The prayers of a grieving family, a city, even the entire nation were answered Wednesday when 15-year-old Elizabeth Smart — abducted from her Federal Heights bedroom nine months ago — was tearfully reunited with her family.
"It's nothing short of a miracle," said an elated Ed Smart, who has kept the vigil for his daughter's safe return since June 5, when a man wearing a golf cap crept into their home and ripped Elizabeth from their lives.
And as the weeks slipped into months, faith that Elizabeth would be found alive flickered with the knowledge that kidnap victims held even beyond a few days are rarely found alive.
"We knew that statistically it could be nothing less than a miracle," said Tom Smart, Elizabeth's uncle and a family spokesman throughout the ordeal. "But we've always believed in miracles."
"Thank God. Thank God," he added, breaking into tears of joy.
The stunning turn of events began about 1 p.m. when two different couples, unknown to one other, simultaneously spotted a suspicious man who looked like a drifter who had been the focus of numerous media reports as a man sought for questioning in Elizabeth Smart's disappearance. The man was standing with two females, one wearing a shroud, near a bus stop at 10200 S. State in Sandy.
Both couples called the Sandy Police Department. Officers responded immediately and approached the three individuals, who offered no resistance and calmly spoke with police, other witnesses said. Sandy officers said the man answered their questions evasively, and they soon began to suspect the person hidden behind the shroud was, in fact, Elizabeth Smart.
Brian David Mitchell, 49, a self-proclaimed prophet to the homeless, and his companion, Wanda Barzee, 57, remain in police custody and are being questioned by Salt Lake detectives, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Elizabeth's kidnapping captured the attention of a nation horrified at the thought families were not even safe in their own homes.
Hers was the second in a string of four high-profile crimes that drew nationwide attention to stranger abductions. In the cases of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion and 7-year-old Danielle van Dam, both abducted from their homes in Southern California, those abductions ended with their murders.
In another case, which occurred two months after Elizabeth was kidnapped, two teenagers victims escaped. Moments later, police killed their abductor.
Elizabeth's kidnapping continued to hold the nation's imagination, in large part because of the Smart family's dogged determination to keep the unsolved mystery before the national media. Just last month, the case was again featured by "America's Most Wanted," which focused the nation's attention on a drifter named "Emmanuel."
The program, to which the Smarts give a large portion of credit for Elizabeth's return, was working on another story on Emmanuel at the time they received the news.
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"We're ecstatic. If we had anything to do with what's happened, we couldn't be happier," said Steve Katz, supervising producer for "America's Most Wanted." "That is the whole reason we are here is to have these kind of endings."
Katz was in meetings with host John Walsh and program executive producer when they all predicted, "We will find Emmanuel and we will find Elizabeth with him."
Lost in the celebration over Elizabeth's return was the fact that the initial prime suspect in the kidnapping, handyman Richard Ricci, was apparently exonerated of the accusations. Ricci's death in August of a brain hemorrhage he suffered in his Utah State Prison cell led investigators to lament that Elizabeth's whereabouts might have gone to the grave with him.
"I feel that Richard was the scapegoat, that he was railroaded," said Angela Ricci, his widow. "I said that from the beginning."
But for the Smarts' closest friends, there was always hope.
"She was very much alive in our minds at all times," said Shele Ujifusa, Elizabeth's young women's adviser in her LDS ward and one of hundreds who began tying balloons and ribbons to welcome Elizabeth's return. "Our prayers were answered."