HICKORY — Police used dogs today to search for a missing 10-year-old girl whose fight with bone cancer has left her with a prosthetic leg and hearing aids in both ears. Her father, meanwhile, said it was possible the girl’s stepmother could have been involved in the disappearance.
The woman, Elisa Baker, was arrested on unrelated charges a day after Zahra Clare Baker’s disappearance Saturday. The child was reported missing from her home in western North Carolina’s Hickory several hours after a fire was reported in their backyard.
Today, friends of the family said they were bracing for the worst.
“I just don’t have a good feeling about this,” said former neighbor Kayla Rotenberry. “She was such a sweet girl. This is just a nightmare.”
Zahra was described as shy, home-schooled child who remained upbeat despite her health problems. The stepmother could be short-tempered toward her, two former neighbors said, but the woman also fought tears when a charity fitted her for hearing aids recently.
“I just hope I can get my daughter back. I miss her so much,” Zahra’s father, Adam Baker, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” as he choked up. He was interviewed alongside the Hickory police chief.
The girl’s stepmother told her husband she last saw Zahra sleeping in her bed at 2:30 a.m. Saturday, about 2 1/2 hours before the fire was reported. Adam Baker said he was panicked after the fire but didn’t immediately check on his daughter.
Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins said investigators were interviewing former teachers and following other leads, but he wouldn’t say what those were.
Investigators have collected surveillance video from businesses near the family’s home and used dogs to search the neighborhood. The police chief wouldn’t rule out any suspects, including Adam Baker.
Adam Baker was asked if he thought his wife was involved and said, “I wouldn’t like to think so. On what I’ve heard so far, it could be possible.”
The chief wouldn’t let Baker elaborate on what he had heard because of the ongoing investigation.
Rotenberry said she and her fiance were good friends with the Bakers and saw Zahra often when they lived in the nearby town of Sawmills. The couple was skeptical of the girl’s stepmother, in part because she claimed to write songs for musician and “American Idol” finalist Chris Daughtry and told other far-fetched stories, Rotenberry said. Daughtry’s manager was unaware of any connection between Elisa Baker and the singer.
“We just got to the point where we didn’t believe her. We knew they were lies,” said Rotenberry, 23.
The stepmother also had a short temper, Rotenberry said.
Rotenberry said she noticed that Elise Baker’s hand was swollen about six months ago. “She told me that she was trying to spank Zahra, but hit her on her prosthetic leg,” she said. “When Adam asked her about the injury, she said she fell and hurt her hand. She didn’t want him to know. She knew he would be mad.”
Another former neighbor, Brandy Stapleton, 22, of Lenoir, said that Elise Baker told her the same story about how she injured her hand. “She wasn’t the person everyone thought she was.”
Adam Baker is from Australia and met his current wife over the Internet, Stapleton said. Zahra’s mother lives outside the U.S.
Today, several of Adam Baker’s friends stood outside his one-story house just off a busy Hickory street, near the spot where someone had set a fire Saturday morning. There were a few burned tree limbs and what appeared to be clothing.
Zahra uses two hearing aids, which were left at the house, and a prosthetic left leg from the knee down, police said. She was being home-schooled but had attended public schools in the past.
The child had lost part of her hearing during chemotherapy for two bouts of cancer, her stepmother told the Independent-Tribune of Concord-Kannapolis in a May interview. The newspaper reported that Elisa Baker fought back tears while the girl was fitted for the hearing aids during a charity event.
Friends said the girl also had the prosthetic leg because of cancer.
Current neighbor Eddie Mitchell, 68, said the Bakers had lived in Hickory for only a couple of months.
Elisa Baker was arrested Sunday on charges that included communicating threats, writing worthless checks, larceny and driving with a revoked license. It was unclear whether she has an attorney.
She has two daughters and a son from a previous marriage. The mother and son don’t have much of a relationship, the man said, after he stayed with his father when they divorced. The daughters went to live with their mother.
Still, 22-year-old Douglas Proctor said he had spoken to investigators about his mother and was dismayed over news of the case.
“It’s not something that you want to open up a paper and see,” he said, adding he’d met Zahra only once.
Hickory, a city of 40,000 residents, is about 50 miles north-northwest of Charlotte.