HICKORY, N.C. — Investigators drained a pond and used a dog to sniff through piles of mulch and tree-trimming equipment searching for the remains of a 10-year-old as neighbors and friends who had feared for her safety used a vigil to encourage people to report child abuse.
Zahra Clare Baker, who used hearing aids and a prosthetic leg because of bone cancer, was reported missing over the weekend by her father and stepmother. But police said they think she is dead and that they don't believe the couple's story about the last time she was seen in her bed in Hickory.
Her stepmother, Elisa Baker, is jailed, accused of trying to throw off investigators with a fake ransom note. She also faces charged unrelated to the case.
She showed little emotion as she faced a judge over an obstruction charge that could bring her up to 30 months in prison if convicted. Her court-appointed attorney, Scott Reilly, said she was "scared to death" and very emotional about everything.
"She's upset about being held in jail. She's upset about being away from her family," he said.
That portrait of the concerned stepmother contradicts how relatives and former neighbors described Baker. They said in interviews and court documents that she was nasty-tempered and violent and often took her rage out on Zahra.
"She was always beating her," former neighbor Karen Yount said Tuesday. "I told her to stop but she wouldn't listen to anyone. That poor girl."
At a vigil Wednesday night, about 150 people sang religious songs, held hands and implored each other to love their children and report signs of child abuse to authorities. The case has disturbed Hickory, a city of about 40,000, some 50 miles northwest of Charlotte.
David King, a deacon at East Hickory Baptist Church, said everyone is praying for her.
"Kids should be having fun. No one should have to go through what she did," he said. "This is just a tragedy."
Earlier, in nearby Morganton, seven officers and a police dog searched for Zahra on a wooded lot among piles of mulch and a wood chipper. The property has equipment belonging to the tree services company that employs her father, Adam Baker. He has not been charged, but police have said he hasn't been ruled out as a suspect.
An officer who asked for anonymity because he's not authorized to discuss the case confirmed the site was among several where officers are searching for the girl. The officer said a different dog got a "hit" at the scene a day earlier, but nothing was found then.
Investigators also drained a pond near the Burke County company where Zahra's father worked, though Hickory Police Deputy Chief Clyde Deal said there was nothing specific they were looking for.
"We always want to err on the side of doing more than you need to than not doing as much as you should have done," he said.
Friends have described Zahra as shy but upbeat despite her health problems.
Adkins has said police can't find anyone outside Zahra's household who has seen her alive in the last month. The uncertain timeframe has made it difficult for investigators to narrow down places to search for her.
Adam Baker has said it was possible his wife could be involved in the disappearance, and other relatives echoed those remarks.
Officers discovered the ransom note Saturday on the windshield of Adam Baker's car when they came to investigate a yard fire at their home. It demanded $1 million and was addressed to a man Adam Baker had worked for, though police quickly determined that man's family was safe.
Zahra was reported missing that afternoon. The stepmother said she last saw Zahra sleeping in her room about 12 hours earlier, though Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins has indicated he doesn't believe the timeline.
Caldwell County Court records show that Yount and the woman's relative Brittany Bentley each filed a complaint in May accusing Elisa Baker of making violent threats against them on separate occasions.
Other neighbors say they feared for the girl's safety. One said he spoke to an investigator from the Department of Social Services who visited the Bakers' house a few months ago to investigate claims Zahra was being beaten.
Adam Baker was from Australia, and met his current wife over the Internet, a family friend said. Zahra's mother lives outside the U.S. Elisa Baker has two daughters and a son from a previous marriage.
That son, Douglas Proctor, said some family members attended the vigil and that he was acting as a spokesman for the family. He asked to be left alone.
"We just want our privacy observed and respected," he said.
Associated Press Writer Tom Breen in Raleigh contributed to this report.