Alive and well » Elizabeth Smart found nine months after vanishing from her home
This article originally ran March 13, 2003.
Days after her cousin Elizabeth disappeared last summer, Sierra Smart received a bouquet of roses from a stranger at a community prayer vigil.
The stranger was convinced the girl would someday return safely, and asked Sierra to give Elizabeth the flowers when she came home. The now-wilted floral arrangement has hung on Sierra's bedroom wall for over nine months.
"I can't wait to give these flowers to Elizabeth," said Sierra, 21, fighting back joyful tears just hours after her cousin was found alive and healthy Wednesday, walking along a Sandy street with her two alleged captors. "This is a miracle. I'm just floating on air."
But there were more questions than answers about how the vagabond couple -- Brian David Mitchell, 49, and Wanda Eileen Barzee, 57 -- allegedly managed to hold the girl undetected since her June 5 purported kidnapping from her bedroom.
Asked whether he believed Elizabeth had been held against her will, Salt Lake City Police Chief Rick Dinse responded: "I do, at this point, yes I do."
Police, who said they had not recovered the black handgun believed to have been used in the apparent kidnapping, also could not say whether the 15-year-old had tried to escape and where the three have been since the abduction, which sparked a nationwide quest for the girl and a large-scale search up and down the Wasatch Front involving thousands of volunteers.
The girl's first night home since early June was spent with her family at the Federal Heights house from which she was taken.
In recent days, the Smart family had pressured the Salt Lake City Police Department, criticizing what they felt was a cavalier attitude about Mitchell, the self-styled fire-and-brimstone preacher who called himself "Emmanuel."
The crime's lone witness, Elizabeth's younger sister, Mary Katherine, had identified Mitchell as the possible kidnapper last October, recalling him from the November 2001 day he worked odd jobs for the Smarts for five hours. The family took the tip to police but it was not publicized until February.
At a Wednesday afternoon news conference announcing Elizabeth's safe return, Dinse defended his department and its focus on the late Richard Ricci, a career criminal.
"Everything we did was based on calculated investigation," Dinse said. "Ricci had a lot of information pointing in his direction."
One day after Ed Smart and his brother, Tom Smart, openly expressed frustration with police for the first time, the family had nothing but praise.
"We want to thank the wonderful people in law enforcement," Tom Smart said. "From the beginning of this ordeal we have felt she was alive. This is nothing but a miracle."
At the Federal Heights LDS ward house, for months the site of somber news conferences, neighbors, friends and well-wishers gathered for an impromptu celebration late Wednesday, decorating the lawn with balloons of baby blue, Elizabeth's favorite color.
"This is definitely Disneyland," Sierra Smart said.
Months of heartache and hope for the family ended Wednesday just before 1 p.m. after two separate couples saw three people walking along State Street near 10200 South, each carrying bedrolls and tarps.
Rudy and Nancy Montoya of West Jordan called Sandy police at 12:52 p.m., after they recognized Mitchell from FOX television's "America's Most Wanted." They said they did not recognize Elizabeth because the girl wore a wig and a dingy white burka that hid her face.
One minute later, police received a second call from Alvin and Anita Dickerson of Sandy. Both couples were walking out of a Kinko's store.
Following an "evasive" conversation with the three, four Sandy police officers determined the girl was Elizabeth, said Sandy Police Chief Stephen Chapman. The Montoyas said they had not even thought about the $295,000 in rewards related to Elizabeth's discovery.
"We both just cried because Elizabeth was back with her family," Nancy Montoya said.
Ed Smart reunited with his daughter at the Sandy Police Department, after receiving a cryptic phone call from officers to "come quick -- it's something important," said Smart family spokesman Chris Thomas.
The father held his daughter during the entire ride to police headquarters in downtown Salt Lake City, where she was interviewed extensively before being taken to a hospital.
"They took me to the room, when I opened the door she was there," Ed Smart told reporters in front of his home. "I just couldn't believe it ... We just had a big hug."
Mitchell and Barzee spent the night at the Salt Lake County Jail, where they were, after hours of intensive police interrogation, booked on suspicion of aggravated kidnapping. Mitchell was also wanted on a warrant for shoplifting in Salt Lake City in 2002.
Thomas, who joined the reunion between Elizabeth and her parents, said the girl was "very healthy, very smart, very articulate. She definitely wanted to come home."
Thomas said Ed Smart was struck "by how much she had grown up."
Although few details have emerged about where Elizabeth has been, Thomas said Elizabeth had been taken to San Diego, Florida and spent time in an unknown desert. "They camped a lot and traveled," Thomas said.
If that is true, Mitchell and Barzee could face federal kidnapping charges because they crossed state lines, said U.S. Attorney Paul Warner. The pair could also face state charges. Both carry sentences of up to life in prison.
Mitchell -- once a common sight in downtown Salt Lake City, wearing his ankle-length robe while panhandling -- was apparently living in the hills behind the Smart's neighborhood days before Elizabeth disappeared.
Salt Lake County resident Layne Meacham said he offered a ride to Mitchell and a woman who were walking near Brickyard Plaza last spring. Meacham said he accompanied them as they shopped for groceries at Harmon's, but Mitchell refused Meacham's money, saying the "Lord" would provide.
Meacham said he then drove the couple to Primary Children's Medical Center, where they took a footpath into the hills. Meacham said they told him that was where they were living.
"I said, 'Adios amigo,' and he said, 'The Lord be with you,'" Meacham recalled.
He said the man was soft-spoken, shy and talked about how he had been called to serve Jesus.
