Episode 52-Not Reported Missing (Madalina Cojocari, Zahra Baker, and Erica Parsons)

Madalina Cojocari’s story has been all over our local news, social media, national news, and it’s been a bit surreal to drive by the middle school a mile from my house and see news vans set up to record b-roll footage as reporters have tried to keep the community updated. I’ve been hesitant to discuss the case because the details about her mother and step-father’s behavior sound very similar to two other cases in North Carolina I’m going to discuss later in the episode. Here is a timeline of what we know so far about Madalina’s disappearance.

A counselor from Bailey Middle School visited Madalina’s home on December 12, 2022 in response to excessive school absence. No one answered the door, and a notice was left. Two days later, her mom, Diana Cojocari, age 37, called the counselor back and requested a meeting. She said she would bring Madalina in. When she arrived, though, the girl wasn’t with her.

Police first interviewed Madalina’s mother at the school on Dec. 15. When asked why she didn’t report her daughter missing earlier, she told police “she was worried it might start a conflict between her and her husband Christopher Palmiter.” Another police document filed with the court quotes Cojocari saying her husband, Madalina’s step-father, “put her family in danger.” No further details about what was meant by “danger” are included in the document.

The Charlotte Observer reported that Diana said she contacted family members in Moldova — the Eastern European country where she’s from — who urged her to call police after the child went missing. But she didn’t follow their advice.

Police visited the home in Cornelius on December 15, and reported they found an area in the family’s home, near the kitchen, “blocked with plywood.” Madalina’s stepfather, 60-year-old Christopher Palmiter told police that the family was planning to build a separate apartment there.

The next day, the Cornelius Police Department requested the help of the FBI. On December 17, they announced that Christopher Palmiter had been arrested for failure to report a missing child, and his wife Diana was arrested a few hours later for the same charge. On December 19, investigators searched the lake located next to the neighborhood where the family lived. The search did not result in any new leads.

When questioned further, Diana said she noticed first noticed her daughter missing on November 23. The night before her disappearance, she and her husband had apparently been apparently arguing. Madalina went to bed around 10 p.m. The next morning, Christopher said he drove to a family home located in Michigan to “pick up items.” He told police he hadn’t seen Madalina for at least a week prior to her disappearance. Diana said she went to check on Madalina at 11:30 a.m. on Nov. 23 and found she wasn’t in her bedroom. She didn’t ask Christopher if he knew where Madalina was until he returned three days later on November 26.

Investigators located camera footage of Madalina getting off the bus the afternoon of Nov. 21, around 5 p.m., the last time anyone can confirm seeing her in person.

Most recently, unsealed search warrants show that authorities confiscated three cell phones from the family’s North Carolina home and more than two dozen other items. From what I understand, Madalina did not have a cell phone. Earlier this month, the Cornelius Police Department asked anyone who may have witnessed Diana Cojocari traveling to call investigators. Police believe that at some point between Nov. 22 and Dec. 15 Diana may have driven a Toyota Prius to Madison County, North Carolina, located in the western part of the state.

Diana Cojocari and Christopher Palmiter remain in jail, as neither have been able to make their individual bonds set at over $200,000.

Cojocari was last seen wearing jeans, pink, purple and white Adidas shoes, and a white T-shirt and jacket. She is 4 feet, 10 inches, has dark brown hair and weighs about 90 pounds.

Officers ask anyone with information on Madalina’s whereabouts to call the Cornelius Police Department at 704-892-7773 or the FBI at 1-800-CALL FBI. To remain anonymous, call North Mecklenburg Crime Stoppers at 704-896-7867.

Zahra Baker

In October of 2010, Hickory resident Adam Baker reported that his daughter, Zahra, was missing. From almost the very beginning, investigators thought something was suspicious about the details Adam Baker and step-mother Elisa Baker shared. First, her father Adam Baker called 911 at 5:30 a.m. on October 9 to report a fire in his backyard. While there, responding officers found a bizarre ransom note on Adam’s work vehicle. It was addressed to Mark Coffey, who was the owner of the landscaping business Baker was employed by. Mark Coffey also owned the home Adam was renting at the time. The ransom note read, “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.” Underneath the demand the words “NO COPS” were scribbled. It wasn’t until hours later, around 2:30 p.m, that Adam called the police back and said his wife had alerted him daughter Zahra, who wore a prosthetic leg, was missing. Her hearing aid remained in the house.

And then he said this to the 911 operator:

“And my daughter is, I think, coming into puberty … ‘cause she is hitting that brooding stage, so we only see her when she comes out when she wants something. And that’s about it.” He laughed when he said this.

