Three months ago, I was in the Philippines, halfway around the world, doing research for a book, when I sat down in a hotel barber shop for a haircut. The barber asked where I was from and I said America. He asked where in America and I said Utah.
"Oh, did they ever find that girl?" he asked. "That Elizabeth Smart?"
I've gotta call that guy.
Because Wednesday, they found her.
For nine months, the world seemed to shrink and get bigger all at the same time. Elizabeth Smart was gone, vanished as if off the face of the earth. There were so many places she could be hidden. But there were also so many ways and places to look for her, and so many people willing to look.
She was found because people cared enough to get involved. Perfect strangers phoned in the tips Wednesday that resulted in the arrests of Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Ilene Barzee and the safe return of Elizabeth to her family. It was a poetic conclusion to an ecumenical search organized by the Smarts from the morning the teenager went missing. From anywhere and everywhere, people of all ages and descriptions dropped what they were doing and got busy looking. For nine months they kept at it. Until it paid off.
In the process, Elizabeth Smart became everyone's responsibility; the Smarts' problem became the community's problem. In the aftermath of yesterday's events, there were few dry eyes or frowns. Little kids jumped up and down, grown-ups threw their arms in the air, ala Lance Armstrong winning the Tour de France. Crowds of ordinary people surrounded the other side of the police tape at press conferences and cheered the speeches.
At the press conference at police headquarters, the four Sandy officers who made the collar wiped away a few tears in a just-doing-my-job-ma'am police kind of way. Chip Burrus of the FBI described the scene inside the building, where Ed and Lois Smart and their daughter Elizabeth were reunited. "Up there, you've got a boatload of officers and you can't wipe the smiles off their faces," he said.
The driving force, from start to finish, was the family. Ed and Lois never let go and neither did brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents. Not one day during the entire ordeal did the family wake up and go about its affairs without somebody, somehow working the case.
When the full story is written, that will be the sad episode's shining legacy — a family that would not quit.
Through a summer, a fall, a winter and the start of spring, they tirelessly posted rewards and organized searches and put up posters and erected billboards and went on cable TV talk shows and called reporters and pestered the police and the FBI and treated every single, tiny, solitary lead as possibly the one.
Until the whole world knew about a teenage girl in Salt Lake City, Utah, who had been stolen from her home.
As I was driving away from the celebratory police and family press conferences last night, I passed one of the huge testaments to Smart resolve on the I-15 freeway: a brightly lit billboard that for nine months has broadcast the words "Missing" and "Reward" and a bigger-than-life picture of Elizabeth.
Across the freeway I noticed another billboard. It was an old World War II-era photo of Winston Churchill flashing a V for victory sign. The caption below read: "Never, never, never give up."
The Smarts never did, and neither did anyone else.
Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to email@example.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.