Memorial to Zahra grows, birthday vigil planned Tuesday

Search crews in water on Wednesday in Caldwell Co.
Search crews in water on Wednesday in Caldwell Co.
Hole left behind after searchers combed a wooded area on Wednesday
Hole left behind after searchers combed a wooded area on Wednesday
Zahra with Santa during a visit in years past. (Source: MySpace)
Zahra with Santa during a visit in years past. (Source: MySpace)
Zahra's stepmother, Elisa Baker, and her father, Adam Baker. (Source: MySpace)
Zahra's stepmother, Elisa Baker, and her father, Adam Baker. (Source: MySpace)
Zahra at home. (Source: MySpace)
Zahra at home. (Source: MySpace)

HICKORY, NC (WBTV) - Dozens of mourners are visiting the growing memorial outside Zahra Baker's former home in Hickory.

WBTV photojournalist talked to people who came from miles around after learning that police confirmed her death.

They dropped off flowers, cards, balloons, and other items in memory of Zahra. Many folks say Zahra's story has brought a whirlwind of emotions.

Zahra would have turned 11-year-old this coming Tuesday. In honor of her birthday, The Children Protection Council of Catawba County said it would hold a vigil on Tuesday from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Union Square in Hickory.

In a somber press conference they had been "dreading," Hickory Police said Friday afternoon a bone found last week during a search was that of a missing 10-year-old Hickory girl.

"We have recovered enough physical evidence to believe we have found Zahra," police Chief Tom Adkins said in an emotional press conference, that he said he did "with great regret." (Read the full text of the chief's remarks)

Police said the bone found last week off of Christie Road "matches DNA found from the house at 21st Avenue Northwest," which is where Zahra lived before going missing on Oct. 9. A police source also told WBTV's Steve Ohnesorge that "the bone has evidence of cut marks on it."

Full Coverage: The Search for Zahra

The sad revelation comes after "possible human remains" were found Wednesday near Little River off Dudley Shoals Road in Caldwell County, where authorities were searching for clues related to Zahra's disappearance.

Police said Friday those remains were "consistent with a child" but they could not confirm they were Zahra. The remains found in Caldwell County have been sent to the medical examiner's office and SBI for positive identification.

"This case isn't over and we won't rest until we have all the information we need to bring the people to justice who hurt Zahra," Adkins said.

From the time of the announcement Friday afternoon until late in the evening, folks streamed to a memorial for Zahra outside the Baker family's former Hickory home at 21 21st Ave. NW.

"How could anybody hurt her?" asked Tim Lewis as he visited.  It was a question asked by many.

"Anger doesn't even cut it," said Lewis's friend Kelly Wise.

Elisa Baker allegedly abused Zahra, and folks around Hickory almost unanimously believe she and father Adam Baker were involved in her death and the apparent cover-up.

"To be blessed to have children, and then not take care of them, it's just terrible," said Crystal Carrillo as she held her four year old daughter tight.  "I just hope justice is served."

The news that what was found Wednesday was "possible human remains" came on Thursday -- the same day that Zahra Baker's biological mother was spotted in Hickory after arriving from Australia.

Friday it was learned Zahra's biological mother gave a DNA sample to investigators.  Cheek swabs from her and biological father Adam Baker will be used to create a DNA profile.

Meanwhile, Adam Baker, Zahra's father who first reported her missing in a 911 call on Oct. 9, was at the Hickory Police station Thursday afternoon for about an hour.  He and his attorney met with investigators and were later allowed to leave.

While no one has been charged with Zahra's murder, a legal expert told WBTV the prosecution will build a large circumstantial case against whoever is charged.

"There are clear indicators of premeditation or deliberation" said Bill Powers, an attorney and board certified criminal law specialist.  "If there was an instance where prosecution of first degree murder was appropriate, this is looking like it's it."

Another critical piece to the prosecution's puzzle, according to Powers: the bone of Zahra's investigators found last week.

"They're going to look at things like tool marks, or markings on the bone or something to show the methodology," he said. "The big question is then, is their additional forensic evidence to show an intent to try to disguise or hide her remains and seems like that's the route we're going right now."

Meanwhile, Zahra's biological mother, Emily Dietrich from Australia, has been spotted in Hickory.

She reportedly was flow to the United States by the Seven Network, an Australian TV station.  WBTV has been told that she's only giving comments to the Seven Network while she's here.

On Thursday, Dietrich visited the growing memorial outside the missing girl's Hickory home.

WBTV has confirmed through a source with knowledge of the investigation that police were conducting additional interviews on Thursday, although the source would not say who was being interviewed.

Crews began searching at an area near Dudley Shoals Drive and Burns Road in Caldwell County at 8:15 a.m. on Wednesday.  Officials said the area, which has been searched before, was one of the locations that Zahra's stepmother Elisa Baker suggested search crews look.

After the evidence was found, the search took on a serious tone with a limited fly zone set up -- meaning news helicopters were not allowed to travel lower than 3000 feet in the area.

Search crews centered their efforts around Little River.  They went into the creek with dry suits, and also searched the banks, at times hacking the brush with machetes.

According to WBTV reporter Steve Ohnesorge, police seemed more intense as the search went on.  Security in the area was very tight.

Ohnesorge said that initially every officer he tried to talk to seemed "frantic" and they all told him "I can't say anything."

Neighbors had seen the area searched before a couple weeks ago, but agreed that Wednesday's search was especially intense.

"Between all the people down there searching and the church parking lot full and the helicopters flying over, it's been pretty hectic here," said Richard Devier, who lives right near Little River.

On Monday, investigators focused on paperwork which must be done, reviewing and re-evaluating their evidence. Police also interviewed tipsters. On Tuesday, teams searched a site off of Indian Grave Road, just north of Lenoir and 10 miles north of the Christie Road location that had been searched last week.

Officials said that the 32 searchers were unable to find any evidence on Tuesday.

Since the investigation began October 9th, Hickory Police have submitted four rounds of evidence to the SBI for processing. In two of those submissions, the first results came back within a few days, the next results came back in two weeks.

The SBI has not disclosed what evidence was tested; however search warrants were executed on the former Baker home, two cars parked in the driveway, and a search was done at Adam Baker's work site during the timeframe evidence was submitted.

The last two submissions were made to the SBI on November 3rd and 4th. That's when police also announced they found a possible bone connected to Zahra.

DNA evidence will likely be the most crucial evidence in prosecuting whoever brought harm to Zahra Baker. The ten-year-old was reported missing October 9th, by her father, Adam Baker.

He's been arrested and since bonded out of jail on unrelated charges. Zahra's stepmother, Elisa Baker is charged with writing a fake ransom note to derail investigators.

DNA evidence can take several weeks or months to process. First, a DNA profile from Zahra Baker must be built, before any potential evidence can be compared.

The fact that it's not clear exactly when Zahra disappeared further complicates building her profile. It's not as easy as taking hair from a brush, when it's not even clear when Zahra lived in the family home on 21st Avenue NW.

Her father has since been evicted and police have torn apart walls and floors looking for evidence.

Neighbors and folks living in the area have told WBTV they never saw Zahra during the time the family lived at the home.

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