The red-headed, freckled Zahra was born in Australia to Emily Dietrich and Adam Baker. But her mother Emily suffered from a severe case of postpartum depression, and she gave sole custody to Adam when Zahra was still an infant. Emily Dietrich later told reporters she had tried to reconnect with her daughter over the years, but said Adam Baker moved constantly and failed to keep in touch. She didn’t even know her daughter had moved to the U.S. until three days before Zahra was reported missing in early October.

Zahra was born hearing-impaired and was a cancer survivor, which resulted in the loss of her left leg. An article that ran in The Sydney Morning Herald described Zahra’s childhood, where she spent most of her time in the care of her father and his mother. Daycare providers recalled Zahra as a happy child who always came to school clean and with a smile on her face. Her father and grandmother cared for her throughout her cancer treatments, which she went to in addition to attending school. She eventually received a prosthetic leg that she wore in place of her missing limb.

Things took a turn for the worse for Zahra when Adam met a 40-year-old woman named Elisa Fairchild. She had been married seven times, and according to investigators, wasn’t actually divorced when she married Adam Baker in 2008. They met online. Elisa Baker, who lived in Hickory, used a fairy avatar with angel red wings on an instant messaging virtual universe website. She called herself Goth Fairy. She was several years older than Adam, and before long, he had made the decision to move to the United States with Zahra in order to start a new life with Elisa. One of Adam’s friends told The Sydney Morning Herald that she thought Elisa seemed to tell a lot of outlandish stories about herself that probably weren’t true. Adam’s mother was upset at the thought of her son and granddaughter moving so far away, as it seemed like a quick and impulsive decision.

The new family moved to Hickory first, where they lived with Elisa’s father until he asked them to leave, reportedly due to Elisa’s drug use. Then they moved to Granite Falls, where their landlord asked them to leave after about six months. The reason? She said Adam and Elisa were constantly fighting and being disruptive. They were also behind on their rent, she never saw Adam go to work, and Zahra was barely seen. From there, they moved to a trailer park in Hudson, and it was here that neighbors later told police they had seen Elisa berating Zahra and forcing her to walk long distances through the neighborhood on her prosthetic leg, while ridiculing and hitting her. One neighbor, a woman named Tanya Hefner, was so disturbed she confronted Elisa, contacted the local police, and reported what she had witnessed to the elementary school Zahra was attending. Two teachers had also visited the home after witnessing the little girl with a black eye.

The Department of Social Services visited the Baker home when they lived in Caldwell County, and met with family and neighbors. The agency at the time said they found no evidence of abuse. By the time they had received another concerned call, the family had moved to Catawba County. Catawba County DSS said they found no evidence Zahra was mistreated or abused.

Police believe Zahra died at the home on September 24, 2010. It was 15 days later that Adam said he finally noticed she wasn’t in the home any longer.

During the investigation, a reporter asked Adam Baker why he hadn’t noticed his daughter was missing sooner. His response was, “Elisa’s, ah, very manipulative, abusive and controlling. With the pressure of work, I was gone first thing in the morning, didn’t get home until late. I was told that Zahra was in bed because Zahra normally went to bed early. I checked every night. From what I could tell, she was in bed. There was something in bed.”

On October 10, 2010, Elisa Baker, was charged with obstruction of justice after police said she admitted to writing the phony ransom note. The search for Zahra continued.

On October 25,, Elisa led investigators to three sites in Caldwell County where some of Zahra’s body parts had been discarded, according to court documents. At each site, she described what would be found there and told the officers where to look. They later identified a bone determined to be Zahra’s, other human remains, and a dump site where Baker said Zahra’s mattress and other belongings from the house could be found. Police went on to recover the gel liner from Zahra’s prosthetic leg and some skeletal remains.

On November 12, police announced that test results confirm a bone they recovered was Zahra’s.

On February 21, 2011, Elisa Baker was charged with second-degree murder. Zahra’s autopsy was released and declares the cause of her death as “undetermined homicidal violence.”

On November 2012, Zahra’s skull found was found Caldwell County.

In September of 2011, Elisa Baker pleaded guilty to murdering Zahra, and was sentenced to 18 years in prison. In March 2013, The Charlotte Observer reported Elisa Baker had been sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for conspiracy to distribute prescription drugs. She was already serving a term between 14 years and 9 month and 18 years six months after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in the death of Zahra Baker. She was indicted in May 2011 by a federal grand jury, after investigators accused her of being part of a group that distributed Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, and Xanax pills over a four-year-period ending in October 2010.

