HICKORY, N.C. – A sad and angry crowd of hundreds held candles, chanted for justice and sang "Happy Birthday" Tuesday on what would been the 11th birthday of a disabled girl whose dismembered remains were found more than a month after she was reported missing.
"I just wish they could find out who's responsible for this and bring them to justice," said Milton Ewing, of Newton, as he held a white candle.
Organizers of the vigil in Hickory said they wanted to focus on the life of Zahra Baker — who bravely battled cancer that left her with a prosthetic leg and hearing aids — rather than on the circumstances of her death.
"Thirty-nine days ago, most of us did not know Zahra Baker," said Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins, whose department has led the homicide investigation. "In more than a month, we've fallen in love with her and become better people because of her."
Adkins didn't discuss the investigation, but instead focused the courage of the freckle-faced girl who moved to North Carolina from Australia two years ago after her divorced father, Adam Baker, met his soon-to-be wife, Elisa Baker, online.
Other vigils were held around the state and by Zahra's friends and relatives in Giru, Australia.
Adam Baker's brother, David Baker, was visibly emotional as he told the crowd in Giru that his niece was "a special little person."
"She let nothing in life beat her or stop her," he said.
Police said last week they found a bone at one spot and other remains at a site about five miles away, but they haven't said how she died. They also found her artificial leg. Court documents asking for Elisa Baker's bond to be reduced revealed that the stepmother told authorities the girl was dismembered after she died but gave no details of what happened.
Elisa Baker is jailed on an obstruction of justice charge. Police say she wrote a bogus ransom note about another girl when Zahra was reported missing on Oct. 9. Authorities doubt the Bakers' story that they last saw the girl that day sleeping in her bed. They say they can't find anyone other than the Bakers who had seen her alive in the weeks before her disappearance.
After a suspicious fire at the house that morning, police discovered a ransom note addressed to Adam Baker's boss on the windshield of Baker's car. Police went to that man's house and found him and his daughter to be fine. Elisa Baker admitted writing the note to throw off authorities, police said.
Elisa Baker's lawyers on Monday asked for her $97,00 bond to be lowered, saying she led police to the girl's remains. However, District Attorney James Gaither Jr. said his office opposes those efforts.
Adam Baker is free on bail after being arrested on unrelated charges.
The now-vacant home in Hickory where the family lived was festooned with birthday cards, balloons and gifts for Zahra on Tuesday, along with signs criticizing authorities for not preventing her death and demanding punishment.
"God please let someone pay for this" read one of the signs taped to the front porch.
"I'd just like to know what her parents said to her before all this happened," said Marie Johnson, of Taylorsville.
Organizers were expecting a crowd of 500 in Union Square, a shopping and dining area in downtown Hickory, a town of about 41,000 about 50 miles northwest of Charlotte. Crowd estimates weren't immediately available, but hundreds packed the square in front of a small stage adorned with a larger-than-life picture of Zahra, a set of angel wings and a halo.
"We don't want to think about what may have happened in her final days," Hickory Mayor Rudy Wright said, but he added that the details that have been made public so far have led to "disconcerting speculation."
In Australia, Zahra's aunt, Kate Baker, also was distraught over how her niece likely died.
"She was such a beautiful vibrant little girl, so full of life, and to think she suffered something like this is almost too much to bear," she told the local newspaper, The Townsville Bulletin. "But in another way, I think in our hearts, we knew she was no longer with us, and it is almost a relief that they found her, that the waiting to hear anything is finally over."
After the crowd lit candles in Hickory, white balloons were released into the air, floating away above the heads of the crowd.
"She's in heaven now," said Ronda Howard, of Bethlehem, who was fighting back tears. "She's in a better place and she's got a new body."
Associated Press Writer Emery P. Dalesio in Raleigh contributed to this report.