Zahra Baker Case Now a Homicide Probe; Stepmom Denies Involvement in Disappearance


"The police have told me that we're not actually involved," Coffey told ABC News today. "They feel like the ransom note was just a distraction. You know, that my family is not in any imminent danger.

"Just pray for the little girl and let's pray that, you know, we can find her alive," he said. "She was a sweet little girl -- is a sweet little girl."

Police are looking into claims by a relative and former neighbors that Zahra was physically abused by her stepmother before she vanished.

Relative, Neighbors Claim Zahra Baker Was Abused by Stepmother

Brittany Bentley, a relative of Zahra's, said today the girl "was beat almost every time I was over there for just the smallest things" by her stepmother.

"Elisa would get mad, she would take it out on Zahra, things the kid didn't deserve," Bentley said on CBS' "Early Show." "She just had a horrible home life."

Bentley, who is married to Elisa Baker's nephew, said Zahra was locked in her room most of the day and only allowed out for five minutes to eat.

"I just think this was something for a long time that we knew was going to happen, everybody that was close to the family," Bentley said, apparently referring to Zahra's disappearance.

Former neighbors in nearby Sawmills, N.C., also described Elisa Baker to ABC News as a stern and cold parent to Zahra.

"Just the way she yelled and screamed at her, and I did see her hit the child a couple of times," one former neighbor, Renee Bobbitt, told ABC News. Bobbitt also claimed Zahra was once sent to school with black eyes.

"I should have called and said something then," Bobbitt added. "I wish I had've a million times, because no child deserves anything like this. And it's really got the whole neighborhood upset because we all loved the child. She would play with our kids and she was just the normal, happy 10-year-old. And it's just unreal what was going on."

Kayla Rotenberry, who lived next to the Bakers for about a year in Sawmills, said Elisa Baker would force Zahra to walk long distances on her prosthetic leg, threatening punishment if she slowed down.

Rotenberry's fiance, Bobby Green, said he sensed Elisa Baker "was jealous of Zahra because she got more attention from Adam, her dad, than Elisa did."

As for Zahra, Rotenberry said, she "was the best young'un you could ever ask for."

"That poor little girl," Rotenberry said today. "She never had a mom. All she wanted was a mom, and then she got one that was crazy."

Police revealed new twists in the investigation of Zahra's disappearance Monday, including the existence of the $1 million ransom note, positive dog alerts for human remains in cars belonging to both of her parents, and doubts about the parents' timeline dating back as far as a month.

Adkins appealed for anyone who has seen the little girl in the last month to step forward, saying the parents' timeline of events had "inconsistencies." Because the girl was homeschooled, police said they're having trouble contacting anyone other than her parents who saw her recently.

"At this point in the investigation, we are having a very difficult time establishing a true timeline," Adkins told reporters Monday. "We are running out of time, folks. The longer this thing goes, the likelihood this outcome will not be positive. So we need help. ... This is going all over the place.

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