After her conviction, Elisa spoke to WSOC-TV reporter Dave Faherty, where he asked her if she had murdered Zahra. She said no, that Zahra had been sick with a stomach virus and died in the home. She said it was a mistake not to call 911 when Zahra died. She claimed Adam was the one responsible for dismembering the remains of his daughter and disposing of her remains, but he was never charged with any involvement. Cell phone records placed Elisa in the areas where Zahra’s remains were found. At the time, Adam Baker was in Conover at work, where witnesses backed up his location.

It appears Adam Baker returned to Australia after Elisa’s conviction.

An editorial that ran in the February 23, 2011 issue of The Charlotte Observer titled “Many adults failed 10-year-old Zahra” provided a sobering view of abused children in the state of North Carolina. It shared that many family members had reported Zahra was being abused by her stepmother, Elisa Baker, and social service agencies in both Catawba and Caldwell Counties acknowledged they had investigated four different complaints that the little girl was being abused. The last Department of Social Services Investigation was closed six weeks before authorities say Zahra was murdered on September 24.

The article concluded with this statement:

Only we adults can change that outcome for children such as Zahra. North Carolina law requires all adults to report suspected child maltreatment. We must do so. You do not need proof that maltreatment has occurred; you only need reasonable cause to suspect maltreatment. We can also help parents or caregivers whom we suspect of being abusive. Talk to them about the children in their care, and refer them to resources that can help them provide a safe environment for their kids. Children depend on adults. All of us must commit to being there to protect them, and act to ensure they are.

The National Child Abuse Hotline is 1-800-4-A-CHILD.

Erica Parsons

Finally, I’d like to discuss Erica Parsons from Salisbury, North Carolina, and unfortunately her case is very similar to Zahra’s Baker’s, the only difference being that she seemed to have suffered many years more of abuse before going missing.

Erica Parsons was born on February 24, 1998 in Mooresville to North Carolina to Carolyn Parsons and Billy Dean Goodman. Carolyn had three other children and decided she could not provide Erica with proper care, especially since Erica’s father had a history of substance abuse and trouble with the law. Carolyn arranged for Sandy Parsons, the brother of her ex-husband Steve, along with his wife Casey, to adopt Erica in 2000. Erica was born with some disabilities, including hearing loss, and was suspected to have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The Parsons received money from the government to assist with Erica’s disabilities, along with her being an adopted child from the state. Erica only attended public school for a brief time when she was small before being pulled so Casey could register her as homeschooled.

In 2013, 19-year-old Jamie Parsons, the adoptive older brother of Erica, went to police and requested a missing persons report on Erica. He said he had last seen 13-year-old Erica in the fall of 2011, when she was standing in a corner of the house as punishment. She told him she didn’t feel good and was having a hard time breathing. She was gone the next morning, and his parents had been up and out of the house early, which was unusual for them. When they returned, they told their kids Erica had gone to live with her biological grandmother in Asheville.

Looking at the timeline of this case that was put together by reporter Steve Lytle and published in The Charlotte Observer, the Rowan County Department of Social Services received a report alleging that Erica was being physically and emotionally abused in late June of 2004. About a month later, Erica’s adoptive mother Casey left a voice mail message with the Cabarrus County DSS that said Erica was living with her sister. A few months later, the Rowan County DSS told Casey and Sandy Parsons the abuse case had been closed. On March 21, 2005, Erica moved back in with her adoptive. In early 2008, Erica was removed from public school and Casey was reported to be homeschooling her. In April 2011, the family moved to Salisbury.

Police began an investigation into the whereabouts of Erica, and immediately realized there was no evidence of Erica having a grandmother living in Western North Carolina. They also uncovered evidence of fraud. While Erica was still missing, her parents were indicted on numerous federal charges in 2014, including tax fraud, mail fraud, theft of government funds, and identity theft. Federal prosecutors allege that Sandy and Casey received adoption assistance, Medicaid, Social Security, and Food and Nutrition Service benefits for Erica, who was not living with them at the time. Casey Parsons also was indicted for using the identities of people as dependents and using false information when preparing income tax returns.

At their 2015 trial, Jamie Parsons testified that he and his siblings often physically abused Erica, usually at their mother’s urging. She was often locked in a closet for weeks at a time.

On September 27, 2016, Sandy Parsons led investigators to a rural field in Pageland, South Carolina. It was an area near where her mother lived. Investigators found the skull and bones later identified to be those of Erica Parsons. The autopsy showed that Erica could have died as a result of blunt force trauma injury, or suffocation and strangulation. Her bones also showed she had been malnourished, and had various healing fractures in her nose, jaw, upper right arm, nine ribs, and several vertebrae. Through the support of community donations, Erica was buried in China Grove’s West Lawn Cemetery in on February 25.

