Zahra Baker's stepmom Elisa pleads guilty to murder

The Charlotte ObserverSeptember 15, 2011 

NEWTON, N.C. — Elisa Baker entered a guilty plea Thursday morning to second-degree murder and other charges related to the death of her 10-year-old stepdaughter Zahra Baker nearly a year ago.

Baker, 43, entered the pleas following an agreement reached between her attorney, Scott Reilly, and District Attorney Jay Gaither.

According to the agreement announced in court Thursday morning, Baker will face between 15 to 18 years in prison.

A sentencing hearing began after the plea agreement was announced, with prosecutors calling a number of police witnesses.

In addition to the murder charge, Baker also pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, for writing a fake ransom note on the day when she and husband Adam Baker called police to report their daughter missing. The guilty plea also included charges of bigamy, identity fraud, and obtaining property by false pretenses.

A number of other misdemeanor charges were dropped, but Baker still faces federal drug charges.

During the hearing, Judge Timothy Kincaid told Elisa Baker that the maximum penalty for the murder and other related charges would be 722 months, or more than 60 years.

When asked by Kincaid if she understood terms of the plea agreement and was entering the plea of her own free will, Elisa Baker quietly answered, "Yes, sir."

During the sentencing hearing, police investigators outlined the way they developed the case against Elisa Baker. Hickory police Lt. Bobby Grace described the search for Zahra Baker's remains, saying they were found in very rugged terrain, in several different locations. Parts of the little girl's body, including her head, were never found, Grace disclosed.

Hickory police Capt. Thurman Whisnant described Elisa Baker's account of the events last Sept. 24, the day police believe Zahra Baker died. Whisnant said Elisa Baker told investigators that Zahra had awakened that day not feeling well. Elisa Baker told police she fed her stepdaughter about 3 p.m. but found her unresponsive in her room an hour later.

Whisnant said Baker told police she tried to revive Zahra by using CPR but failed. Then, Whisnant said, Elisa Baker said she called Adam Baker and told him what happened. Whisnant said Elisa Baker told police that her husband asked her the next morning to help him dispose of the remains.

Under questioning from Gaither, the district attorney, Whisnant said police "found several inconsistencies" in Elisa Baker's story.

He said cell phone records showed that between 2 and 4 p.m. Sept. 24, Elisa Baker placed a number of phone calls while in Caldwell County, near where Zahra's remains were found about six weeks later. At that time, Whisnant said, cell phone records showed Adam Baker was nowhere near his wife.

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