- Associated Press - Thursday, September 15, 2011

NEWTON, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina woman was sentenced to up to 18 years in prison on Thursday for the murder of her disabled 10-year-old stepdaughter.

Elisa Baker pleaded guilty earlier in the day to second-degree murder, nearly a year after freckle-faced Zahra Baker’s disappearance and death shocked communities here and in her native Australia.

Baker, 43, entered the courtroom wearing a hot-pink jail jumpsuit and handcuffs. She sat between two defense lawyers and teared up before pleading guilty to second-degree murder, with aggravating factors that included desecrating the body of the child, who wore a prosthetic leg and hearing aids after a struggle with bone cancer.

Baker also pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in the case and to charges unrelated to Zahra’s death, including obtaining property by false pretenses and financial identity fraud.

Prosecutors presented testimony from witnesses Thursday morning before Baker’s sentencing.

Adam Baker, Zahra’s father and Elisa Baker’s husband, was present in the courtroom in Newton, about 40 miles northwest of Charlotte. Mr. Baker, who came to the U.S. with his daughter after meeting Elisa Baker online, faces multiple criminal charges of his own, although none is related to his daughter’s death.

Elisa Baker’s guilty plea comes almost a year after Zahra was reported missing from her home in Hickory. Initially, she and Mr. Baker told police they believed their daughter had been kidnapped, but that story quickly unraveled as police arrested Elisa Baker and charged her with forging a ransom note.

Not long after her arrest, Elisa Baker began cooperating with police searching for the girl, according to warrants unsealed in the case. She told police that Zahra had been dismembered, and led them to some of the girl’s remains at sites in Catawba and Caldwell counties. She told police that Mr. Baker helped scatter the remains, but cellphone records showed he was in different locations on the days when Elisa Baker said Zahra’s body parts were disposed of.

Zahra’s death was caused by “undetermined homicidal violence,” medical examiners said in documents.

An autopsy was done even though authorities hadn’t recovered many bones, most notably the girl’s skull, months after she was reported missing. Several bones showed cutting tool marks consistent with dismemberment.

The case revealed Elisa Baker as a woman with a troubled past, constantly shifting addresses and staying one step ahead of bill collectors and county social service agencies investigating reports of child abuse. The Associated Press found that she has been married seven times, including several overlapping marriages.

Those who knew Elisa Baker described her as an attractive high school student who became manipulative, cunning and insecure, struggling with obesity.

By the time she met Mr. Baker, she largely had detached herself from society, immersed in an online world of assumed identities and grandiose stories about her past, according to records and friends.

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