HICKORY, N.C. (CBS/AP) The investigation into Zahra Baker, the hearing-impaired10-year-old North Carolina girl who was reported missing Saturday, is now a homicide investigation, Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins announced Tuesday.
Adkins said that Zahra's stepmother, Elisa Baker, confessed to investigators that she wrote the ransom note found at the scene that asked for $1 million and then asked for an attorney.
Elisa Baker originally told police that she last saw Zahra, who also suffered from bone cancer and had a prosthetic leg, sleeping in her bed around 2:30 a.m. Saturday morning, three hours before a brush fire in the backyard of the family home was reported. Hours after the fire Adam Baker called police to report Zahra missing.
Adkins did not take any questions and did not explain why the case was now being considered a homicide. He said investigators have determined that no one outside the family has seen the girl for a month.
Police questioned the stepmother's story from the beginning and she was arrested for nearly a dozen unrelated charges Saturday afternoon.
On Tuesday morning, relatives of Elisa Baker told CBS' The Early Show that Zahra's home life was "terrible" and that she was locked in her room for hours at a time and punished for minor things.
"[Zahra] was locked in her room, allowed five minutes out a day to eat, that was it," Brittany Bentley, who is married to Elisa Baker's nephew, told the morning show. "She was beat almost every time I was over there for just the smallest things. Elisa would get mad, she would take it out on Zahra, things the kid didn't deserve. She just had a horrible home life."
Zahra was described by family friends as shy but constantly smiling, in spite of her health problems. The stepmother could be short-tempered toward her, two former neighbors said, but the woman also fought back tears when a charity fitted Zahra for hearing aids a few months ago.
"There were warning signs along the way, but you never want to think the worst," said former neighbor Kayla Rotenberry. She also said that about six months ago she noticed that Elisa Baker's hand was swollen.
"She told me that she was trying to spank Zahra, but hit her on her prosthetic leg," she said. "When Adam asked her about the injury, she said she fell and hurt her hand. She didn't want him to know. She knew he would be mad."
Adkins had previously said investigators were suspect of the parents' stories and that he wouldn't rule out any suspects, including Adam Baker.
Anyone with information is asked to call the Hickory Police Department at 828-328-5551.
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