The father and stepmother of 10-year-old Zahra Clare Baker told police that they discovered she was missing on Saturday and that one of them had seen her in her room hours earlier. Yet Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins cast doubt on their accounts during a news conference about the home-schooled girl, whose battle with bone cancer has left her with a prosthetic leg and hearing aids in both ears.
"We don't know the last time anyone saw her," he said. "We're having a difficult time establishing a true timeline."
Zahra's father, Adam Baker, said during an earlier TV interview that it was possible his wife could be involved in the disappearance, which was reported hours after a fire in the home's backyard. Elisa Baker was arrested Sunday on about a dozen charges unrelated to the girl's disappearance.
Adkins said a ransom note and other evidence was found at the house but wouldn't elaborate. He said the father was cooperating with police, but Elisa Baker wasn't.
"We're running out of time folks," Adkins said.
Zahra was described by family friends as shy child who remained upbeat despite her health problems. The stepmother could be short-tempered toward her, two former neighbors said, but the woman also fought tears when a charity fitted her for hearing aids a few months ago.
"I just hope I can get my daughter back. I miss her so much," Zahra's father, Adam Baker, told ABC's "Good Morning America" as he choked up. He was interviewed alongside Adkins.
The girl's stepmother told her husband she last saw Zahra sleeping in her bed at 2:30 a.m. Saturday, about 2 1/2 hours before the fire was reported. Adam Baker said he was panicked after the fire, but didn't immediately check on his daughter.
Investigators have collected surveillance video from businesses near the family's home and used dogs to search the neighborhood. The police chief wouldn't rule out any suspects, including Adam Baker.
Adam Baker was asked if he thought his wife was involved and said, "I wouldn't like to think so. On what I've heard so far, it could be possible."
The chief wouldn't let Baker elaborate on what he had heard because of the ongoing investigation.
On Monday, several of Adam Baker's friends stood outside his one-story in Hickory, a city of 40,000 residents about 50 miles northwest of Charlotte. In the yard were a few burned tree limbs and what appeared to be clothing.
"I just don't have a good feeling about this," said former neighbor Kayla Rotenberry. "She was such a sweet girl. This is just a nightmare."
Rotenberry said she and her fiance were good friends with the Bakers when they lived in the nearby town of Sawmills, and saw Zahra often. The couple was skeptical of the girl's stepmother, in part because she claimed to write songs for musician and "American Idol" finalist Chris Daughtry, and told other far-fetched stories, Rotenberry said. Daughtry's manager was unaware of any connection between Elisa Baker and the singer.
"We just got to the point where we didn't believe her. We knew they were lies," said Rotenberry, 23.
The stepmother also had a short temper, Rotenberry said.
Rotenberry said about six months ago, she noticed that Elisa Baker's hand was swollen. "She told me that she was trying to spank Zahra, but hit her on her prosthetic leg," she said. "When Adam asked her about the injury, she said she fell and hurt her hand. She didn't want him to know. She knew he would be mad."
Another former neighbor, Brandy Stapleton, 22, of Lenoir, said that Elise Baker told her the same story about how she injured her hand. "She wasn't the person everyone thought she was."
Adam Baker was from Australia, and met his current wife over the Internet, Stapleton said. Zahra's mother lives outside the U.S.
Zahra uses two hearing aids, which were left at the house, and a prosthetic left leg from the knee down, police said. She was being home-schooled, but had attended public schools in the past.
The child had lost part of her hearing during chemotherapy for two bouts of cancer, her stepmother told the Independent-Tribune of Concord-Kannapolis in a May interview. The newspaper reported that Elisa Baker fought back tears while the girl was fitted for the hearing aids during a charity event.
Friends said the girl also had the prosthetic leg because of cancer.
Elisa Baker was arrested Sunday on charges including communicating threats, writing worthless checks, larceny and driving with a revoked license. It was unclear whether she has an attorney.
She has two daughters and a son from a previous marriage. The mother and son don't have much of a relationship, the man said, after he stayed with his father when they divorced. The daughters went to live with their mother.
Still, 22-year-old Douglas Proctor said he had spoken to investigators about his mother and was dismayed over news of the case.
"It's not something that you want to open up a paper and see," he said, adding he'd met Zahra only once.