Skull found in N.C. belongs to handicapped girl

A SKULL found in North Carolina belongs to a 10-year-old handicapped girl, whose gruesome murder received international attention and was investigated by several law enforcement agencies including the Hickory, N.C., Police Department headed by a former Barnesville resident.

The Marshall University Forensic Science Center in Huntington was among those which helped in the analysis of the skull, and Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins, a Barnesville High School graduate, said the analysis confirmed the skull belongs to Zahra Baker, whose stepmother was convicted in 2011 of second degree murder with aggravating factors.

Only 10 years of age, Zahra survived two kinds of cancer which left her with a hearing loss and a prosthesis. The murder occurred Sept. 24, 2010, but she wasn’t reported missing until Oct. 9.

Not only was the little girl murdered but her body was sawed apart with sections thrown from a car in various places, especially in areas where hunters discard animal carcasses.

The skull was recovered in April 2012. District Attorney James C. Gaither Jr. in North Carolina reported Thursday on completion of the analysis, performed by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, North Carolina Medical Examiner’s Office and Marshall University Forensic Science Center. Analysis, however, didn’t determine the cause of death.

“This information (regarding the skull) gives the members of ‘Team Zahra’ mixed emotions,” said AdkinsA*Z. “It brings up the tragedy of Zahra’s death and the life she lived before she was killed but it also gives us and the community a sense of finally bringing her home.”

According to authorities, cellphone records place Elisa Baker, Zahra’s stepmother, at the skull site.

“The life and death of Zahra Baker profoundly impacted those who came to know this brave young lady through her tragic story. Zahra and her life will be forever in our thoughts, and ‘Team Zahra’ will forever be connected through her spirit,” said Gaither.

After being convicted of second degree murder, her stepmother was sentenced to 18 years in the North Carolina Department of Adult Correction. Gaither said she is currently in the United State Marshal’s custody, awaiting sentencing on federal drug conspiracy charges, and any federal sentence she receives will be served at the expiration of the sentence imposed on second degree murder.

While the investigation was under way, Adkins described the little girl as “a freckle-faced strawberry blonde – a typical 10-year-old full of life, wanting to play with her friends and to be loved by her family.”

More than once, the former Eastern Ohioan mentioned the child’s courage.

Zahra not only suffered from health problems, but she endured her stepmother’s cruelty as described in a book, “StepMONSTER,” written by Hickory Daily Record journalists.

Zahra was diagnosed with bone cancer at the age of 5, and her lower left leg was amputated. Two years later, there was a diagnosis of secondary lung cancer. She suffered a hearing loss in both ears while undergoing cancer treatments.

The little girl, originally from Australia, has made a lasting impression in North Carolina.

In 2012, the Zahra Baker All Children’s Playground was dedicated, and it was constructed as a result of a community build.

At that time, Adkins indicated the new playground is another example of this community embracing those needing help. “Most people never met this little girl, but will always remember her courage, her fight and her desire to be just like every other child. It’s (the playground) got a little bit of everything. My family and I worked in the community build. … It was a pretty moving event.”

The former Barnesville man and his wife, the former Kathy Bailey of Barnesville, as well as their son, Dylan, were among the 271 volunteers plus city workers participating in the three-day build.

Amenities to accommodate special needs and handicapped children are part of the playground named for Zahra.

A scholarship also has been established in Zahra’s name, and half of the profits from the book, “StepMONSTER,” will go to the scholarship fund, administered by the Hickory Kiwanis Foundation. Subhead for the book is “Zahra Baker: From Miracle to Murder at the Hands of the Woman She Called Mom.”

Adkins, a 1983 Barnesville High School graduate and former member of the Barnesville Police Department, earlier mentioned the support from the community, “from the state of North Carolina, the nation and the world because of the passion that everyone felt for this little girl.”

The police chief is a 2001 graduate of the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Academy in Quantico, Va., and U.S. Secret Service Dignitary Protection Seminar in 2007. He received a bachelor of science degree in criminal justice from Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk. N.C., and also has taken graduate courses at the University of Virginia.

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