Statement from District Attorney James C. Gaither

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					                                 State of North Carolina
                                General Court of Justice
                             Twenty-Fifth Prosecutorial District

BURKE COUNTY COURTHOUSE                             James C. Gaither, Jr.                       CATAWBA
201 SOUTH GREEN STREET                                 District Attorney                 P.O. BOX 566
MORGANTON, N.C. 28655                                                          NEWTON, N.C. 28658-0566
(828) 433-3210                                                                 (828) 695-6110

CALDWELL COUNTY COURTHOUSE                                                     HICKORY DISTRICT
P.O. BOX 718                                                                   111 MAIN AVENUE,
LENOIR, N.C. 28645                                                                       HICKORY, N.C. 28601
(828) 759-3510                                                                 (828) 261-7410
                                  September 15, 2011
                  Statement from District Attorney James C. Gaither, Jr

On October 9th 2010, many of us heard for the first time the name of Zahra Baker, a young girl whose
name would become a household name for all of us within a short span of time. Zahra Baker was
reported missing on October 9th, 2010 under mysterious and questionable circumstances. Due to quick
thinking and deliberate actions of the Hickory Police Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the
State Bureau of Investigation, what began as a missing persons report soon turned into an investigation
of Zahra’s father, Adam Baker, and her step mother, Elisa Baker.

Elisa Baker admitted writing a bogus ransom note, and police gathered DNA evidence from a vehicle
used by the Bakers. However, there was still not enough evidence to conclude whether Zahra was alive
or not. Over the next two weeks a massive manhunt across several counties turned up one cold lead
after another. Although the investigation was declared a homicide investigation, without additional
evidence investigators did not have enough facts to actually know what had happened to Zahra.

On October 20th, 21rst and 22nd, search teams following a lead scoured a Caldwell County landfill.
Towards the end of Friday, October 22nd, as the search wound down, a media helicopter broadcast the
image of a crane lifting a soiled mattress from the dump. Although the mattress contained no evidence
linking it to the search for Zahra, it appeared to the public (and perhaps the defendant) that law
enforcement had uncovered a key piece of evidence.

The next day, Saturday, October 23rd, at approximately 11:00 am, I received a call from Elisa Baker’s
attorney indicating that her client had information that would solve the mystery of the disappearance of
Zahra Baker. My very next contact was with Hickory Police Department to determine what the chances
were that they would ever recover the remains of Zahra Baker. I was told given the scope and breath of
the search thus far that it was very unlikely Zahra’s remains would be found. As our team prepared to
meet with legal counsel for Elisa Baker, we discussed with law enforcement all of the possible outcomes
of rejecting any offer of assistance that Elisa Baker might seek to provide. After reviewing all of the
evidence, assessing the slim possibility that existed of ever recovering Zahra’s body and recognizing that
without more evidence the State had no case against Elisa Baker or any other suspect, the team
concluded it was near certain that without the cooperation of Elisa Baker the disappearance of Zahra
would remain unsolved and those responsible for her murder would go unpunished

On Sunday, October 24th I met with defense counsel to determine under what terms Elisa Baker was
willing to give cooperation and to determine exactly what information she professed to have. When I
learned that Elisa Baker could give us the location of Zahra Baker’s remains and that she could give us
details of how Zahra died, my heart sank. Throughout the search I had been of the same opinion as
Chief Adkins… that we were investigating a homicide. But along with the community and law
enforcement, I had continued to hold out hope that Zahra was still alive.

Elisa Baker was ready to cooperate, but her cooperation came with two conditions. First, in exchange for
ending the search for Zahra Baker and ending the mystery that surrounded her death, the prosecution of
Elisa Baker would be limited to second degree murder so long as her statement to law enforcement
was truthful. Second, in the event that it was determined that Elisa Baker was not truthful, she could be
prosecuted for first degree murder, but her statements and evidence would be excluded. In other words,
Elisa Baker’s statements would be admissible only in a prosecution of second degree murder or less.

