clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

'Nothing short of a miracle'

There was something about the man's beard, long and graying.

"He had flowers in his hair," said Alvin Dickerson, who was driving north on State Street with his wife Anita just before 1 p.m. Wednesday.

Rudy and Nancy Montoya of West Jordan had just passed Kinko's Copies near 10200 S. State in Sandy when they saw the man, two women trudging dutifully next to him, bedrolls under their arms, their dirty white robes obscuring their heads and faces.

Just as the Dickersons had, the Montoyas wondered:

Could the scruffy man be Emmanuel, the itinerant street preacher wanted for questioning in the disappearance of now-15-year-old Elizabeth Smart?

The couples called 911 almost simultaneously.

Within minutes, Elizabeth Smart's ordeal had come to an end — 280 days and 11 hours after she was snatched from her Federal Heights bedroom as her bewildered little sister watched.

Late Wednesday, Brian David Mitchell, 49, a self-proclaimed prophet to the homeless, and his wife, Wanda Ilene Barzee, 57, were booked into the Salt Lake County Jail for investigation of aggravated kidnapping. State and federal prosecutors were reviewing the case Thursday for criminal charges.

Elizabeth returned home Wednesday night for the first time since June 5, reuniting with her overjoyed family and prompting celebrations in her neighborhood that were echoed throughout Utah and a relieved nation.

"It's nothing short of a miracle," said her elated father, Ed Smart.

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 fanatic

Emmanuel was a street preacher often dressed in biblical robes. With an untamed beard and carrying a staff, he alternately preached and panhandled.

He ministered to the downtown homeless, perceiving himself a prophet to the destitute.


BORDER="1"> FACE="Verdana,Helvetica,Arial"

SIZE="2">Reader feedback:

FACE="Verdana,Helvetica,Arial" SIZE="2">

Readers have shared their reactions to Elizabeth Smart's recovery with the Deseret News. See reader reaction here.

"At least that's what he claimed," said Phil, one of a couple of dozen homeless men queuing up at The Road Home on west 200 South on Wednesday evening. "We just thought he was some kind of nut, and we'd chase him off."

Mitchell's two stepsons, Mark and Derrick Thompson, didn't think much of their stepfather.

Mark Thompson said he hadn't seen Mitchell since last April at the funeral of his mother's father. "We didn't speak. He just yelled at us and called us a bunch of sinners."

The brothers canvassed the downtown area after seeing his picture on "America's Most Wanted" as a possible suspect in the Smart kidnapping, visiting their stepfather's favorite haunts, such as the Greyhound Bus Depot.

A dozen years ago, Mitchell began having "revelations," eventually changing his name to Emmanuel, Hebrew for "God is here," family members said.

Derrick Thompson said his stepfather told him he had taken "10 hits of LSD and talked to God out in the desert" several years ago. "They said they weren't on drugs, but we think that was a lie. We think that's how he could communicate with God. That and listen to the Steve Miller Band."

Most wanted — and found

Elizabeth's kidnapping captured the attention of a nation horrified at the thought families were not even safe behind their own locked doors.

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, both abductions ended tragically with their murders.

In another case, which occurred two months after Elizabeth was kidnapped, two teenage victims escaped just moments before 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 was working on another story on Emmanuel at the time it received the news.

"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."

Both of the 911 callers said they recognized the suspected Emmanuel from the "America's Most Wanted" broadcasts, a program the Smarts credit in large part for Elizabeth's safe return.

The abduction focused national attention on the roughly 4,600 children taken each year by strangers. Most are held briefly, while about 100 children are held for longer periods or are killed.

"Off the top of my head — and I've been here 14 years — I can't remember another case like this with similar type circumstances that went on this long and the child was recovered," said Ben Ermini, director of the missing children's division of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va.

Ed Smart had sharp words for those in Congress who have opposed legislation to help in the search for missing children, the so-called Amber Alert.

"If nothing more comes out of this than to send a big message to Washington . . . : If you're out there, I'm talking to you. You are the reason the Amber Alert has not gone through, and I'm calling on you, and I'm calling on Congress, and I'm calling on them to pass the Amber Alert now. Children cannot afford you fumbling around."

