NEWTON, N.C. — Nearly a year after a freckled-faced 10-year-old's remains were found among piles of dead animals in North Carolina's rural Caldwell County, her stepmother pleaded guilty to her murder Thursday, in a courtroom crowded by reporters.
Elisa Baker, 43, was sentenced to about 15 to 18 years in prison by Judge Timothy Kincaid after he heard several hours of testimony from investigators, followed by emotional statements from the parents of victim Zahra Baker.
The hearing opened Thursday morning at the Catawba County Courthouse with Baker and her attorney, Scott Reilly, entering a guilty plea, as part of an agreement with prosecutors. Baker pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, aggravated by her admissions that she abused Zahra and tried to throw investigators off her path. Elisa Baker also pleaded guilty to six minor charges.
Perhaps the most emotional moments came in the afternoon, when Emily Dietrich, Zahra Baker's biological mother, and Adam Baker, the girl's father, made statements to the court.
Dietrich, who traveled to North Carolina from Australia, where she gave birth to Zahra and where the young girl spent the first eight years of her life, said her daughter's death "traumatized my family to the point of ripping it apart."
"We are trying to understand how such horrible things can happen to beautiful people," she added.
Then Dietrich added, "I wonder if Zahra is at peace. Is she cold, or is she somewhere the sun always shines? Is she wet, or does she feel the warmth of swimming through a wonderful dream?"
Adam Baker aimed his comments at his wife, saying, "Elisa, I trusted you with the most precious thing in my life. You not only lied to me, you lied to Zahra.
"There are no words to explain the hate I have for you, and the pain and loss I suffer every day."
Elisa Baker, who went from the United States to Australia to marry Adam Baker and then moved back to North Carolina with him and Zahra in 2008, looked straight ahead and avoided glancing at her husband as he spoke.
Reilly, Elisa Baker's attorney, asked Kincaid for mercy and apologized to Adam Baker in his remarks.
"Elisa is emotionally devastated and wrecked," he said. "The only thing she wishes me to convey is that she is deeply sorry for the hurt she has caused."
Reilly then said to the judge, "Elisa had a choice. She could have kept her mouth shut, and this case never would have been solved. For once, she did the right thing."
Earlier Thursday, clad in a pink Catawba County jail uniform with her dark hair pulled back from her pale face in a tight braid, she answered Kincaid's questions in a soft voice.
She has been held since February and offered the pleas as preparations for her trial continued.
After entering her guilty pleas Thursday morning, investigators spelled out the evidence they would have used against her at trial. Their story began with a false report of an abduction, continued through the discovery of tiny specks of blood on Zahra's recently painted bedroom wall, and ended with accounts of deputies fighting their way through brush to recover her bones in rural Caldwell County.
Adam Baker had no role in his daughter's murder, dismemberment or the scattering of her body parts, police said. Baker leaned forward in his seat on the courtroom's second row, and stared at his clasped hands as they testified.
Zahra had survived two bouts with cancer that left her without one leg and partly deaf.
Suspicion of the Bakers began shortly after Zahra was reported missing last Oct. 9, Hickory, N.C., police investigator David Rockett testified. As police draped the house with yellow tape, Elisa Baker turned to a victim services coordinator: "Are they putting the tape up because they think she was murdered in there?" she asked.
Police had responded to what turned out to be a false abduction note of Adam Baker's employer's daughter. The note was written on a Duke Energy return envelope. Rockett said a Duke Energy bill was found inside the Bakers' small home, where they had moved in July 2010 from Caldwell County.
A paint brush with pink paint on its tips — the color Zahra's bedroom had been recently painted — was among debris found in a backyard fire.
Soon after Hickory police began searching landfills for evidence, particularly a purportedly blood-stained mattress, a lawyer representing Elisa Baker called. She offered help, Hickory Maj. Clyde Deal testified.
Elisa Baker's story was that she had found Zahra dead in her bed. She and Adam concluded they couldn't report it to authorities because Adam Baker is undocumented. Adam Baker told his wife he "would take care of it" and seemed to cut up the girl's body in a bathroom, his wife told police. He told his wife he needed her help in finding places to dispose of the body, she said.
The child's head, right arm, right leg and upper left leg were never recovered.
"It's a fair statement to say that we would not have been at those sites without the information that Elisa Baker shared," Hickory Police Lt. Bobby Grace testified.
But investigators say cellphone records cast doubts on parts of Elisa Baker's story.
The courtroom was nearly filled for the hearing, with a large number of media members joining family members of Elisa Baker and Zahra Baker. The group included at least one reporter from Australia.
The case attracted worldwide attention, as authorities searched several times in October and early November — initially, trying to find the young girl, and then looking for her remains.