In February 2018 Casey and Sandy were indicted on first degree murder, felony child abuse inflicting serious bodily injury, felony concealment of death, and felony obstruction of justice.

Sandy and Casey Parsons were convicted in 2016 of financial crimes that included cashing more than $12,000 in checks from the state after Erica’s death. In January of 2022, Sandy Parsons was released from federal prison and sent to Central Prison in Raleigh to begin serving a minimum of 33 years for second-degree murder. The earliest he’ll be released from prison is 83 years of age. His wife, Casey Parsons remained in federal prison in Tallahassee, Florida until last November. She is now serving a life sentence in state prison here in North Carolina for first-degree murder charges.

I found an interesting article titled “Homeschool, disability, and homicde: The story of Erica Parsons. It details how parents and caregivers can hide child abuse under the homeschooling umbrella, such as what happened to both Zahra Baker and Erica Parsons.

The author states:

This is not to disparage homeschool, which, in optimal situations, can be very good, and in some states, there are options for parents to receive disability accommodations from their local public school. Homeschool law varies from state to state, but the type of lax homeschool regulations seen in North Carolina are not uncommon.

If Erica had continued in a North Carolina public school, state and federal disability laws would have covered her there, and the school would have to provide her with Special Education classes, speech pathology and other related disability accommodations. Instead, since she was homeschooled, the laws in North Carolina are not the same. It is entirely up to a parent whether or not they will provide disability related education, therapy and accommodations to a child. For Casey and Sandy Parsons, this was not a priority, in fact, it would have enabled Erica to potentially report the abuse and communicate with other adults about her life at home. Keeping Erica unaccommodated for her disabilities was a crucial factor to facilitating the ongoing abuse, as it often is in cases of abuse of disabled children.

If disability is one of the major reasons cited for homeschooling children, this is an issue, since disabled children are susceptible to abuse at higher numbers than able-bodied children. Deaf and hard of hearing children experience abuse at higher rates than hearing children, and intellectually disabled children are also victims of crime in high numbers. The combination of a vulnerable population (disabled children) with an area not subject to enforcement of their rights and protection (homeschool) is cause for serious alarm, and may be a reason behind the high numbers of homeschooled children being killed. Having a disabled child can cause parents to become stressed, overwhelmed, and to resort to violence, according to the CDC.

If we are going to try and reduce the number of homicides of disabled children, we have to look at homeschools. Erica was not just murdered, she was subjected to years of torture. She was starved, beaten, isolated, kept in a closet and neglected. Not accommodating a disability is also abuse. Erica was not taught sign language, she was not given hearing aids, she did not see a speech therapist, and she was not accommodated for her intellectual disability. This adds another level to her suffering and isolation.

Listen to the episode here.

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Show Sources:

“Zahra’s mom: I can’t explain the anger, the hurt”

https://www.newspapers.com/image/631934732

“Grim details in Zahra Baker’s death”

https://www.newspapers.com/image/650172994

“Pinwheels for Prevention: Child advocacy group gathers at Zahra Baker playground”

https://www.newspapers.com/image/727242952

Plea deal expected in Zahra Baker case

https://www.newspapers.com/image/650765402

“Elisa Baker gets 10 more years for drug offenses”

https://www.newspapers.com/image/646131575

https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/crime/article270196767.html

https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article270292142.html#storylink=cpy

https://www.wcnc.com/article/news/crime/true-crime/missing-cornelius-11-year-old-madalina-cojocari-timeline/275-5a774a8b-e4b0-4f38-ae5b-387cf2e05626

https://www.newspapers.com/image/631910372/

“Erica Parsons adoptive father released from federal custody, transferred to state prison”

“Some of what the Parsons indictment says”

https://www.newspapers.com/image/646000049

“Report sparks questions on missing teen”

https://www.newspapers.com/image/645983615

“Adoptive parents indicted in killing of Erica Parsons”

https://www.newspapers.com/image/646276043

https://www.newspapers.com/image/646276053

“Erica Parsons goes to her grave attended by the angels”

https://www.newspapers.com/image/646186589

“Parents charged in Erica Parsons’ death to be tried separately”

https://journalnow.com/parents-charged-in-erica-parsons-death-to-be-tried-separately/article_e7b1fb98-e595-5804-942d-92f7f776138b.html

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