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AP Exclusive: Zahra stepmom’s marriages overlapped

GAFFNEY, S.C. — The stepmother of the North Carolina girl whose dismembered remains were found in the western part of the state was married seven times, and she was wed to more than one man on several occasions, according to an Associated Press investigation.

Elisa Baker was indicted last month on a bigamy charge involving her marriage to Zahra Baker’s father, Adam, and another man, but AP found documents at half a dozen county courthouses that showed at one point she was married to three men at the same time, calling into question the single charge.

The question of bigamy is unrelated to Zahra’s case. No one has been charged in her death, although Elisa Baker is jailed on charges of obstructing the investigation into her stepdaughter’s disappearance. Zahra’s parents reported her missing Oct. 9, and her remains were found several miles apart a few weeks later. 

A glimpse into Elisa Baker’s personal life and her ability to stay ahead of a porous marriage-licensing system help explain how a woman burning through relationships in the Appalachian foothills eventually came to meet Adam Baker, who lived halfway around the world in Australia.

Elisa Baker’s marriage trail starts in Gaffney, the seat of Cherokee County, about 60 miles south of where she sits in jail. In Gaffney, she married four different men between 1987 and 1998, according to marriage licenses. It’s not clear why she chose Gaffney, since both North and South Carolina are like most states when it comes to requirements for two adults planning to get married: no blood tests, no background checks, no health records.

“When they complete an application for a marriage license, they understand they’re signing it under oath,” said Cherokee County Probate Judge Joshua Queen, and people can face legal penalties if they lie.

But essentially, he said, couples are on the honor system. Marriage licenses are maintained more for record keeping purposes than as safeguards against lawbreaking.

“No one does a background check,” said Suzanne Reynolds, executive associate dean at Wake Forest University School of Law. “The trend throughout the whole country is toward fewer marriage requirements rather than more.” Read the full story »