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NEWTON, NC (WBTV) - Just nine days before the anniversary of Zahra Baker's death, Elisa Baker has pleaded guilty in the death of her 10-year-old stepdaughter.
Elisa Baker pleaded guilty to various charges including second-degree murder, obstruction of justice, and bigamy. The judge in the case accepted the plea around 2:30 pm Thursday after Zahra's father and biological mother spoke to the court.
Elisa Baker entered the plea in Catawba County Superior Court by 9:45 a.m. just minutes after walking into the courtroom.
The charges in which she pleaded guilty to include second-degree murder, obstruction of justice, bigamy, obtaining property by false pretense (4 counts), and identity fraud (2 counts).
The potential maximum total sentence for all charges would typically be 722 months or 60 years in prison. But, under the plea deal in presented in court, Baker would be sentenced to only 177-222 months or 14 3/4 to 18 1/2 years in prison.
In court Thursday morning, Major Clyde Deal with the Hickory Police Department revealed that before Oct. 24, 2010, there were 340 investigative events of which 58 consisted of searches for Zahra. Police also searched landfills looking for the child's mattress.
On October 22nd images of authorities finding a mattress were broadcast on WBTV and other local news programs. Authorities say the mattress did not wind up containing evidence, but they believe it may have left Elisa Baker with the impression that they had found a key piece of evidence.
After Oct. 24, police learned from defense lawyers that Elisa Baker was willing to offer assistance in locating Zahra's body. Police said it is very likely they would not have found any of the child's remains without help from Elisa Baker.
Parts of Zahra's body were found in multiple locations around Hickory months after her disappearance was reported. Investigators said the child's arm bone, prosthetic leg, torso and pelvic bone were found.
However, Zahra's head and other body parts were never found. A saw, which police believe was used to dismember her body was also found.
The plea deal also revealed that Elisa Baker found Zahra unresponsive in her room the day she died on Sept. 24, 2010. Elisa Baker told police she tried to help Zahra, investigators said.
After the plea was announced Thursday morning, the prosecutor in the case said Zahra's family is entitled to the cost of transporting her remains back to Australia for burial.
Meantime, Zahra's remains are being held as evidence and the prosecutor said he will request this after testimony.
Zahra's biological mother and her father, Adam Baker, were both in court on Thursday. Both read statements that in part expressed their anger at Elisa.
"There's no words to explain the hate I have for you," Adam Baker said to Elisa. "Zahra loved you more than anything in the world. She looked up to you, wanted to be like you. Yet you filled her life with lies."
Zahra's biological mother Emily Dietrich, who came from Australia to be present for the hearing, remained silent until speaking around 2:15 p.m.
"I feel there will be no real justice for Zahra," she said. "Her life was taken by an evil selfishness that none of us will ever understand or fully comprehend."
"I still wonder if Zahra is finally at peace, and if she knows that she was, is, and will always be loved...my only hope now is that she is in a place where she will no longer feel the pains of mortality."
On Monday, Judge Timothy Kincaid was supposed to make a decision about whether he would grant a change of venue for the trial.
Kincaid initially said the hearing pertaining to Elisa Baker would be rescheduled for Wednesday morning in hopes that both sides can "reach a resolution of the matter."
Less than 24 hours later, the court released a statement indicating the hearing would be delayed until Thursday at 9:30 a.m.
That gave Dietrich and others time to fly in from Australia to be there for the announcement of the plea deal.
If Elisa Baker had been convicted by a jury, she could have faced up to 30 years in prison.
Baker is still facing federal drug charges in addition to the charges related to Zahra's death.
According to the state, if Baker was convicted on the drug charges before a judgment on the murder charges has been reached, she could have faced extra time behind bars due to her offender status moving from Level 1 to Level 2.