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Stepmother guilty in Australian girl's U.S. death

By Colleen Jenkins

WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - A North Carolina woman pleaded guilty on Thursday in the death of her 10-year-old stepdaughter, a cancer survivor whose prosthetic leg and other remains were found scattered at several sites.

Zahra Baker, a freckled Australian native who also had a hearing impairment as a result of cancer, was reported missing last October in the town of Hickory, about 50 miles northwest of Charlotte.

An intense, highly-publicized search ended with the discovery that the child had been dismembered. Many of her remains, including her head, have not been found, and a cause of death could not be determined.

The girl's stepmother, Elisa Baker, entered into a plea agreement with prosecutors and was sentenced to up to 18-1/2 years in prison.

Her attorney noted that Elisa Baker tipped police to the locations of some of the girl's remains, helping solve the case.

Baker pleaded guilty to charges including second-degree murder and obstruction of justice, admitting to writing a ransom note to support her initial claim that Zahra had been abducted.

Her crimes were aggravated by a history of abusing Zahra and desecrating the child's body to hinder the police investigation, a judge determined.

Elisa Baker later told police that she found Zahra unresponsive in her bedroom on September 24, 2010, and was unable to revive the girl with CPR. She accused Adam Baker, her husband and the girl's father, of dismembering Zahra.

Adam Baker has not been charged in his daughter's death, and an investigator said during the televised hearing in Newton on Thursday that law enforcement officials do not believe he was involved.

Adam Baker met his future wife online and moved to the United States with Zahra in 2008 after marrying Elisa, a U.S. citizen. Investigators said Adam Baker worked long hours, and Elisa Baker served as Zahra's primary caretaker.

"Elisa, I trusted you with the most precious person in my life," Adam Baker said in court. "You robbed her of a future. You robbed the world of an amazing girl who I have no doubt would have changed the world."

Zahra's biological mother said the tragedy had ripped her family apart and left her with nightmares and regret.

"I feel there will be no real justice for Zahra. Her life was taken by an evil selfishness that none of us will ever understand," said Emily Dietrich, who according to local reports traveled from Australia for the hearing.

(Editing by Greg McCune and Cynthia Johnston)