Furniture store employees remember seeing Zahra Baker 14 days before disappearance

HICKORY, NC (WBTV) - Employees at a Hickory furniture store say they remember seeing Zahra Baker and her stepmother in the store 14 days before she was reported missing.

Linda Austin says she noticed the little girl had a prosthetic leg and heard her stepmother call her by her name. "And I thought that was a strange name, which it is it's different, pretty but different," Austin said.

"She was standing in the aisle way and as I walked past, I put my hand on her shoulder and said excuse me sweetheart and she looked at me and smiled," Pat Adams added.

That smile, Adams says was the same one she found staring back at her from photos she found online.

Employees called police and a statement was taken. The store has surveillance video but it was not turned on at the time.

Before this information, police had not found anyone who'd seen Zahra in the last month.

Investigators looking into the case of a missing Hickory girl who is presumed to be dead returned to the 10-year-old's home Friday morning and removed some items from the house.

Police were at the Hickory home for about two hours Friday morning and they brought a cadaver dog to the house.

The dog was led into the house, but officials have not said if the dog detected anything unusual inside the home.

Police also brought Zahra Claire Baker's father, Adam, to the home.

Officers removed mattresses, box springs and bed rails from the house.  Those items will be taken to the state lab in Raleigh to be analyzed for blood or any other forms of DNA.  Baker left the house around 12:30 p.m.

Police also searched another home Friday afternoon in which the Bakers previously lived in near Hudson, NC.

Managers of the Congress Street apartment complex believe Zahra was kept in the attic.

They say the Bakers lived there between July and November of last year.

Shirley and Darrell Mims said they went to investigate a smell in the home and when they went upstairs they found the closet door missing and footprints on the closet walls.

On closer inspection, Darrell Mims found sheet rock in the attic torn door, "like someone was laying on it," he said. The Mims also say they never saw Zahra except once when the family was moving in.

"We use to hear noise in the middle of the night. I don't know if it was the little girl staying up here or what but we've heard no more noises since they've been gone," Darrell Mims said.

A K-9 searched the area around the home but it's unclear if anything was found here.

Thursday evening, the search of 60 acres of land in the Hartland Road Community of Burke County ended with no trace of the girl who was reported missing last Saturday.

The girl's father works for a landscaping company that uses a portion of the land to store equipment and dispose of brush.

Full Coverage:  The Search for Zahra

"The dad had access to equipment and the property, so we needed to search it," said Burke County Sheriff John McDevitt.

The father has not been charged with anything related to the case.

The stepmother, Elisa Baker, was arrested Sunday on charges unrelated to the disappearance of Zahra, but she was served with a warrant on Tuesday accusing her of an obstruction of justice in connection with a ransom note that was found.

Hickory Police say the stepmother admitted she wrote the note.  Police believe the note was written to hinder the investigation into the missing girl.

The Hartland Road site is one of several that have been searched in recent days, though more attention was given to it.

Cadaver dogs have gone over the entire property and a pond was drained Wednesday night in hopes of finding some evidence. None was found.

McDevitt said, "we gave a valiant effort to find something, but could not."

The sheriff does not expect searchers to return to the site unless some other evidence comes up to point them that way.

On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that Zahra may have been alive when her family moved to a new home in Hickory in mid-September.

However, investigators are still having trouble finding anyone outside Zahra's household who has seen the girl alive in recent months.  The uncertain timeframe has made it difficult for investigators to narrow down places to search for her.

Hickory Police Deputy Chief Clyde Deal said Thursday they're still working on the timeline.  He would not elaborate about why authorities think the girl was alive when the family moved from the nearby town of Sawmills.

Investigators are urging anyone who knows something about the case to call the Hickory Police Department.

"Somebody knows something, and we need them to come forward," said Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins.

* * *

Police are calling Zahra's stepmother, Elisa Annette Baker, 42, a person of interest in the girl's disappearance.  Baker appeared in court Wednesday morning after being charged Monday with felony obstruction of justice.

The felony charge is the result a ransom note found in a vehicle parked outside Zahra's home which demanded $1 million.  Police said Baker admitting to writing the note to distract police investigators in their search for Zahra.

On Wednesday, Baker walked into courtroom #4 wearing a pink jail jumpsuit.  She was handcuffed and escorted by sheriff's deputies.  The judge asked Baker if she understood the charges against her and she replied, "Yes."

Baker is being held in the Catawba County Jail on a $72,200 bond.  In court on Wednesday, Baker's attorney, D. Scott Reilly, told the judge he planned to file a motion to have the $40,000 bond amount relating to the felony charge reduced.

The felony obstruction of justice charge against Baker is the result of an interview police investigators conducted with her Monday night.

