Police searching for a missing 10-year-old North Carolina girl said today that Zahra Baker was seen three weeks ago, nearly two weeks after the previous confirmed public sighting of the child.
A statement released by the Hickory, N.C., Police Department only said that Zahra, who was reported missing on Oct. 9, was seen in public on Sept. 25, but a furniture store manager told reporters that the girl was there with her stepmother.
Police had put out a request for anyone who had seen little Zahra, whose bone cancer left her with hearing aids and a prosthetic leg, any time over the past month to come forward.
They have said that not knowing where the girl had been before her disappearance has made it more difficult to narrow where they should search for the her, because investigators have said they don't believe the story given by her father and stepmother.
On the date given by police today, Zahra and her stepmother, Elisa Baker, visited a Hickory furniture store, Pat Adams, the store's manager told a local television station and The Associated Press.
"They had come in and the little girl, Zahra, was standing in the aisleway at a children's room and we have cartoons playing in there and she was just standing there in the middle of the aisle looking into the TV room, watching the cartoon," Adams told the AP. "As I walked past her, I put my hand on her shoulder and said 'Excuse me, sweetheart,' and she looked up at me and smiled."
Adams told the AP that other employees were talking about the little girl's prosthetic leg.
"We were just wondering what had happened," said Adams, whose account was first reported by WCNC-TV in Charlotte.
"It's a science," said Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
"They've searched kind of the obvious places nearby," he said. "The approach in cases like this would be to expand the radius."
Hickory police, aided by teams from area sheriff's offices and NCMEC's Adam Team, which deploys specialized search units, have already combed through the family's home, the wooded areas nearby and the property where the 10-year-old's father worked.
Friday, Hickory police removed three pieces of bedroom furniture -- including a bed frame, mattress and box springs -- from the house where Zahra lived with her parents, according to the Hickory Record newspaper. Police also carried out two bags of evidence.
Neither area police nor sheriff's offices returned calls seeking comment today.
Allen said those searches and the expanded efforts are all based on a profile of the family and Zahra herself -- where they went, who they talked to, what they liked to do.
And in a case like Zahra's, where police aren't sure exactly when she may have been killed, finding "where was the child last seen alive" can pose difficulties.
"Basically, what you're doing is ruling things out," he said.
And "you always hope you are wrong," said Allen. "You hope you don't find a body."
The search for Zahra, who had lost her hearing and left leg to cancer, was reclassified Tuesday as a homicide investigation.
Zahra's stepmother, Elisa Baker, was jailed on a felony obstruction of justice charge the same day. Baker was already in custody, having been arrested over the weekend on several charges unrelated to her stepdaughter's disappearance.