CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Though Zahra Clare Baker was battling cancer that forced her to wear hearing aids and a prosthetic leg, friends who knew her in Australia say she was an outgoing, caring, happy girl.
Then her lonely single father moved her halfway around the world to North Carolina so he could live with a woman he met on the Internet. Now the 10-year-old with the freckles and wide smile is missing and presumed dead, and friends and family thousands of miles away are waiting anxiously for word about her fate.
"She was one of the bravest little girls you'll ever have the pleasure of meeting," Kim Wright, 44, a close friend of the family, told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Giru, Australia, where Zahra lived until two years ago. "She was always thinking of others."
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Zahra's father and stepmother reported her missing over the weekend, saying they had last seen her in her bed at their home in Hickory, about 50 miles northwest of Charlotte, early on the morning of Oct. 9.
Police say they don't believe them. They've had trouble finding anyone outside Zahra's house who has seen her alive in recent months. That's made it difficult to narrow down places to search.
"We've been going back and talking to everyone we can," Hickory Deputy Chief Clyde Deal said Thursday.
Zahra's stepmother, 42-year-old Elisa Baker, is jailed, accused of trying to throw off investigators with a fake ransom note. Her court-appointed attorney, Scott Reilly, says she is "scared to death" and very emotional about everything.
Zahra's father, Adam Baker, 33, hasn't been charged, but investigators haven't ruled him out as a suspect. Several telephone messages left for Adam Baker were not returned Thursday.
Wright said friends and family in Australia still hope Zahra is alive. She became friends with the little girl four years ago at a cancer fundraising event. She was sitting in a chair waiting for her head to be shaved to raise money when Zahra approached, took her hand and told her not to be scared.
Wright became something of a surrogate mother to the girl, whose biological mother left when she was a baby. Adam Baker raised her after that with help from his parents, Wright said, taking time off from the sugar mill where he worked so he could be with Zahra when she was diagnosed with bone cancer about five years ago.
Wright described a phone call from Zahra when she was in a children's hospital waiting to have her leg amputated.
"She told me they were having trouble with her leg because she was really sick. But then she said: 'It's OK because I'm going to be getting a Barbie leg so I don't want you to get upset,'" Wright said. "That little kid was more concerned about what I was feeling than what she was going through."
A few months later, doctors discovered tumors in her lungs. She had chemotherapy, but the treatment led to a partial hearing loss. Still, she remained upbeat, attending a camp for children with cancer and inspiring her fellow campers by taking part in all of the physical activities.
"She was missing a limb but she could still do anything that the other kids could do," said camp manager Mark McGregor. "She was an unbelievable kid and we're hoping like hell that you find her alive and we can get her back here."
Police say that's not likely. Documents and interviews with friends and neighbors in North Carolina paint a starkly different picture of Zahra's life there.
They say Elisa Baker had a short temper and would hit Zahra, that Social Services was called to investigate, but nothing was ever done.
"I watched her beat her and tried to stop her," said former neighbor Karen Yount, who filed a complaint against Elisa Baker for threatening to harm her daughter and her friends.
Former neighbor Kayla Rotenberry said she saw Elisa Baker hit Zahra and noticed bruises on the girl's face and body. She also said that Elisa Baker told her that Social Services was investigating.
"She was angry that people were getting into her business," she said. "We all tried to stop her. That little girl was so sweet. Always smiling through it all. She just wanted to be loved."
Wright says friends in Australia were suspicious of Elisa Baker when Adam Baker met her online in early 2008 and invited her to visit.
Elisa Baker told them she was she was a police officer who was shot in the line of duty. She also said she was a bounty hunter and had met celebrities.
"She told a lot of stories that never quite rang true," Wright said.
They were married that July in a small ceremony in Adam Baker's parents' backyard. In November, they moved to North Carolina. The family was less than thrilled, especially since Zahra's medical treatments were free in Australia.
"Adam was on his own for eight years with Zahra before he met (her) and I think he was lonely and I think that was his biggest downfall, really," Wright said.
The last time Wright saw Zahra, the little girl said she didn't want to leave her grandparents and friends. Wright hugged her and told her she would get to go to Disneyland.
"But she was nervous," Wright said. "She said she wanted to go for a day, but wasn't sure she wanted to live there. But when you're a 7-year-old kid, you don't get a choice. Your parents tell you what to do and that's the end of that discussion."
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