Zahra Baker's stepmother sentenced in her dismemberment, slaying
The disappearance of 10-year-old Zahra Baker drew international attention in October when her stepmother in Catawba County, N.C., told police that the freckle-faced, disabled girl had vanished and might have been kidnapped.
Police issued an Amber Alert and launched search parties for Zahra, whose two bouts with cancer had left her with a prosthetic leg and impaired hearing.
But suspicion soon fell on Zahra’s stepmother, Elisa Baker, after police charged her with writing a phony ransom note. Baker later cut a deal with prosecutors: She would lead them to Zahra’s buried remains in exchange for a promise that they not charge her with first-degree murder.
On Thursday, Baker, 43, was sentenced to 15 to 18 years in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder, obstruction of justice and other charges, the Charlotte Observer reports.
"This is the case that will haunt this community until the time I take to a rocking chair and leave this place," Judge Timothy Kincaid, who sentenced Baker, was quoted as saying.
Police testimony said Baker had physically abused Zahra at least three times, including on at least one occasion for accidentally urinating on herself.
Baker led police to three sites where parts of her stepdaughter’s dismembered remains were dug up and recovered, including gel liner from her prosthetic leg. But the rest of Zahra’s remains are still missing.
Zahra’s mother, Emily Dietrich, attended the court hearing after traveling from Australia, where she lives and where her daughter was born.
"Is she cold, or is she somewhere the sun always shines?" Dietrich was quoted as telling the court, saying she constantly wonders whether her daughter is at peace.
Prosecutor Jay Gaither said he anguished over the decision to forgo first-degree murder charges, the Observer reported. But without clear evidence showing how Zahra died, Gaither feared Baker might go free if he didn’t cut a deal.
Baker’s sister, April Fairchild, said she hoped Baker would get psychiatric help in prison.
"It’s hard for the family, but I believe she should have gotten more [prison time], if anything," Fairchild told the Observer.
Baker declined an opportunity to address the court. Her lawyer, Scott Reilly, said she was "emotionally devastated and wrecked.’"
-- David Zucchino in Raleigh, N.C.
Photo: Elisa Baker looks on in a Catawba County courtroom in Newton, N.C., on Thursday after being sentenced in the death of her stepdaughter, Zahra Baker, 10. Elisa Baker will spend up to 18 years in prison after pleading guilty to murdering the disabled girl. Credit: Chuck Burton / Associated Press