After Elizabeth was found Wednesday, people in Utah and California said they recalled seeing Mitchell with Elizabeth during the past several months.
In August or early September, Nanda Sookhai walked around the drum circle in Salt Lake City's Liberty Park on a Sunday, randomly taping with his video camera. He labeled the video, placed it on a shelf and then forgot about it until he saw the news Wednesday, he said.
Three people sitting at a picnic table in the video resemble Mitchell, his wife and Elizabeth. "They looked peculiar because of the outfits they were wearing," Sookhai said.
He thought about approaching them but decided against it. "Something kept telling me to go talk to them. But I didn't," Sookhai said.
In September, Mitchell appeared at a late-night party in a downtown Salt Lake City apartment, said freelance photographer Dan Gorder, who snapped shots of the wandering preacher chugging a beer. Mitchell was accompanied by two women dressed in white, veils covering all but their eyes, Gorder said.
"One woman was older, the other looked really young," said Gorder. "They never moved away from him and were looking down most of the time."
Gorder said at the time he was taking the photographs, he had no idea the younger woman was Elizabeth Smart. "It seems pretty farfetched that she would be at a party," he said. "But I wish I would have known."
Gorder said he took seven or eight photographs of the three "because they looked strange." Mitchell noticed the photographs were being taken and "did not look too happy about it," Gorder said. But the drifter -- who told more than 100 partygoers he was Jesus -- made no move to stop the 30-year-old Gorder.
A few days later, Gorder developed the film, scanned the photos into his home computer and did not look at them again until Wednesday, when televised sketches of Mitchell jogged his memory.
"I ran back and started sifting through my stuff to find them," said Gorder.
Elizabeth and her alleged captors spent almost a week last October at the Salt Lake City basement apartment of Daniel Trotta, who befriended Mitchell about a year ago. Mitchell shopped at the Wild Oats health food store on 400 South where Trotta worked.
Trotta said he felt sympathetic to Mitchell and invited him to sleep for a few nights at his apartment -- one block from Salt Lake City police headquarters. Mitchell showed up with Barzee and a girl he referred to as their daughter. Both women wore scarves over their heads and veils that covered most of their faces.
"It didn't cross my mind that it was Elizabeth Smart," Trotta said. "I wouldn't have suspected anything."
Although Trotta knew of Elizabeth's disappearance, he thought she must be younger than the tall teenager in his apartment. The girl barely spoke, he said. He once asked her what her name was, but Mitchell interrupted him and she did not answer.
Trotta said he left his guests alone during the day when he went to work at Wild Oats, although Mitchell occasionally brought Barzee and Elizabeth to the store. The three usually slept on Trotta's living room floor, he said. Trotta noticed nothing unusual about Elizabeth or her relationship to her "parents."
Occasionally the three of them sang religious hymns to him, Trotta said.
After five or six nights, Mitchell and the others left. He told Trotta he was going to camp in the foothills for a while. He also asked Trotta not to tell anyone that.
After seeing a segment about "Emmanuel" recently on "America's Most Wanted," Trotta grew suspicious and called police. Officers came and dusted his apartment for fingerprints days ago, he said.
In November, the trio may have been in California. Cyndee Swanson of suburban San Diego called police Wednesday after seeing a picture of Mitchell on CNN's Web site and realizing she had seen him twice in November with Elizabeth and another woman.
Swanson said her neighborhood has a large homeless population. As she was sitting in her car with her daughters in the parking lot of an Arby's restaurant, she said, she saw Mitchell dressed in a robe with two women walking behind him. The women were also dressed in robes and wearing veils, and were carrying Wild Oats grocery bags.
Swansons said she saw them twice walking in the area and remembers them because they stuck out.
"If this picture that was put out today had been put out in November," she said, "I would have been on the phone right away."
The trio may have just returned to Utah. On Wednesday morning, Ryan Johnson saw them at a McDonald's restaurant in Springville as he took a coffee break from his job nearby. "I felt kind of bad because they looked homeless," Johnson said.
Johnson gave the three a ride to Provo in his BMW. He dropped them off at a bus stop and gave them the $5 in change he had in his car. As he shook their hands goodbye, Johnson said, Mitchell told him they had just come from San Diego.
The young woman, who Johnson thinks was Elizabeth, did not speak, but he thought there was something odd about her.
"I turned around and looked in her eyes," he said. "She looked scared, like she wanted to tell me something but didn't dare."
He said he called Provo police but did not get an answer. "I knew something was wrong," he said.
Smart's disappearance was one in a summer of highly publicized abductions, with some ending tragically. One of the few other happy endings came in July, when a 7-year-old Philadelphia girl managed to free herself from her captives to get help.
Other children, including Danielle van Dam and Samantha Runnion in California, were found dead.
Volunteer Robin Ingram, whose family canceled a summer vacation to help search for Elizabeth, said she now believes all those hours were "very much worth it."
A candlelight vigil for Elizabeth was held on the northeast corner of 10200 South and State Street, where she was found, Wednesday evening. Dozens of people attended, bringing blue balloons and stuffed animals.
Sandy resident Theresa Lewis organized the vigil shortly after Elizabeth was found. Although she does not know the Smart family, Lewis was one of the volunteers who searched for her after she was abducted.
"These are the original candles from the first candlelight vigil from Elizabeth," said Lewis at the vigil, "We are so glad to have an occasion to finish them."
Another Sandy resident, Jennifer Scott, said the vigil was an expression of thanks. "This is just a big collective sigh of a relief and a big welcome home because we know there are still tough times ahead for her," said Scott.