Police get important clue as last public sighting of missing Australian girl is revealed

Amplify’d from www.theaustralian.com.au
  • Brad Norington, Washington correspondent
  • From: The Australian
  • October 18, 2010 12:00AM
POLICE probing the disappearance of a 10-year-old Australian girl in North Carolina have received a clue about her last public sighting.
Workers at a furniture store in the mid-west town of Hickory confirmed yesterday they saw Zahra Baker with her stepmother, Elisa Baker, three weeks ago.
The sighting of Zahra, whose prosthetic leg was also noticed by staff, is important new information in helping police piece together the girl's last known movements before she vanished.
Zahra's disappearance, reported on October 9, has turned into a murder investigation, with the girl's American stepmother and Australian father, Adam Baker, treated by police as the chief suspects.
The case has led to widespread shame among local family friends, former neighbours and extended family, who regret they did not do more to help the little girl who had her left leg amputated five years ago and needed hearing aids after battling bone cancer.
Many now wish they had reported Zahra's treatment to child protection authorities, acknowledging they were aware Ms Baker gave her stepdaughter fierce beatings and locked her in her room for extended periods.
Until yesterday, police had trouble finding anyone outside her immediate family who had seen Zahra for more than a month.
In fact, no one apart from Elisa and Adam Baker had been able to recall seeing the girl since she supposedly moved to Hickory with them six weeks earlier from Hudson, a nearby town.
Ms Baker, 42, already in jail on a charge of obstructing justice after admitting she wrote a fake ransom note that demanded $US1 million, claims she last saw her stepdaughter asleep in her bed in the family's Hickory home at 2.30am on October 9.
Mr Baker, who has been giving Hickory police lukewarm co-operation, has said the last time he saw his duaghter was at least a day earlier, and he reported her missing as soon as he found out about it.
Police in Hickory, who quickly concluded Zahra had been murdered, have not found a body and have no firm idea about the timing of her presumed death.
Before yesterday's report, the only plausible explanation for no sightings by locals in Hickory was that Zahra was home-schooled and kept mostly indoors.
Employees at In Your Home Furnishing yesterday recalled Ms Baker referred to Zahra by name when the pair visited the store on September 25.
Floor manager Pat Adams told a local news channel he saw Zahra in an area of the store where TVs aired cartoons for children. "As I walked past, I touched her on the shoulder and . . . she just looked up at me and smiled," Mr Adams said.
Zahra, who moved to the US two years ago with her father, was born in Wagga Wagga. Little is known about her mother, but they have reportedly had minimal contact since Zahra was eight months old when her parents separated.
Before moving to the US with her father, Zahra spent four years living with him at his parents' home in Giru, near Townsville. She went to the local primary school while her father and grandfather worked at the local Invicta Sugar Mill. As a single father, Mr Baker started using an internet dating service and corresponded online for a year with Elisa in the US. She visited him in Australia, where the couple married in 2008.
Mr Baker then took Zahra to North Carolina to live with his new wife. He found a job at a local tree-trimming company, where his work involved hauling wood and feeding it into a wood-chipping machine for use as garden mulch.
The family is understood to have lived at first in a trailer park before the move to Hickory, a city of 40,000 people 72km northwest of North Carolina's biggest city, Charlotte.
Apart from alleged abuse of Zahra, Ms Baker attracted notice among locals because of her interest in "Goth" culture. On her My Space page, she calls herself "Little Miss Gothicfairy". In capital letters on the site, Ms Baker wrote: "I stopped fighting my demons. We're on the same side now." There is a picture of Zahra on the site, wearing black clothing, with the caption: "The dark child lol".
Authorities were first alerted to trouble at the Bakers' Hickory home at 5.30am on October 9 when firefighters responded to a call about a burning pile of mulch. They found a Chevrolet with its passenger door open and a hand-addressed envelope attached to the windscreen to a "Mr Coffey".
Mr Coffey was later identified as Mr Baker's boss and owner of the rented house.
"Mr Coffey, you like being in control now who is in control," the note said. "We have your daughter and your potsmoking redhead son is next unless you do what is asked 1,000,000 unmarked will be in touch soon." The note also carried a warning: "No cops."
Mr Baker did not report that his daughter was missing until about 2pm that day, when he called police, saying someone had poured petrol in his car and left a note saying they had kidnapped his boss's daughter.
He claimed it was his belief that the person who had left the note had also kidnapped Zahra.
With the consent of the Bakers, police searched the property using sniffer dogs. The search confirmed there were possible human remains in the Chevrolet and another car on the property.
Police arrested Ms Baker the next day on an unrelated fraud matter. They later charged her over the ransom note.
Appearing on the US-based ABC television program Good Morning America, Mr Baker insisted he had nothing to do with his daughter's disappearance but he conceded his wife could have been involved.
"I wouldn't like to think so, but going off what I've heard so far it could be possible," he said.
The police search for Zahra has focused mainly on Mr Baker's workplace. Police have drained a pond on the premises and searched a nearby forest, but come up with nothing. On Friday they took a bed frame and mattress from Zahra's home.
Hickory policeman Major Clyde Deal said the new information "helps in building a timeline". Sheriff John McDevitt from nearby Burke County last week questioned Mr Baker's sincerity. Asked if he believed Zahra's father, he replied: "I don't."

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