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Pond drained as search for missing N.C. girl continues

From Natisha Lance, HLN
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Pond drained in search for missing girl
  • NEW: Investigators draining pond next to Tuesday search site
  • District attorney: "We want the best but we fear the worst"
  • Bond is $40,000 for stepmom on obstruction charge; attorney calls it excessive
  • Zahra Clare Baker's disappearance is now a homicide probe, police say

WBTV: Search focuses on brush pile
WCNC: Neighbors hope for justice
WSOC: Candlelight vigil planned tonight

Morganton, North Carolina (CNN) -- Sheriff's deputies, police and firefighters began draining a pond Wednesday night as they resumed their search for the body of a missing 10-year-old North Carolina girl.

The pond is next to a site investigators combed overnight in hopes of finding Zahra Clare Baker, whose disappearance is now being investigated as a homicide. The girl's stepmother, Elisa Baker, has been jailed on a charge of obstruction of justice after police said she admitted to writing a ransom note found at the family's Hickory, North Carolina, home.

The search ran until 1 a.m. Tuesday, and between 15 and 25 investigators were working past nightfall Wednesday in cool, damp weather to drain the neighboring pond.

The site under scrutiny Tuesday night is more than 20 miles north of Hickory. Zahra's father, Adam Baker, frequently worked there hauling loads of wood and brush to be fed into a wood chipper and turned into mulch, witnesses said.

Baker was on the scene during the Tuesday night search aimed at finding the girl's body, Burke County Sheriff John T. McDevitt said Tuesday night.

Video: Sister of Zahra's stepmom talks
Video: Chief: Case is now a homicide
Video: Cops search for missing girl

"He seems concerned," McDevitt said. "But I don't know how sincere his concern is."

Zahra reportedly suffered from bone cancer and used a prosthetic leg and hearing aids. The hearing aids have been found, but not the prosthesis, Hickory Police Chief Adkins said.

The case is an emotional one for investigators and a high priority, Catawba County District Attorney Jay Gaither Jr., told reporters after Elisa Baker's initial court appearance Wednesday morning.

"The facts are disturbing as we know them at this point," he said, adding, "We want the best, but we fear the worst."

Flanked by two attorneys, Elisa Baker wore a bright pink jumpsuit and was handcuffed and chained at her wrist and ankles at her court appearance. She was informed of the felony charge against her, which carries a penalty of more than two years in prison upon conviction. Asked if she understood, she affirmed that she did in a low voice.

The bond on the obstruction of justice charge is $40,000, in addition to the bond of more than $30,000 she faces on charges unrelated to Zahra's disappearance. Her next scheduled court date is November 3.

Her attorney, Scott Reilly, said he would be filing a motion to get the bond reduced, calling it "excessive." The maximum bond for such a charge is usually $10,000, he said.

Reilly said his client is scared, emotional, upset and worried about her family. Asked what she has said about Zahra, he said he was not at liberty to discuss the girl.

Though Zahra was reported missing Saturday afternoon. Her father and stepmother reported she was last seen sleeping in her bed about 2:30 a.m. Saturday. But Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins said Tuesday authorities have been unable to find anyone outside Zahra's immediate family who has reported seeing her in the past month, and investigators are not sure how long she has actually been missing.

A search warrant application filed in the case said it began with a call about a burning mulch pile at the family's home about 5:30 a.m. Saturday. Firefighters found a Chevrolet Tahoe with its passenger door open and a power company envelope with handwriting on it on the front windshield, the search warrant said.

I remember Elisa ... saying her hands hurt from spanking Zahra so much.
--Brittany Bentley, relative

Firefighters notified police, who approached the SUV and smelled gasoline coming from inside. The note written on the envelope was addressed to a "Mr. Coffey," identified in the search warrant as Adam Baker's boss, Mark David Coffey.

"Mr. Coffey, you like being in control now who is in control," the note said, according to the search warrant. "We have your daughter and your pot smoking red head son is next unless you do what is asked 1,000,000 unmarked will be in touch soon." In the bottom right, the note said, "no cops," according to the warrant.

Coffey and his only daughter were at the residence at the time of the fire, the warrant said. CNN affiliate News 14 Carolina reported Coffey owns the home.

Adam Baker called police about 2 p.m., saying someone had poured gas in his car and left a note saying they had his boss' daughter, according to the search warrant. Baker told police he believed the person who left the note had kidnapped Zahra.

The Bakers consented to a search of their home, the warrant said. A cadaver dog indicated the possible presence of human remains in or on the Chevrolet Tahoe as well as a burgundy Toyota Camry on the property, it said. Authorities were testing swabs taken from the Tahoe to determine if blood was also present, according to the warrant.

Brittany Bentley, who is married to Elisa Baker's nephew, told HLN that the girl "wasn't in very good living conditions, not at all for a 10-year-old."

"I remember Elisa coming out of the bedroom one day, saying her hands hurt from spanking Zahra so much," she said. "I know she spanked way too hard, what I consider beating." She said the girl was locked in her room and "I know about letting her out five minutes, just to eat and that was it."

North Carolina social services officials declined to comment on the case.

Elisa Baker's sister, Carrie Fairchild, said she and other relatives were estranged from her sister after a falling-out with their father over money the Bakers owed him. She also told HLN's "Nancy Grace" that her sister frequently made up stories that she was suffering from a variety of illnesses.

"She always had 10 to 20 illnesses that she said were wrong with her," Fairchild said. "You couldn't believe anything she ever said."

HLN's Natisha Lance and CNN's Ashley Hayes contributed to this report.