A thin trail of white smoke rises from the beef patties sizzling on a large steel grill in front of the Arlington Hills ward. It is the first Sabbath day the building is doubling as a place of worship and the Elizabeth Smart Search Center. The ward has welcomed volunteers while housing dozens of full- and part-time personnel who are organizing and managing the searches.

In early June 2002, less than a week before starting work at the search center, my business partner, Mike Grass, and I received an urgent call. It was Mike’s father, Ray, the outdoors editor for the Deseret News, asking us to reach out to his colleague Tom Smart, the paper’s photo editor, whose niece had been abducted.

Brandishing a knife, a stranger had entered the bedroom of Elizabeth and Mary Katherine Smart in the early morning hours of Wednesday, June 5, 2002. He woke up Elizabeth and threatened to kill her if she made a sound. After guiding Elizabeth to get her shoes, the man led her out of the room and down the hall.

Mary Katherine, who was in the bed next to her older sister, feigned sleep. Concerned for the safety of her other family members, she waited for the man to exit with Elizabeth and stayed still for nearly an hour until she felt safe enough to run to her parents’ bedroom.

“Elizabeth’s gone,” she told Ed and Lois Smart. “Somebody has taken her.”

Ed Smart talks about the abduction of his 14-year-old daughter Elizabeth as Salt Lake City Police Chief C.F. “Rick” Dinse listens during a press conference.
Ed Smart talks about the abduction of his 14-year-old daughter Elizabeth as Salt Lake City Police Chief C.F. “Rick” Dinse listens during a press conference near the Smart family home in Federal Heights Wednesday, June 5, 2002. | Jason Olson, Deseret News

Less than ninety minutes later, Tom arrived at Ed and Lois’ home and began setting in motion media relations efforts that would result in Elizabeth Smart quickly becoming a household name.

I knew Tom from working with him on several stories for our clients. We offered him our help pro bono. We pulled in our other partner, Missy Larsen, who had grown up in the Smart family’s ward and neighborhood, and we added three other members of our staff.

Mike, Missy, and I believed the assignment would last only for a few days, that Elizabeth would be found alive and we’d go back to our jobs at the agency. Instead, my team would return to the office a couple of weeks later to attend to our neglected clients. With Mike’s and Missy’s ongoing support, I would take a nine-month sabbatical to work for the Smart family.

The home teacher hotline

The most noticeable difference at the Arlington Hills ward from the prior Sunday is the large contingency of media, who have parked satellite trucks and trailers, as well as set up areas and makeshift sets, at the top of a large grassy area in front of the building.

David Hamblin, bishop of the ward, has dark circles under his eyes and tries not to yawn as he speaks. 

He is responsible for the spiritual and temporal needs of all the members in his ward, and he is often called upon at all hours of the day and night — to help when someone is ill or struggling with personal or marital problems, employment difficulties, financial issues, faith crises, loneliness, death and other unexpected circumstances. If someone has significant needs that require additional help, the bishop will activate some, or all, of his ward council to provide it.

Search and rescue teams get ready to go out and search for Elizabeth Smart.
Search and rescue teams get ready to go out and search for Elizabeth Smart, Wednesday, June 5, 2002. | Jeremy Harmon, Deseret News

This organizational structure has played a crucial role in providing immediate help when Elizabeth was abducted.

After Ed called 911 on June 5, 2002, at 4:01 a.m., to report that Elizabeth was missing, his next call was to his home teacher. In each congregation, every adult ward member is called to be a teacher, and two pairs of teachers are assigned to each family (now referred to as ministering brothers and sisters). They are the first line of assistance if a need or issue arises.

When the Smarts’ home teacher received the call from Ed, he immediately informed Bishop Hamblin, who alerted the ward council, and in a matter of minutes, friends and neighbors were mobilized, ready to run to the aid of one of their own.

