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Authorities searching landfill in case of missing N.C. girl

From Natisha Lance, HLN
Police say they're investigating Zahra Baker's disappearance as a homicide.
Police say they're investigating Zahra Baker's disappearance as a homicide.
  • NEW:Police say they aren't looking for Zahra Baker's body
  • State and federal agents are participating in the landfill search
  • A judge increases the bond for the missing girl's stepmother
  • The stepmother has refused to speak with police

Hickory, North Carolina (CNN) -- Police were searching a North Carolina landfill Wednesday for "a piece of evidence" in the case of a missing 10-year-old girl, Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins said.

A team from Hickory police and agents from the North Carolina Bureau of Investigation and the FBI were participating in the search at the Foothills Environmental Landfill in Lenoir, North Carolina, Hickory police said in an earlier statement.

Zahra Clare Baker was reported missing October 9. However, no one other than a family member has reported seeing her since September 25, when a woman reported seeing her at a furniture store, police said. Authorities have said her disappearance is being investigated as a homicide.

The landfill search could take up to five days, Adkins told reporters at a news conference Wednesday. He was tight-lipped about what investigators are searching for, saying only that interviews had led authorities to "this piece of evidence that we believe is in the landfill ... we hope that if we find this evidence, that it will provide a good, solid timeline that will assist us in working this case."

"We are not looking for [Zahra's] body in the landfill at this time, no," he said.

Video: Investigators searching landfill
Video: Landfill combed in missing girl case
Video: 911 calls in Zahra Baker case released

Adkins asked that anyone outside Zahra's family who had seen her in the past month contact authorities.

Police said last week that the girl's stepmother, Elisa Baker, admitted to writing a fake ransom note that was left at the family's home. She was arrested October 10 on unrelated charges, including writing worthless checks. More recently, authorities charged her with obstruction of justice, a felony, after she admitted writing the fake note, according to Adkins.

Elisa Baker remains jailed on those charges. A hearing was held Wednesday on a motion by her attorney, Scott Reilly, to reduce the bond on the obstruction of justice charge, which he said was excessive. But rather than decrease the bond, District Court Judge Robert Mullinax Jr. increased it, from $40,000 to $65,000 -- still less than the $100,000 requested by prosecutors. Mullinax cited the "disturbing and unsettling allegations around the charge."

The disappearance of Zahra -- a freckle-faced youngster who wears a prosthetic leg and hearing aids -- has made international news. The girl lost her leg to bone cancer, according to CNN affiliate WCNC. Police have said her prosthetic leg is also missing, but her hearing aids are not.

Police on Monday said they had been in contact with Zahra's biological mother in Australia and had asked for the girl's medical records.

Clyde Deal, deputy Hickory police chief, told HLN on Tuesday that authorities are particularly interested in records pertaining to Zahra's prosthetic leg, such as its model, composite material and serial number.

Asked about dental records -- which can be used to identify remains -- Deal said, "I would rather have too much information than not enough. When you're talking about two different countries, it takes longer to do things."

After admitting she wrote the fake ransom note, Elisa Baker requested an attorney, police have said. Deal said Tuesday that authorities have requested an interview with her through her attorney and "she has declined to speak with us."

Elisa Baker appeared at the hearing via closed-circuit television, wearing pink jail scrubs over a white long-sleeved shirt. Her daughter, Amber Fairchild, testified that her mother has never been employed that she can recall and has never had a stable residence. After Zahra was reported missing, Fairchild testified, Elisa Baker told her she wished she could leave the state.

Fairchild said if her mother were released, she would fear for her safety and that of her family. "I would have to leave the state," she said.

Fairchild also said her mother has been in touch with a man in London, England, and picked up money from him just before her arrest. She estimated the man has given her mother $10,000 over the last year.

Police said the girl's father, Adam Baker, also faces bad-check charges, but he has not been arrested. He is assisting police in their search.

Deal on Tuesday would not comment on whether Elisa Baker and Adam Baker were given polygraph tests.

Family members and neighbors have told reporters that Zahra's stepmother had abused her. Reilly vehemently denied those allegations during an interview Monday.

"Whatever investigation was done, there was never anything substantiated regarding child abuse by Elisa Baker," he said.

Earlier, a relative said that the alleged abuse was reported to the state Department of Social Services, but the relative did not know the outcome. The state office said such a report would have been handled by a county office but that the agency is barred from commenting because of strict confidentiality laws.

Asked about the abuse allegations, Deal said Tuesday, "Obviously, we're going to look into everything."

On whether Zahra slept with her leg on at night, he said, "I think I have the answer to that, but I don't want to speculate."

He said Monday that Zahra's biological mother is "very concerned, and she's very appreciative of everything being done to solve this case." Authorities are not clear on the circumstances of the split between the girl's parents, he said.

Deal said Tuesday authorities are still looking into whether Adam Baker knew his wife had written the ransom note.

HLN's Beth Carey contributed to this report.