Hickory, North Carolina
On a hot Saturday afternoon at the Zahra Baker Memorial Park in Hickory, the laughter of children fills the air and the clinking of baseballs on metal bats signifies the start of summer. Picnickers enjoy lunch under the covered shelter while the little ones play tag on the state of the art rubber floor. The 3,600 square foot park with its colorful new toys, innovative Aero Glider Boat, and mountain side slide is every child's dream come true. Little do they know, nor should they know, the story of how it came to be.
Zahara Baker was a vivacious 10 year old living in Catawba County. She came to North Carolina from Australia with her father Adam Baker and his wife Elisa Baker after the two met on the Internet and married. Her biological mother had surrendered custody of her at the age of 8 months old due to severe postpartum depression. Zahra was a true survivor with an amazing spirit. At the age of five she suffered bone and lung cancer and lost a leg and wore a prosthetic. She was also severely hearing impaired and wore 2 hearing aides. Despite her tough early life and physical problems, her handicaps were out shined by her spirited personality.
Sadly her spirit was a source of frustration for her father and stepmother. Adam and Elisa Baker had recently been investigated for abuse by the Catawba County Department of Social Services in previous months. Zahra's teacher had reported to the agency that the child was coming to school with bruises. Shortly after the report, Zahra was pulled out of school. Her step mother stated she would be homeschooling her.
Zahra was reported missing on October 9, 2010 though her father and stepmother stated she was missing as early as September 25th, 2010. On this morning, the Baker's reported a fire to the home and presented police with a "ransom note." That evening, Adam Baker called the Hickory Police Department to calmly report that his daughter was missing. The police arrived to the home where Canine Officers detected blood was discovered on Baker's family vehicles. Police next determine the ransom letter was fake, and Elisa admitted writing it. Elisa Baker was then charged with felony obstruction of justice in the disappearance of Zahra Baker.
After Elisa Baker's arrest, family members began publicly describing the abusive environment in which Zahra was living. One family member told ABC News that "Zahra was locked in her room and allowed out for five minutes a day to eat. She also said she believed the girl was physically abused, saying Elisa Baker would "get mad, she'd take it out on Zahra, things the kid didn't deserve ... she just had a horrible home life." Adam Baker remained quiet about the case. On October 25, 2010 he was arrested for charges not linked to the case. However, he was detained at the Charlotte Airport as he was attempting to flee the country, most likely to return to Australia.
On October 27th, 2010 police locate Zahra Baker's prosthetic leg in a neighboring county in an are where stepmother Elisa Baker used to live. It is revealed in an interview with the family of Elisa Baker that Zahra was not taken to the doctor in more than a year for cancer checkups. Because of bruising on her body, the family stated Adam Baker said he was hesitant to take her to a doctor.
On Monday, November 1st, 2010, family members show police a steep hill where Zahra's stepmother forced her to walk up and down the hill as punishment. Zahra wore a prosthetic leg and walking on hills was painful.
On Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010, Hickory Police located a bone in Catawba County and later discover it belonged to Zahra Baker. On November 11, 2010, police discover remains in a recently dug hole in another area of Caldwell County. Reports later determine the partial remains also belonged to Zahra. The missing persons search is ended. Court documents filed in Catawba County show that Zahra Baker's body was dismembered and spread across three different sites.
On September 17th, 2011 Elisa Baker pleaded guilty to the second degree murder of Zahra Baker and will only serve 18 years in prison as negotiated for her cooperation in the case. Adam Baker will not face charges in the murder because in the state of North Carolina, it is not a crime to dismember a body. The cause of death on Zahra's death certificate is listed as "undetermined homicidal violence."
This crime has markedly shaken the the loving community of Hickory, North Carolina. People all over this mountain town placed tokens of love and memory at Zahra's home and burial sites. Within months, businesses and community members organized a plan to memorialize Zahra Baker in an interactive way.
The Zahra Baker All Children's Playground is a park designed to be used by all children, even those with disabilities and prosthetics. It is located in within the City of Hickory. The playground is funded by donations and grants and was completely built by volunteers in the community.
As a parent, it is impossible not to think about the tragedy while you watch your own beautiful and vibrant child laughing and playing in the clear mountain air. It makes one painfully question how such evil can occur against the most vulnerable in our society. It is my wish that this child could finally feel the spirit of love that she had been denied in her short lifetime. I hope she can feel the outpouring of grief, outrage, and sadness from a society that failed her. We can only hope that the sound of the children laughing and playing makes it way into the clouds and to Zahra Baker's corner of heaven.