Bishop Hamblin also called the stake president, who then informed a regional authority over several stakes, who at some point may have informed the governing body of the church, known as the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. They then informed the head of the overall church, who is a prophet, believed to be similar to the prophets in biblical times.

In the way a call to 911 initiates a police emergency, the call from a home teacher initiates a spiritual and grassroots response that, in some cases, could go all the way to the top of the church.

Before 5 a.m., the bishop and dozens of ward leaders and members were at the Smart home, assessing the situation. The Relief Society helped organize meals for the Smart family and determined how they could help with the younger children. The priesthood group members quickly activated a door-to-door search around the neighborhood.

This impromptu rescue team was later joined by members of Ed and Lois’ extended families, additional friends, neighbors not of the faith, and others who simply came running to help. Approximately two dozen high priests and their spouses, who were retired, basically started new full-time jobs that day as volunteers for what would become the Elizabeth Smart Search Center.

I step into Bishop Hamblin’s office. The walls have images of Christ and a map of the ward with family names written in grease pen on each lot. The room is small, with the bishop sitting at his desk and his two counselors on each side. The other members of the ward council are crowded into chairs on the other side of the desk. They are dressed neatly in suits, skirts and blouses and dresses; most are holding pens and taking notes.

“We have lots of amazing talent and expertise in the ward,” Bishop Hamblin explains. “However, a situation with media like this is outside anything any one of us has ever experienced. We really need you to instruct the ward on what to do, Chris, including taking a few minutes from the pulpit.”

While I don’t really have experience managing a situation like this (likely only a handful of professionals in the country do), I don’t let on to that fact. Instead, I focus on how we can steer things in the right direction. A prayer is offered, and the ward council concludes.

I take my place in the pews, toward the back of the chapel. During the announcements at the beginning of the service, Bishop Hamblin speaks my name. I walk slowly up to the rostrum, trying to formulate what to say.

I pause and look upon the congregation, which is a sea of colors, with dresses, suits, white shirts and multicolored ties. The adults look attentively at me, while some of the children fidget with action figures, Matchbox cars, and dolls; many of the toddlers are eating Cheerios from small Tupperware containers.

“On behalf of the Arlington Hills ward, we would like to welcome the media who are sitting in the back rows,” I begin. “We really appreciate everything you are doing to cover the story and bring awareness to the search for Elizabeth. Please let me know if I can explain anything to you, or serve as a guide, as you attend church today. For members of the ward, please be welcoming to our new friends in the media, and remember you are on the record — meaning anything you say or do can and will be used against you.”

There is an audible laugh from the congregation. I breathe a sigh of relief, but the relief is only temporary.

Richard Ricci leaves court after a roll call hearing.
Richard Ricci, who is a suspect in the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case, leaves court after a roll call hearing where his attorneys asked for more time to prepare for trial on separate charges, Aug. 27, 2002, in Salt Lake City. | Jeremy Harmon, Deseret News

A new suspect, a dead end

Weeks later, I’m alone in my car, processing the events of the day. I’ve just concluded an interview with Fox’s Geraldo Rivera at the church. My phone rings — it’s Ed Smart, and he sounds anxious. “I need to fill you in on something. The police have told me some news that will likely break this afternoon. This one is complicated.”

Ed’s voice is an octave higher than usual. His former handyman, Richard Ricci, has been arrested on a parole violation and has admitted to stealing several items from the Smarts.

Ricci is affable and well-liked by the Smart children, who talked and played with him when he labored at their house. He drives an old white Jeep that Ed gave him as partial payment for his work. The vehicle likely contains Elizabeth’s DNA, since she’d ridden in the car for several years before Ed gave it to Ricci.

The police make it clear that Ricci is being held on a parole violation. In actuality, he’s being seriously investigated in conjunction with the abduction. Working to formulate some messaging in my mind, I hang out near the church, figuring the media will converge on me once the news breaks. Within minutes, a producer approaches and asks if I would be willing to join his show for a live interview. I agree.