The police chief told reporters Tuesday morning that Baker admitted to writing the ransom note and then asked for her attorney.

According to the judge, if Baker is convicted on the felony charge, she could spend 30 months in prison.  Baker's next court date on the obstruction charge is November 3, for a probable cause hearing.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Baker's son, Douglas Proctor released a statement to the media in which he asked for prayers for the family. Click here to read the full statement.

* * *

On Tuesday, the Hickory Police Department canceled the AMBER alert for Zahra, and for the first time, the police chief described the case as a homicide investigation.

Zahra was reportedly last seen by her stepmother on Saturday at 2:30 a.m. while sleeping at her home on 21st Avenue Northwest in Hickory.

According to the HPD, the girl was not reported missing by her father, Adam Baker, until some 12 hours later.

Adam Baker and his daughter, Zahra, are originally from Australia.  Family friends tell WBTV that Zahra's birth mother abandoned Zahra when she was an infant.

Zahra and her dad left Australia a couple of years ago and moved to North Carolina after Zahra's dad and Elisa Baker met online.  They were married within the last two years.

On Monday, police said a search warrant revealed that police dogs detected the scent of human remains on a Chevy Tahoe and a Toyota Camry in which Adam and Elisa Baker own.

Related: Read the search warrant (pdf document) | Read story about the search warrant

During the search of the home, investigators also found a ransom note which asked for a million dollars.  The note said:  "We have your daughter and your son is next.  Unless you do what is asked.  $1,000,000 in unmarked bills.  Will be in touch soon."

Adkins said Elisa Baker was interviewed Monday night and she admitted to writing the ransom note.  She then told police she wanted an attorney.

As a result of their interview with Baker, the HPD obtained a warrant against her for felony obstruction of justice.  According to the arrest warrant, the date of the offense was Saturday, Oct. 9.

Adkins said inconsistencies with Elisa Baker's earlier information concerning the girl's disappearance indicates "...she has not been truthful."

Baker was charged on Sunday with driving with license revoked, larceny by employee, unsafe tires, six counts of worthless checks, and four counts of communicating threats.

* * *

Hickory police say they are still trying to establish a timeline as to when Zahra went missing.

On Sunday, investigators gathered surveillance video from businesses near the girl's home to establish a better timeline of events leading up to her disappearance.  They also spent the day canvassing the area around her home.

Outside Zahra's immediate family, police said investigators have been unable to find anyone who has seen the girl within the last month.

During a media briefing Tuesday morning, police said an inspector was called to the house in recent weeks.  The HPD is asking this person to come forward because they may have information which could be helpful to the investigation.

Family friends said Zahra has been home-schooled for the past year by her stepmother.

At Hudson Elementary School where Zahra went to school last spring, grief counselors were on hand Tuesday for students and teachers who wanted to talk.  On Wednesday, counselors were at Granite Falls Elementary where Zahra had also gone to school in the past.

Students and parents are also being urged to come forward if they have seen the little girl in  the past month.

* * *

Despite the change in the investigation, people who know the little girl are praying she is still alive.

"There is always hope," said Kayla Rotenberry who lives in the mobile home in Caldwell County next to where the little girl lived until this summer.  "She was such a sweet little girl."

On Tuesday, Rotenberry was showing people a drawing Zahra made and a bunny made out of a sock that the missing girl had given her daughter.

Rotenberry's fiance, Bobby Green, said, "I wish all kids were like Zahra."

Green said he saw the little girl with black eyes and bruises in the past, but said the girl's step-mother Elsa Baker "...always said it was Zahra falling down, Zahra doing this, Zahra doing that."  Green said he didn't believe the stepmother and thought something was wrong.

The CBS Early Show interviewed two of Zahra's relatives in Hickory Tuesday morning.

"She [Zahra] just had a horrible home life," said Brittany Bentley.  "One time, I remember, she had a black eye.  She [Zahra] said it was from the door, but we all knew it was from Lisa.  I never saw Adam spank her or punish her--do anything.  But he would sit there and watch Lisa do it to his child."

Zahra, who is hearing impaired and has loss a leg due to bone cancer, uses hearing aids and a prosthetic leg.  Police said the girl's hearing aids were found in the house.  Despite her disabilities, relatives say Zahra was well adjusted.

"She was a happy child," Bentley said.  "She could walk faster on her leg than we could walk on two legs.  She was an amazing child.  She was never angry or depressed.  She was always happy, loving."

The Department of Social Services will not confirm or deny that social workers were ever called out to the home.

Zahra is about 5'1" tall, weighs 85 pounds, has blue eyes, and short reddish, blond hair.  She was last seen wearing a camouflage army T-shirt and black knee-length tights.

If you have seen Zahra, call the Hickory Police Department 828-328-5551, 911, or *HP. 

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