Police search wooded lot for girl

photo

Nell Redmond

People gather for prayer at a candlelight vigil at East Hickory Baptist Church for 10-year-old Zahra Baker in Hickory, N.C., on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010.

HICKORY, N.C. (AP) -- Investigators used a police dog to search among tree-trimming equipment and piles of mulch for a missing 10-year-old North Carolina girl on Wednesday, a day after authorities said they believed the girl had been killed.

Hours earlier, Zahra Clare Baker's stepmother showed no emotion in court as a judge explained she could be sentenced to up to 30 months in prison if convicted of obstruction of justice. Elisa Baker is accused of trying to throw off investigators with a fake ransom note.

The girl, who used hearing aids and a prosthetic leg because of bone cancer, was reported missing over the weekend, but police have indicated they don't believe her father and stepmother's story.

Baker's court-appointed attorney, Scott Reilly, said she was "scared to death" and very emotional about everything.

"She's upset about being held in jail. She's upset about being away from her family," he said.

In nearby Morganton, seven officers and a police dog searched for Zahra on a wooded lot among piles of mulch and a wood chipper on Wednesday. The property has equipment belonging to the tree services company that employs her father.

An officer who asked for anonymity because he's not authorized to discuss the case confirmed the site was among several where officers are searching for the girl. The officer said a different dog got a "hit" at the scene a day earlier, but nothing was found then.

District Attorney James Gaither Jr. said he couldn't discuss details about the case.

"I'm upset. The facts are disturbing. You saw the images; she is such a darling child," Gaither said.

Friends have described Zahra as shy but upbeat despite her health problems.

Elisa Baker is the only person accused in the case so far. Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins said she was charged with felony obstruction of justice after admitting she wrote the ransom note, which asked for $1 million. She had already been in jail since the weekend on unrelated charges.

Adkins has said police can't find anyone outside Zahra's household who has seen her alive in the last month. The uncertain timeframe has made it difficult for investigators to narrow down places to search for her.

Zahra's father, Adam Baker, has said it was possible his wife could be involved in the disappearance, and other relatives echoed those remarks. The father has not been charged in the case, though the chief said previously he hasn't been ruled out as a suspect.

The ransom note found Saturday was the first sign that the case would turn sinister. Officers discovered it on the windshield of Adam Baker's car when they came to investigate a yard fire at their home. It was addressed to a man Adam Baker had worked for, though police quickly determined that man's family was safe.

Zahra was reported missing that afternoon. The stepmother said she last saw Zahra sleeping in her room about 12 hours earlier, though Adkins has indicated he doesn't believe the timeline the couple gave him.

Relatives and former neighbors, meanwhile, described Elisa Baker as nasty-tempered and violent in interviews and court documents. Zahra usually took the brunt of her wrath, they say.

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