HICKORY, N.C. — Investigators cast doubt Monday on accounts given by the father and stepmother of a missing 10-year-old whose battles with bone cancer left her with a prosthetic leg and hearing aids in both ears.
A search warrant revealed Monday that police dogs had detected the smell of human remains on cars belonging to the couple. Hours earlier, the police chief said investigators were having trouble finding anyone outside the household who had seen Zahra Clare Baker alive in the last few weeks.
The warrant filed in a Hickory court didn't indicate that police found any remains in their search Sunday. It said the dogs detected the smell on a sedan and SUV.
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The couple had told police they discovered the girl was missing on Saturday and that one of them had seen her sleeping in her room hours earlier. Yet Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins said investigators were having difficulty with that account.
"We don't know the last time anyone saw her," he said an afternoon news conference. "We're having a difficult time establishing a true timeline."
When the search warrant was filed hours later, police declined to comment further but said Adkins would issue a statement Tuesday morning.
Zahra's father, Adam Baker, said during a morning TV interview that it was possible his wife could be involved in the disappearance, which was reported after a fire in the home's yard. Elisa Baker was arrested Sunday on about a dozen charges unrelated to the girl's disappearance.
Adkins said the father was cooperating with police, but Elisa Baker wasn't.
A reporter saw what appeared to be remnants of clothes among burned branches from the fire at the house.
The search warrant said that police responding to the fire early Saturday found what appeared to be a ransom note addressed to Adam Baker's boss on the windshield of Baker's car. Police went to that man's house, and found him and his daughter to be fine.
"Mr. Coffey, you like being in control now who is in control we have your daughter," the warrant quoted the note as saying. It asked for $1 million dollars and said "no cops."
On Saturday afternoon, Adam Baker called to say his daughter was missing.
Zahra was described by family friends as shy but constantly smiling, in spite of 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 a few months ago.
"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" on Monday.
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.
The police chief said he 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."
On Monday, several of Adam Baker's friends stood outside his one-story house in Hickory, a city of 40,000 residents about 50 miles northwest of Charlotte.
"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."
Rotenberry said she and her fiance were good friends with the Bakers when they lived in the nearby town of Sawmills, and saw Zahra often. 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 said he 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 about six months ago she noticed that Elisa Baker's hand was swollen. "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 Elisa Baker told her the same story about how she injured her hand. "She wasn't the person everyone thought she was."
Adam Baker was from Australia, and met his current wife over the Internet, Stapleton said. Zahra's mother lives outside the U.S.
Zahra had 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 May during a charity event where she got free hearing aids.
Family friends said the girl also had the prosthetic leg because of cancer.
Elisa Baker was arrested Sunday on charges including 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.
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