SALT LAKE CITY -- Elizabeth Smart, 15, abducted from her bedroom nine months ago, was found alive Wednesday with a drifter who had worked briefly for her family. They were accompanied by a woman who, along with the girl, was wearing a wig and a blue, pillowcase-like veil over her face.
“She is well and healthy,” said Salt Lake City Police Chief Rick Dinse.
Her uncle, Tom Smart, said she was reunited with her joyful family. He declared: “Miracles do exist.”
Police identified the drifter as Brian David Mitchell, who called himself Emmanuel, a self-appointed prophet to the homeless. Relatives said he lived in a tepee in the mountains outside Salt Lake City. He and the woman, Wanda Barzee, identified as his companion, were jailed for investigation of aggravated kidnapping.
Mitchell also was held on an outstanding warrant charging retail theft.
Dinse offered no motive for the abduction. The chief said Elizabeth had been held against her will. Chris Thomas, a family spokesman, said she told her parents she had been moved from encampment to encampment around the country, unable to escape because two people were with her at all times.
Authorities said Mitchell had been seen near San Diego shortly before Christmas. They said that employees of a market in Lakeside recognized a photo of him on Wednesday afternoon. Assad Rabban, the market owner, said Mitchell had been with two women whose faces were covered. He said they wore dirty white robes but did not act suspiciously.
The arrests, in the Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy, were prompted by tips from citizens, including one who recognized Emmanuel from his likenesses in newspapers and on television. The tips brought a happy conclusion to one of a string of frightening disappearances last summer involving children. They included the kidnap slayings of Danielle van Dam, 7, of San Diego and Samantha Runnion, 5, of Stanton, Calif.
Within hours of Elizabeth Smart’s discovery, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson told reporters: “I’ve met with Ed and Lois Smart. I saw Elizabeth in their arms. She couldn’t let go of her little brother. They wanted me to thank everybody for all of the great support, the search effort and the hopes and prayers sent their way. Those prayers were answered today.”
Elizabeth’s mother, Lois, had met Emmanuel in November 2001 in downtown Salt Lake City, where he was panhandling. Street people around Temple Square, site of the temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, recall Emmanuel as a figure in blue or white robes, carrying a cane with a skull on top. “Something was definitely wrong” with him, said Jody Keisner, 40.
“He was too weird for me,” said a panhandler who identified himself as Joe, 52.
Nonetheless, Lois Smart said she gave Emmanuel $5 and hired him to help her husband work on the roof of their home in the affluent Federal Heights neighborhood. After about five hours, she said, he left.
On June 5, when Elizabeth was 14, she vanished during the early-morning darkness from the bedroom she shared with her sister, Mary Katherine, 9, who said her sister was taken by a man with a gun. Police said he might have entered the house by cutting a window screen near the back door.
Mary Katherine told police the gunman threatened to hurt her sister if Elizabeth didn’t keep quiet. The younger girl pretended to be asleep.
Police, citizens and a children’s recovery group, the Laura Recovery Center Foundation, named after a 12-year-old girl kidnapped and murdered five years ago in Texas, began a lengthy, widespread search. It caused considerable tension between Elizabeth’s family and the police. The Smarts thought investigators were moving too slowly.
The police, on the other hand, said the Smarts compromised the investigation by organizing their own search and disturbing evidence.
The family criticized the Salt Lake City Police Department publicly for concentrating on other suspects, including a handyman, Richard Albert Ricci, who also had worked at the Smart home. Ricci pleaded not guilty to unrelated burglary and theft charges, then died in August of a brain hemorrhage. Police said Wednesday that Ricci probably had nothing to do with the abduction.
Throughout most of last summer, the Smarts held twice-daily news briefings, and thousands of volunteers combed the foothills around Salt Lake City, searching for any sign of Elizabeth.
In October, the Smarts said Mary Katherine had come to them to say that Emmanuel seemed to resemble the kidnapper. The family told the police, but investigators made no arrests. In February, the family held a news conference to announce a $10,000 reward for anyone who could clear Ricci and released a sketch of the bearded man they knew as Emmanuel.
After the news conference, Mitchell’s sister called authorities to identify him. His stepson, Mark Thompson, gave investigators photographs of him clean shaven and said his stepfather was “capable” of kidnapping a child.
Thompson also said Mitchell considered himself a prophet who needed to preach to the homeless.
