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Stolen statue featuring Mormon prophets is found by police; 2 suspects are arrested

Stolen statue featuring Mormon prophets is found by police; 2 suspects are arrested
The statue depicting Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leaders Brigham Young, left, and Joseph Smith, has been recovered. (Lena Toritch / Young Fine Art Studio)

It was a heist that, in retrospect, was unlikely to escape without notice.

Four thieves drove a truck with a large trailer into a parking lot in the wee hours of Tuesday morning and stole a bronze statue weighing approximately 700 pounds that depicts two Mormon prophets sitting on a park bench in midconversation.

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And not just any two Mormon prophets.

One is the faith's founder, Joseph Smith. The other is Brigham Young, the man who led church members to Utah. Both were stolen in the city where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has its headquarters.

It took Salt Lake City police less than 14 hours to track the work of art down.

"After a long day of #detective work we're happy to report that the bronze statue has been recovered," the police tweeted around 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Salt Lake City police Det. Robert Ungricht said as many as five detectives were involved in the search for the missing Mormon leaders. Time was of the essence — not necessarily because of who they were, but because of what they were made of.

Ungricht said police feared the thieves would find a foundry along the Wasatch Front Range to melt the bronze down — a fiery doom for a statue valued at $125,000.

He said there was some incorrect speculation that the case was given a higher priority because of who was depicted in the statue. He said there was no pressure brought on the department by the church. The pressure, he said, stemmed from a case a few years ago: Another bronze statue was stolen from a school and never recovered.

"We wanted to get to the statute before the unthinkable happened and it was melted down," Ungricht said. "I didn't want the dirtbags to get away with it."

Reminders of Smith and Young are ubiquitous in Utah — the latter with a large college named after him and the former revered as the faith's founder. When word got out that the large statue had been stolen, local television and newspapers obtained surveillance footage of the theft and broadcast it.

Then people shared the video on social media. Ungricht said tips began filtering in from the public. The custodian of the statue, Ben Rogers, said he started the day feeling crushed that Smith and Young weren't likely to survive the ordeal, but grew optimistic as the crime's profile continued to elevate throughout the day.

"I ran the whole gamut of emotions," Rogers said by phone Wednesday. "Yesterday morning was rough, and the likelihood of it being tracked down seemed to be getting slimmer. But then it snowballed. Calls from New York, Los Angeles — all over Utah — started coming in. I saw the story on my Yahoo news feed. You start off feeling alone, and then the next moment millions are keeping an eye out for it. That's when I started to feel more optimistic."

Ungricht said an anonymous tip led detectives to a home just outside Salt Lake City. He said they found the statue in a garage — in one piece and without any damage.

By Wednesday, 47-year-old William Ford had been arrested and another suspect was picked up for another matter. Two other suspects were still at large, but Ungricht said police were closing in on them and tweeted out their last-known location.

Rogers said the 9-year-old statue — which had been looking for a permanent home, most likely in Nauvoo, Ill. — was going to be stored at a secure site. As he was driving to the location hauling the statue in a trailer behind him, he said, people in cars were taking pictures of it.

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"I stopped for gas and six people jumped into the trailer to have their picture taken with it," he said.

Utah politicians such as Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski weighed in on Twitter, posting pictures of the recovered statue and praising detectives' work on the case.

One of the sculptors of the statue, Lena Toritch, said she was glad to see the piece recovered. She said she hoped that when it goes on permanent display, it will have something else to keep the prophets earthbound — anchor bolts.

Twitter: @davemontero

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