District Attorney Jay Gaither is racking up charges against Elisa Baker, who is accused of second-degree murder in the death of her 10-year-old stepdaughter Zahra Baker. Elisa Baker now faces at least 23 charges. All but two are unrelated to Zahra’s death. And most are for relatively minor offenses – worthless checks, unsafe tires, driving without a license – that few prosecutors spend much time on.
Gaither says his strategy is: The more charges against Baker, the more bargaining power he may gain as he pursues his real goal of convicting Baker in the killing. And the more convictions he can obtain in the smaller cases, the more prison time Baker would get if she’s convicted in the murder.
"The prosecution has a plan and we are proceeding on course," he says.
On Wednesday, Baker, 42, appeared at the Caldwell County Courthouse wearing a bulletproof vest and surrounded by armed guards. She pleaded not guilty to four counts of identity theft for allegedly using a relative’s personal information to get electricity turned on at a house where the family was living in March 2010.
Prosecutor Eric Bellas turned over 114 pages of evidence gathered on the identity theft charges to Baker’s attorney and pushed for a trial date to be set, according to media accounts.
Gaither has also pushed for a trial on Baker’s obstruction of justice charge.
Zahra Baker was reported missing on Oct. 9 and became the subject of a massive search that gained attention worldwide as people saw photos of the girl's smiling face and heard the story of her difficult life and shocking dismemberment. Zahra survived cancer, lost a leg, and lived with a hearing impairment.
Elisa Baker has been held in the Catawba County Jail since October, charged with obstruction for writing a phony ransom note to make it appear Zahra had been kidnapped.
Gaither charged Baker with second-degree murder in February, after reportedly entering an agreement with her not to seek first-degree murder charges in exchange for Baker’s assistance finding Zahra’s body. Baker led investigators across Caldwell County where the little girl's prosthetic leg and other body parts were recovered.
Elisa Baker told family the little girl died after an illness and that she and her husband, Adam, decided in a panic to get rid of the child's body. Relatives told the Observer the Bakers didn't take Zahra to a hospital and might have feared authorities because Zahra's father is in the country illegally, and because social workers had investigated complaints against Elisa Baker.
Second-degree murder is punishable by prison time ranging from about eight years to more than 30 years, depending on the killer's criminal record. Elisa Baker has a minor criminal record of long-ago convictions for assault and worthless checks.
Her attorney Scott Reilly has said repeatedly in court Baker is being singled out by prosecutors because of the high-profile nature of the Zahra Baker case.
He seems to be right that a lot of things are happening quite differently, but that's to be expected in many ways considering how extraordinary this case is.