Not long afterward, the case was highlighted on the TV show “America’s Most Wanted.”
A few minutes before 1 p.m. Wednesday, Rudy and Nancy Montoya of West Jordan, another suburb, spotted three oddly dressed people walking along State Street in Sandy, a bedroom community of modest homes south of Salt Lake City. They called the Sandy Police Department.
Moments later, Anita Dickerson, a mother of seven, spotted Mitchell. She said she and her husband were out for a drive when they came upon him, Barzee, his female companion, and Elizabeth, walking along State Street. Dickerson said she told her husband to stop the car. She said she got out and followed them.
“I looked him in the face,” she told reporters.
Then, she said, she returned to her husband and declared: “That’s him.”
Her husband grabbed his cell phone, she said, and called the Sandy Police Department. Officers arrived, and a witness, Todd McCall, said Elizabeth crouched down.
McCall said both women wore clothing that covered them from wrist to ankles. He said Mitchell wore flowers in his hair.
Still another witness, John Ferguson, said Mitchell looked like a transient.
He told KSL television the women had “longer clothing on, blue almost like a pillow case ... over the face almost like a veil.”
“They were all just kind of calmly talking to the police.”
The Sandy police said their officers questioned the trio, became convinced that the girl with blond hair was Elizabeth and took Mitchell and Barzee into custody. They said they turned them over to the Salt Lake City police, along with Elizabeth.
Two hundred and eighty days after her kidnapping, she was reunited with her parents at the Salt Lake City police station.
Thomas, the family spokesman, said Elizabeth asked about her five brothers and sisters. She expressed surprise that her brother Andrew had gotten straight A’s. Missy Larsen, a family friend, said she had brought another brother, William, 4, to the police station to greet his sister. “As William and she saw each other, they just hugged. He would hug her and look at her, and hug her and look at her.”
Larsen said that Elizabeth seemed older.
Her sister Mary Katherine was called out of class at school and told that her sister had been found. “Mary Katherine is our hero,” said David Smart, an uncle. “Mary Katherine has [held] steadfast in what she knew and what she didn’t know, and when she did remember, she came forward with the courage to tell her parents that it might be Emmanuel. For a 9-year-old girl to go through the trauma that she has gone through and has held fast to that ... it’s extraordinary.”
Elizabeth’s father, Ed, met with reporters at the family home, flanked by blue and yellow balloons. “I’m so happy and so grateful,” he said, and then wept. “I don’t know what she’s gone through. I’m sure she’s gone through hell.
“She’s a part of our family, she’s loved,” Smart said. He added that she had grown a lot.
“All the children out there deserve to come home to their parents the way that Elizabeth has come back to us,” Smart said. “I just hope and pray that Congress will quickly pass the Amber Alert so those children will have a better chance.” He referred to a system many states, including California, use to notify the public through the media about missing children.
Bob Walcutt, executive director of the Laura Recovery Center, told reporters: “It’s incredible to find her after all this time.... For families, the message is: Never give up. Never.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
A nine-month ordeal
Key dates in the Elizabeth Smart disappearance:
June 5, 2002: Mary Katherine Smart tells her parents that her 14-year-old sister, Elizabeth, was taken from their home at gunpoint.
June 6: Hundreds of volunteers search the streets and foothills of Salt Lake City.
June 14: Handyman Richard Albert Ricci, who once worked at the Smart home, is arrested on a parole violation unrelated to Elizabeth’s case. Ricci is questioned about the Smart case; considered top suspect.
June 22: Transient Brett Michael Edmunds, seen in the Smart neighborhood the week of disappearance, is questioned by police in a West Virginia hospital. Edmunds turns out to know nothing about the disappearance.
July 31: Ricci pleads not guilty to unrelated burglary and theft charges.
Aug. 30: Ricci dies three days after suffering a brain hemorrhage and collapsing in his jail cell.
Sept. 17: Twice-daily briefings by the Smarts are suspended.
Nov. 3: Elizabeth Smart turns 15.
Feb. 3, 2003: Smart family releases sketch of Brian David Mitchell, who worked as a handyman for the family. Elizabeth’s sister said he resembled the man in house the night of the disappearance.
March 12: Elizabeth is found alive in suburban Salt Lake City.
Source: Associated Press
Times staff writers David Haldane in Orange County and Stephanie Simon in St. Louis and researcher John Beckham in Chicago contributed to this report.