A skull found a year ago by hunters in the woods is that of a disabled girl who was killed and dismembered by her stepmother, North Carolina police said Thursday.
DNA tests show it was Zahra Baker's, but Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins said investigators are still unable to say how the 10-year-old died. Adkins said he and other law enforcement officers who spent many months searching for the girl had "mixed emotions" about knowing for certain that it was her remains.
"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."
Said Caldwell County Sheriff Alan Jones: "She will be in our memories for the rest of our lives."
The Zahra Baker case captivated the attention of communities here and in Australia, where she had lived before her father, Adam Baker, moved to the United States to marry Elisa Baker.
Elisa Baker is serving up to 18 years in prison. She pleaded guilty in 2011 to second-degree murder with aggravating factors that included desecrating Zahra Baker's body.
Zahra Baker, who wore a prosthetic leg and hearing aids after a struggle with bone cancer, was reported missing in October 2010 from her home in the western North Carolina town of Hickory.
Parts of her remains were found in multiple sites around Hickory shortly after her reported disappearance. But her skull wasn't found until last year.
It was examined by investigators with the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation and N.C. Medical Examiner's Office using a DNA profile used for the prosecution of Elisa Baker.
Zahra's death was caused by "undetermined homicidal violence," medical examiners said.
Months after she was reported missing, an autopsy was done even though authorities hadn't recovered many bones, most notably the girl's skull. Several bones showed cutting tool marks consistent with dismemberment.
Family members and the Australian Consulate have been notified about the girl's skull, and the remains will be returned to the family.
Elisa Baker is still awaiting sentencing in a federal drug conspiracy case which she has already pleaded guilty.
This is the latest development in a case that took so many twists and turns.
Initially, Elisa Baker and Adam told police they believed their daughter had been kidnapped, but that story quickly unraveled as police arrested the stepmother and charged her with forging a ransom note.
Not long after her arrest, Elisa Baker began cooperating with police searching for the girl.
The biggest question facing law enforcement was whether Adam was involved in Zahra's death — and the consensus of law enforcement was he wasn't.
The girl was already dead when investigators discovered that Elisa Baker had been sending her husband text messages to make it appear she was still alive. Even though they lived in a tiny house, Adam said he didn't check on his daughter — until after his wife told him she had been kidnapped.
It was part of a pattern of deception in Elisa Baker's life. The case revealed her 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.
During those marriages, former husbands told the AP that Elisa beat her three children and that DSS in several counties had investigated the abuse.
Those who knew Elisa described her as an attractive high school student who became manipulative, cunning and insecure, struggling with obesity.
By the time she met Adam, she had largely detached herself from society, immersed in an online world of assumed identities and grandiose stories about her past, according to records and friends.