An easy scapegoat

Lost in the celebration over Elizabeth's return was the fact that the initial prime suspect in the kidnapping, handyman Richard Ricci, appears to have been exonerated. Ricci's death in August at the Utah State Prison 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."

Ricci, a career criminal on parole who had worked odd maintenance jobs for Ed Smart, became a prime suspect about a month after Elizabeth's disappearance. Police began to question his original alibi that he was home in bed with his wife at the time an intruder broke into the Smart home and snatched Elizabeth from her sleep.

Ricci could not or would not explain how his Jeep Cherokee, received as payment from Ed Smart for his work around the Smart house, had logged an extra 500 to 1,000 miles between May 31, when he picked it up from a repair shop, to June 8 when he returned it for additional repairs.

The glare of suspicion cast an even brighter light when the shop owner Neth Moul said he watched Ricci remove seat covers from the muddy Cherokee and stuff them into a bag. He also removed a posthole digger from the Jeep, then left the repair shop in a waiting car.

Police could never tie Ricci to Elizabeth, and Ricci vehemently denied having anything to do with her disappearance. However, police eventually charged him with burglarizing the Smart home and another in the neighborhood, and they recovered from Ricci jewelry, perfume and a wine glass filled with seashells, all allegedly stolen from the Smart home a year before Elizabeth's abduction.

Many in the news media zeroed in on Ricci, all but convicting him of the kidnapping.

His parole revoked, he suffered a brain hemorrhage in his prison cell and died four days later without regaining consciousness. And with his death, the police investigation stalled.

"Finding her (Elizabeth) should clear him completely," Angela Ricci said.

Unanswered questions

While volumes have been written about Elizabeth's abduction from every perspective imaginable, the story yet to be told is Elizabeth's.

At a jubilant press conference, police offered few clues as to what the teenager has been through, what she has told them, or how she came to be on State Street in Sandy apparently hidden in plain sight.

"I don't know what she's gone through," her father said. "I'm sure she's been through hell."

That hell began when a man wearing a golfer's hat took Elizabeth, possibly by knife-point, from her bed while her younger sister, Mary Katherine, looked on.

No one yet knows where her abductor took her. But Mitchell was known to be intimately familiar with the foothills above the Smart home and nearby Emigration and Dry canyons. Elizabeth's family says she heard rescuers' voices while being held captive in the foothills above her home.

Ed Smart told reporters his daughter related being taken from Utah to the San Diego area. And as news of Elizabeth's rescue broke Wednesday night, there were reports from San Diego residents that they had seen Mitchell there around the Christmas holidays, sometimes accompanied by two women with their faces covered.

Employees at one store said the women were always clad in dirty white clothes and smelled as though they hadn't bathed.

"They looked funny, the way they were dressed," said Asad Rabban, owner of Wrigley's Supermarket in Lakeside, according to Associated Press reports. "All you could see was their eyes. . . . They weren't clean."

Months after her disappearance, Elizabeth Smart and the Mitchells apparently lived a short while in a downtown apartment — about a block away from Salt Lake City police headquarters — as a guest of Daniel Trotta.

Elizabeth, who "was always veiled" and "really didn't seem scared," according to Trotta, sang hymns, listened to music, ate meals, talked about favorite classes she'd taken in school and slept overnight for nearly a week sometime in October at Oxford Place (about 300 East and 300 South).

"I didn't think it was strange," Trotta said, adding that he figured she and the woman wore the veils as part of a religious "meditation practice."

It wasn't until Trotta, 24, saw the "America's Most Wanted" television program that he suspected his guests might have included Elizabeth Smart.

After the trio left his apartment, Trotta believes they returned to the hills above Salt Lake City.

"I know they camped out in the mountains," he said. "He told me not to tell anyone that."

Elizabeth told her father she was unable to escape because she had two people with her at all times.

Police Chief Rick Dinse confirmed that detectives had received leads that Mitchell was in San Diego and Florida, among other places.

