The body of 10-year-old Zahra Baker has been positively identified, ending a heart-wrenching month-long search for the disabled girl, police announced today.
"It is with great regret that I stand before you today," Hickory, N.C., Police Chief Tom Adkins said before pausing and taking a breath to continue. "I've been dreading this moment [since] early on in this investigation. As investigators we are trained to follow leads, but never give up the hope the evidence may take us in the wrong direction and the outcome may be different...
"We have recovered enough physical evidence to believe we have found Zahra," he said.
The disabled girl's remains were discovered earlier this week during a search in Caldwell County, N.C., where the Baker family previously lived. Police had looked through the area earlier while accompanied by Zahra's stepmother Elisa Baker.
Zahra's birth mother, Emily Dietrich, flew from her home in Wagga Wagga, Australia, on Thursday ahead of the announcement. She visited the Hickory, N.C., house where Zahra had been living with her father Adam Baker and stepmother Elisa Baker.
Dietrich had given up custody of her daughter when she was a baby. Zahra later moved with her father to America when he decided to marry Elisa Baker, who he had met on the Internet.
Police intend to use DNA samples from Dietrich and from Zahra's father to create a DNA profile they can test against remains found earlier this week.
Forensic labs have already matched DNA from a bone discovered in separate search location to DNA taken from items believed to belong to Zahra's from the Baker home, Adkins said.
In addition, the remains were "consistent with the child," according to medical examiners on site, Adkins said. The girl had lost her left leg to childhood bone cancer.
The police chief said that he and his officers were "devastated that we were not able to find Zahra alive and bring her home safely."
"This case isn't over and we won't rest until we have all the information we need to bring the people to justice who hurt Zahra," Adkins said in a statement after the announcement.
Adam Baker was questioned again by police Thursday, according to news reports. He had been arrested on unrelated charges after Zahra disappeared, but is free on bail.
Elisa Baker has been charged with obstruction of justice after police said she admitted writing a phony ransom note before calling in a missing persons report. Police have said she is cooperating with the probe.
Zahra was reported missing by her stepmother and father on Oct. 9, but police say no one outside of the family has reported seeing her since Sept. 25.
The girl had a grueling life. Stricken with bone cancer, she lost her left leg and much of her hearing. Relatives and neighbors said that Elisa Baker, 42, was abusive to Zahra, who was often bruised. Her prosthetic leg was found recently on Christy Road, in the same rural area that her remains were uncovered.
Last week, investigators discovered a bone that police say "may be related to" the case. Police have sent the bone to a medical examiner's office to determine its relation to the case.
Police have also searched a landfill, the Bakers' home, areas where Elisa Baker formerly lived, and drained two ponds in the hunt for Zahra's remains. They pulled a mattress from the landfill and are testing it for DNA evidence, police have said.