HICKORY, N.C., Oct. 13, 2010 -- A new photograph of missing 10-year-old Zahra Baker with a bruise under her eye surfaced today as the search for her body focused on a wood chipper and mulch piles for any sign of her remains.
The missing North Carolina 10-year-old, who lost her left leg and hearing in a battle with childhood cancer, is seen in a dimly lit cell phone image with what Baker family friend Brandy Stapleton called a visible bruise under her right eye. Stapleton said she took the photo, obtained exclusively by ABC News, on Aug. 9 -- the last day she saw the little girl.
Several former neighbors, along with one relative, have claimed Zahra's stepmother, Elisa Baker, repeatedly physically abused the girl. Baker, who was already in custody on unrelated charges, admitted Tuesday to writing a $1 million ransom note in connection with the case.
After that admission, she was charged with felony obstruction of justice and appeared in court today. She is being held on $40,000 bond.
The stepmother appeared in court briefly today handcuffed and in a pink jumpsuit and answered simple "yes" and "no" to the judge's questions.
District Attorney Jay Gaither told reporters it is a "very emotional time" for law enforcement.
"I think the images you see, the smile, a handicapped girl that age, is just emotionally upsetting," Gaither said. "Law enforcement doesn't show it, but I think that they are affected by it."
Police Chief Tom Adkins struggled to keep his composure Tuesday when he announced that he was canceling the Amber Alert for Zahra and turning the investigation into a homicide case.
A lawyer for Baker said Tuesday his client claims she had nothing to do with Zahra's disappearance.
"She is scared to death," attorney Scott Reilly told ABC News' Charlotte affiliate WSOC today. "It's scary coming out here and seeing all the court reporters and courtroom of people who are so much against her right now."
Stapleton said on the day she took the picture of Zahra, the child seemed down and so she thought a picture could cheer her up. Baker initially told her not to take the picture, Stapleton said, because Zahra's eye was bruised. But Stapleton insisted because she wanted to see the little girl smile.
At the time, Stapleton said she didn't think much of the bruise because Zahra's stepmother would often say her daughter was clumsy.
Bobby Green, a former neighbor, told reporters Tuesday that Zahra frequently had bruises but that Elisa Baker would always explain them away.
"It's always she fell down, or she rolled out of bed or she didn't have her leg on right and couldn't walk right and fell. It's always Zahra's fault, for her injuries," Green said.
The girl was reported missing Saturday, but police said they can't find anyone beyond her parents who has seen her in weeks.
The wood chipper and nearby debris became the focus of the search after cadaver dogs made positive "hits" on the equipment Monday, officials told WSOC. Earlier, dogs signaled they had discovered signs of human remains in both vehicles belonging to the Bakers.
MySpace Page, Search Warrant Could Offer Clues
A MySpace page apparently run by Elisa Baker under the username "gothicfairy6668" is covered in gothic images including a skull and crossbones background. The page, first reported Tuesday by WBTV, features a slideshow of what appear to be personal photographs, including several pictures of the missing girl. The caption of one image of Zahra reads, "The Dark Child!!!lol".
Much of the biographical information on the page coincides with that of Elisa Baker, from the user's age of 42, her husband's name Adam, as well as photos of her husband and Zahra.
The last time the user logged on was Oct. 8, the day before Zahra was reported missing. In the "Details" section of the page, the user wrote that she's a "proud parent." Under "Mood," she wrote "crazy."
Commenters have filled the pages with angry tirades against her.
Search warrants for the Bakers' two cars and home revealed the existence of the $1 million ransom note left on one of the family's two vehicles. The note, however, was not addressed to Zahra's parents but to her father's boss, Mark David Coffey.
"Mr. Coffey, you like being in control who is in control now we have your daughter and your pot smoking red head son is next unless you do what is asked 1,000,000 unmarked will be in touch soon [sic]," read handwriting on the note, according to the warrant.
"No cops" was also written twice on the note.
Coffey reportedly owns the property on which the Bakers live and was present the day Zahra was reported missing.
Police are looking into claims by a relative and former neighbors that Zahra was physically abused by her stepmother before she vanished.
Relatives, Neighbors Claim Abuse
Brittany Bentley, a relative of Zahra's, said Tuesday 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."
Dad Says Stepmother Possibly Involved
Investigators seized several items from the Baker home, including two gas cans, burn samples from the morning fire and drug paraphernalia, the warrant states. Two samples of "possible blood" were taken from one of the cars, according to a warrant.
Zahra's father, Adam Baker, told "Good Morning America" Monday that the girl's stepmother may have been involved in the girl's disappearance.
When asked if he believed his wife was involved in Zahra's disappearance, Baker said, "I wouldn't like to think so. It's kind of what I've heard so far. It could be possible."
Police have said that no one, including Elisa or Adam Baker, has been ruled out as a person of interest in the case.
Zahra had attended a local elementary school for fourth grade, but did not report to school this year. Instead, the school received a call and was told the child would be home-schooled, a Caldwell School District official told ABC News Monday.
Adam Baker said that because of his work schedule, he hadn't seen his daughter since Thursday night.
The Hickory Police department requests that anyone with information regarding the case call the station at (828) 328-5551.
ABC News' Michael S. James, Emily Stanitz and Scott Hanson contributed to this report.