nearly double the amount of money they expected in donations – more than $170,000. The park should be open by spring.
Wright said he expected nothing less of the people of Hickory.
“People said, ‘that little girl deserved better, and who's going do it but us?’”