Skull, open questions beset NC girl's murder case

A missing skull. An uncertain cause of death. A two-week gap between a little girl's alleged slaying and the time her father reported her missing.

A missing skull. An uncertain cause of death. A two-week gap between a little girl's alleged slaying and the time her father reported her missing.

The case of 10-year-old Zahra Baker seemed to reach a turning point this week when her stepmother was indicted for murder and an autopsy report was released for the freckle-faced Australian girl, who had a prosthetic leg and hearing aids because of her fight with bone cancer.

There also were revelations that social service agencies failed to find mistreatment in Zahra's home despite numerous complaints, and the admission by the former defense team that they removed a key piece of evidence from a crime scene.

And yet as some questions are answered, new ones keep cropping up, most importantly: Will anyone be convicted in Zahra's death?

Elisa Baker, 42, is charged with second-degree murder, but medical examiners haven't been able to determine precisely how Zahra died. Her body was dismembered and scattered in remote areas in two North Carolina counties.

Experts say prosecuting a murder case without a clear cause of death will be difficult.

Complicating matters, her skull has not been found, along with her hands and other bones. If medical examiners had not been able to match DNA from some of her remains with a sample taken from a toothbrush, they wouldn't have been able to determine the sex, race or height of the remains that have been found so far.

Elisa Baker led police to at least three sites where she said Zahra's remains were found, but they have not recovered the skull, which may provide important clues about the cause of death. It's unclear why Elisa Baker led investigators to some body parts, but not the skull.

Although the medical examiner found clear evidence that Zahra's body had been dismembered, the office concluded the cause of death was "undetermined homicidal violence."

That will likely be a challenge for prosecutors, according to Richard Jaffe, a nationally prominent lawyer and co-chairman of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' committee on the death penalty.

"First, the prosecution has to get over the hurdle of, is this death a result of a homicide?" Jaffe said. "My guess is the defense will be challenging not only whether the person charged is the right person, but also the cause of death and manner of death."

The lack of an exact cause of death requires the prosecution to spend more time establishing what in other cases are basic facts — and gives the defense more opportunities to create reasonable doubt.

District Attorney James Gaither declined to comment. But a prosecutor experienced in similar cases says that while it can be difficult to land convictions with missing body parts or uncertain causes of death, it's not impossible.

Linda Tally Smith is the Commonwealth Attorney for Gallatin and Boone counties in Kentucky. She estimated that about 70 percent of the homicide cases she's prosecuted in Boone County have involved dismemberment — enough to earn the grim sobriquet "Bone County" from a state forensic expert.

"When you're dealing with a victim's remains that are not the whole picture, a lot of times you have to use circumstantial evidence, or statements form other witnesses or even jailhouse informants," she said. "Cause of death becomes the main issue in the case."

But Zahra's remains aren't the only unanswered questions prompted by this week's indictment. Social services agencies in two counties visited the homes where she lived seven times in 2010 in response to complaints that she was being mistreated. None of those investigations concluded there was any abuse. But both departments, in Catawba and Caldwell counties, have refused to answer detailed questions about the investigations or say whether anyone was disciplined.

Lisa Dubs, a Hickory attorney who was representing Elisa Baker until this week, told The Associated Press a private investigator working for her removed a piece of evidence from a crime scene to verify what Elisa was saying. Dubs wouldn't say what the evidence was or how long she had it before turning it over to investigators, but maintains she did nothing wrong.

Elisa Baker herself is largely an enigma. Living a semi-nomadic lifestyle around western North Carolina, she immersed herself in a dark, Gothic online persona and had a tangled personal history. The Associated Press found that she has been married seven times, including several overlapping marriages. She's been charged with one count of bigamy for her marriage to Zahra's father, Adam. The couple met online, and they were married in Australia in July 2008, before moving to North Carolina.

Adam Baker has not been charged in connection with Zahra's disappearance or death, but he faces charges in unrelated matters like bad checks.

Investigators believe Zahra died on Sept. 24, but Adam didn't report her missing until Oct. 9. The family lived in a one-story, 978-square-foot home in Hickory at the time. It isn't clear what happened in that two-week span, and lawyers for both Adam and Elisa Baker have not responded to multiple calls and e-mails seeking comment.

But people in the community say they can't understand how Adam could not have known that his daughter was missing for two weeks, and they have pressed police and the district attorney's office for answers.

"It's incredible they're saying no one else was involved than Elisa," said Eddie Mitchell, who lived across the street from the Bakers' last home in Hickory. "You're telling me he didn't know anything? That was a tiny house. How can you go more than two weeks without seeing your daughter in such a small house? The community is really upset about the way this case was handled."

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Weiss reported from Charlotte.

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