"We went out of state, in fact, to try to locate Mr. Mitchell," he said. "We didn't give a lot of information out. Because we didn't tell you about it didn't mean we didn't know what we were doing."

A community rejoices

Although even the most stalwart believers had come to doubt Elizabeth would ever return home alive, there was always hope.

Maren Laurence, who plays the harp in Mary Katherine's group, had just been picked up from school when she heard the news on the car radio.

"She rolled down the window and shouted 'Elizabeth has been found alive,' " her mother, Patrice Laurence, said.

"The first reaction was it can't be true. Then tears and laughter. She was so overwhelmed."

Laurence, who admits she believed Elizabeth was likely dead, called it "truly a miracle" and said it has been a lesson to her in faith. "We've never given up hope, but I kind of thought they would find her not alive."

When the Smarts kept saying they believed their daughter was alive, she said, "their gut must have kept them going."

A few months ago, the harpists played a special concert for Elizabeth. With a picture of her playing projected behind them and blue ribbons attached to all their harps, it was sad, Laurence said. And the children have kept those now-battered ribbons on their harps.

"We'll take them off now and hang them on our tree out front," she said. "We'll display them with excitement and gratitude. She has been found."

The mood at Bryant Intermediate School was very different than the day Elizabeth was taken from her Federal Heights bedroom only days before the end of the 2001-02 school year. "The day she got abducted, everybody at school was crying," Cami Clayton, 13, said.

Cami joined in with her classmates to repair a message that had been spelled out in blue ribbons along the school's chain-link fence many months ago. Now it will read: "We love you Liz," a sentiment Cami said was "just for her to know we still love her and think about her."

A teacher at the school is encouraging students to wear baby blue clothes to school Thursday to celebrate; another has purchased blue streamers to decorate the school's fence.

"Daily, I have prayed that they find her," said principal Frances Battle. "It's such a shock. Everyone's surprised. The staff came down and was equally excited and astounded they found her alive."

In the Smarts' neighborhood, friends streamed out of their homes to cheer and decorate yards with blue and yellow balloons.

"She was very much alive in our minds at all times," said Shele Ujifusa, Elizabeth's Young Women's adviser in the Smarts' LDS ward and one of hundreds who began tying balloons and ribbons to welcome Elizabeth's return. "Our prayers were answered."

Family matters

Elizabeth's parents, Ed and Lois Smart, admit the stress of the past nine months has been wearing on the family, the creeping cancer of doubt always in the background.

"The past few months or so have been really bad. I haven't felt strong," Ed Smart said.

The same was Tom, Elizabeth's uncle and a Deseret News photographer. "He always felt like there was something guiding him," said Tom's wife, Heidi. "I was worried about his emotions."

The tide shifted suddenly and unexpectedly when police called Ed about 2 p.m. Wednesday and told him to go directly to the Sandy Police Department.

"It was going through my mind that they are probably going to have someone like Emmanuel out there, and I am going to have to identify him, and could I?" said Ed. "They said, 'We just want to show you someone,' and it was Elizabeth and she's, well, she's home."

In recent months, the Smart family, stressed and irritated that the case had grown cold, began publicly criticizing police for not taking more seriously Mary Katherine's recollection that the kidnapper bore a striking resemblance to the drifter they knew as "Emmanuel."

There will be plenty of time in the weeks ahead for second-guessing investigators' seemingly myopic obsession with handyman Richard Ricci.

On Wednesday night, the Smart family was effervescent in their praise for police as relief rushed from family member to family member, through their LDS ward and eventually through the entire state.

And they were overjoyed and praising God that Elizabeth was returning home, the agony of the past nine months wiped away by tears of joy.

"I couldn't believe it," said Ed Smart. "It was an answer to a prayer — it was a miracle. It was a cry and a hug."

Elizabeth's 4-year-old brother William couldn't believe his sister was finally home, and he refused to let go of her.

"He would hug her and look at her and hug her and look at her," said Missy Larsen, a neighbor and family spokeswoman.

Her father had the same reaction at the Sandy police station.

"I couldn't believe it. I felt I had to take a double-take and pull her away from me and say, 'Is it really you?' "