Elisa Baker Pleads Guilty, Gets 18 Years in Prison for Zahra's Murder
Elisa Baker pleading guilty before Judge Timothy Kincaid (on the stand). Elisa Baker pleaded guilty in a Catawba County courtroom yesterday to the second degree murder of her 10-year old stepdaughter Zahra. She also admitted to desecrating the girl's body to hide her crime. Elisa Baker will now spend the next 15 to 18 years in prison. Wearing a pink jail jumpsuit and French braid in her graying hair, Elisa Baker stood before Judge Timothy Kincaid and quietly answered "Yes sir" when he asked if she was guilty of murder. Then Baker sat down and stared straight ahead while - for the next several hours - Catawba County prosecutors presented all of their evidence: her history of prescription drug abuse and violence toward Zahra. One time, the girl showed up at school with two black eyes. Then there's the blood investigators found splattered on Zahra's bedroom floor and pink walls, some of it hidden by fresh paint. It was a grisly account that shed new detail on how police eventually found Zahra's prosthetic leg, arm and torso in rural Caldwell County three weeks after the girl was reported missing last October. Hickory Police Lieutenant Robert Grace coordinated the search and said the sites were known as "illicit dump areas" where people commonly "cast out carcasses of wildlife and domestic animals." The sites were located and identified by Elisa Baker and her legal team. In fact, the sites were so overgrown and mountainous Grace says police would never have found Zahra's remains without the help of her stepmother. Elisa Baker offered the information in exchange for prosecutors not using it to charge her with 1st degree murder and pursuing the death penalty. Catawba County DA Jay Gaither speaking to the media after Elisa Baker's sentencing. Zahra Baker's mother Emily Dietrich is behind him on the right, with her arm around her mother, Zahra's grandmother. Catawba County District Attorney Jay Gaither says it was a deal he didn't want to make, but, the evidence he had offered only a "slim possibility of ever recovering Zahra's body." "The team concluded that without the cooperation of Elisa Baker, the death and disappearance of Zahra would remain unsolved and the crime would go unpunished," said Gaither in a press conference after the hearing. Gaither says he doesn't know why Elisa Baker decided to help the investigation since much of what she'd told police to that point was a lie. She claimed Zahra had died of natural causes and that the girl's father Adam Baker had disposed of the body. She may have been motivated to make the deal after seeing news images of police recovering a bloody mattress from the dump. Gaither says Baker's attorney called within 24 hours of those news reports to offer her help in the investigation. But even in pleading guilty to 2nd degree murder yesterday and admitting she abused Zahra and dismembered her body, Elisa Baker did not answer the burning question: Why? Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins says he doesn't know either. "There's only one person that knows and she's not talking," said Adkins at the post-hearing press conference. Another nagging question concerns Elisa's husband Adam - who is Zahra's biological father. Chief Adkins says police have "no credible evidence that links Adam Baker to this crime." But police also say they initially struggled to believe that was the case, since Zahra died on September 24 and her father didn't report her missing until October 9th. Police concluded that Baker had a pattern of working long hours, using drugs and occasionally going long periods of time without seeing Zahra. Cell phone records show Elisa Baker texting her husband as if Zahra were still alive in the two weeks after the murder. Those records also show Elisa making calls in the vicinity of the dump sites on the day Zahra died. Adam's call record does not show him at those sites. In the courtroom yesterday, he looked directly at Elisa and seethed. "You have destroyed my family's life and you have devastated a community," said Adam Baker, in a quavering voice. "There are no words to explain the hate I have for you or the hurt and pain I feel every day for the loss of Zahra." He demanded that Elisa lead police to the rest of Zahra's remains, including her head and other leg. Emily Dietrich - Zahra's biological mother - flew in from Australia to make the same plea. "I feel there will be no real justice for Zahra," said Dietrich, choking back tears. "Her life was taken by an evil selfishness that none of us will never understand or fully comprehend. While part of Zahra is still out there, this will never be over for us." Dietrich wants Zahra buried in Australia, where she was born. Elisa Baker chose not to speak at the hearing yesterday, but her attorney told the judge Elisa was "so sorry for the hurt she has caused." Judge Timothy Kincaid sounded as though he were swallowing a bitter pill in sentencing Elisa Baker to a maximum of 18 years in prison. He said he had no other option according to the plea deal and North Carolina's structured sentencing laws. In announcing the sentence, Kincaid sighed, adding the murder of Zahra Baker would "haunt this community" for years to come.