I sit on a bar stool waiting and listening to the live feed of the program. When the commercial break starts, the producer reappears.

“As a heads up, there may be something breaking, and we’ve had some issues with the IFB,” he informs me. An IFB, or interruptible foldback, is a device that serves as an earpiece and a microphone. “If you hear a bunch of loud static, take off your headset and tell the talent you don’t understand and can’t answer.” I have a feeling this is a setup. I consider leaving before the interview starts, but the news team would likely use that against us. 

The sound from the headset is crystal clear during the easy questions at the beginning of the segment. Then one of the anchors places a finger on her earpiece. “Sorry to interrupt,” she says. “We have some major breaking news surrounding the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping. For more, let’s go to the newsroom ...”

The anchor asks me if the Smarts are aware of the Ricci development. As I am about to answer, a producer in a control center pushes a button and a deafening blow of white noise penetrates my eardrum.

“Yes, they ... they were surprised to learn Ricci had ... had stolen from them and have been fully cooperating with law enforcement,” I manage to say.

I focus on the top part of the camera lens, mustering every ounce of energy I have to hear the next question while not appearing flustered. I can’t make out what is being said, nor can I read the anchor’s lips, so I improvise once she stops talking.

“The Smarts are concerned and are doing everything they can to find Elizabeth. They support law enforcement investigating everyone and are cooperating in all ways.”

I would later learn that the question she asked, which I couldn’t hear, was about why I was acting so erratically. Was I uncomfortable with the question? Was there something I was trying to hide?

The white noise dissipates briefly, and I hear the producer’s voice in the headset loud and clear: “Just tell them you can’t talk any longer and need to go. Take off the headset.”

I pause and take a quick breath.

“This is an incredible family. They are resilient and doing everything they can to find Elizabeth. The Smarts support law enforcement and have fully cooperated with everything that has been asked of them. What they want people to know is that they need them to be vigilant and keep an eye out for Elizabeth. Anything you can do to bring her home will mean more to the family than you can possibly know ...”

When I finish speaking, I smile and look calmly into the camera. When I see the show has cut to the commercial break, I exhale and hand the headset to the producer. I walk away before he can say anything to me.

It’s apparent the producers were trying to create a situation in which I would appear visibly frustrated by the question so they could spin it into something it wasn’t. The more drama surrounding the Smarts’ response to Ricci’s arrest, the more fodder for talking heads to discuss and speculate about, concerning the family’s relationship with the handyman. 

Over the next few hours, I make the rounds, doing dozens of interviews and providing context regarding the family’s relationship with Ricci, their concern regarding the stolen items and their support of law enforcement in getting to the bottom of things.

Around 10:30 p.m., after live interviews with the local television stations, I speak with Ed. He tells me that while watching one of the breaking news stories about Ricci earlier that evening, he heard Mary Katherine’s voice and noticed she had crept into the bedroom.

“Daddy, they don’t think Richard took Elizabeth, do they? He wasn’t the one in the room. It wasn’t Richard.”

Mary Katherine, who is typically shy and soft-spoken, was animated and adamant.

Ed informs law enforcement about Mary Katherine’s reaction. They discount her claim, keeping the focus on Ricci for the next eight months.

This misguided fixation on Ricci might have continued for years if Elizabeth hadn’t been rescued from another man — the one who actually was in the room that night.

Chris Thomas is photographed with his book “Unexpected” in Holladay.
Chris Thomas, the Smart family spokesman during the months Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped, is photographed with his book “Unexpected” in Holladay on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

This article is a modified excerpt from Chris Thomas’ “Unexpected: The Backstory of Finding Elizabeth Smart and Growing Up in the Culture of an American Religion” published by Post Hill Press. Thomas is a writer, speaker and communication professional. He is most recognized for his work as the official publicist for the Smart family during the 10-month period of Elizabeth’s abduction and rescue and later helped position Elizabeth as one of the leading child advocates in the United States.