There is no way that any of us could anticipate what we were to learn through Elisa Baker’s statement.
We speculated that she might implicate someone else in Zahra’s death, or that she might take full blame
herself. However, it is difficult to convey the level of shock, horror and revulsion that was experienced by
myself, my prosecutorial team and law enforcement over the next several hours and days as we became
aware of the details of Elisa Baker’s horrific actions following the death of Zahra Baker. As we recoiled
from the story that was told to us we each took measure of ourselves and brought to the fore our most
determined and professional demeanor as we took stock of the task that lay ahead. Elisa Baker’s
statements led us to Zahra’s dismembered body, but there were still unanswered questions and the
investigation was far from over. We set aside emotions and began what was to become a three month
investigation and examination by all of the available resources at our disposal to solve what still remained
a mystery.

Team Zahra was organized as a working group including the District Attorney’s Office, Hickory Police
Department, State Bureau of Investigation, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Center for Missing
and Exploited Children, and additional members of law enforcement. We recognized almost immediately
that Elisa Baker was not being truthful with law enforcement, and we began to explore whether we could
put together a case for first degree murder. For the next three months we searched for new evidence and
examined what evidence we possessed. We met and conferenced with numerous legal experts,
prosecutors, and law enforcement, both State and Federal, and we received the most talented and expert
advice that was available. I take this moment to thank those many individuals (they know who they are)
for their invaluable and selfless service.

In the days and weeks that followed Elisa Baker’s revelations law enforcement uncovered the gruesome
remains of Zahra Baker. The community was both outraged and shocked, but mostly deeply saddened
and emotionally shaken by the loss of Zahra. The demand for an explanation, for justice, and especially
retribution, was overwhelming. The demands of the law were likewise clear cut: law enforcement and the
prosecution were to remain silent and impassive and pursue justice with calm determination. As the
weeks stretched into months it became clear to law enforcement that Adam Baker, upon whom so much
suspicion had been placed, was not responsible for the disappearance and death of his daughter. Law
enforcement and the District Attorney’s office focused the investigation on the step-mother, Elisa Baker.

Once Elisa Baker was indicted for murder, additional, low level felonies were also indicted, and we began
the process of preparing for trial. I was determined to clear the dockets if necessary to give priority to the
case of Elisa Baker. At the same time, I was aware of the issues that any trial can present. Even with her
statements there existed defenses that could be raised at trial, and there are always potential issues on
appeal. When Elisa Baker agreed to plead guilty to all felony charges she was indicted for including
second degree murder in the aggravated range and be sentenced to 18 years in prison, I conferenced
with members of Team Zahra, and I consulted with prosecutors across the State and with members of
Zahra’s family. Today Elisa Baker was sentenced to 18 years in prison and still faces additional charges
in federal court. As the District Attorney, it is my responsibility to weigh the risks and the probabilities in
every prosecution. The risk in this case was that Elisa Baker would entirely avoid responsibility for her
part in the death of Zahra. The probability was that without her cooperation law enforcement would not

locate Zahra’s body. The probability of a successful prosecution for first degree murder was likewise very

As the burden of obtaining justice for Zahra weighed heavy on my office, I weighed carefully the risk
versus the gain in indicting Elisa Baker for first degree murder. I consulted with dozens of prosecutors,
experts in the field of criminal law and criminal procedure and with law enforcement. The uniform opinion
of all counsel that I sought was to avoid the risk of having Elisa Baker go free and to pursue the second
degree charge.

Today’s hearing was very unique in that we sought to put before the world the evidence that we possess
and to explain our decisions with honesty and candor. I want to thank law enforcement and everyone
involved and recognizes them for their tremendous effort in assisting with the prosecution and conviction
of Elisa Baker.

We hope and pray this conviction will bring closure to the family of Zahra and the community. We
recognize that organizations and individuals have come together to make a change in the way that we as
a society seek to protect our children. It is my hope that this movement will continue to grow and that
permanent good will come that honors the memory of Zahra.


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