For over nine months, Chris Thomas spent practically every waking moment — and then most nights as he tried to sleep — focused on getting information out about Elizabeth Smart and helping develop strategies that would result in finding the missing Salt Lake teenager.
Then 20 years ago on March 12, 2003 — hours after Smart was found walking on a Sandy street with Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee, who were arrested and later convicted in court — Thomas met Smart for the first time. She eyed Thomas with suspicion, wondering how he had gotten past all of the police officers outside.
"Elizabeth, you don't know who this is, do you?" her father, Ed Smart, said after noticing his daughter's reaction. "This is Chris. He has done more for you than you can imagine. I consider him a brother. You should, too."
Twenty years later, the bond between Thomas and Smart is still tight, as Thomas remains one of her closest confidants.
That story is told in Thomas' new book, "Unexpected: The backstory of finding Elizabeth Smart and growing up in the culture of American religion." March 12 will mark 20 years since Smart was rescued. She knows there will be renewed interest in her story and will set aside a day next week to field all of the requests she will get for interviews.
But on a recent evening in Sandy, the focus was on Thomas. A crowd of about 100 people gathered in the home of Thomas' good friend Jenny Miller for the official launch of his book. Miller family matriarch Gail Miller was also present and Thomas thanked her for being there, noting there was also a Jazz game happening that night.
"You're more important," she tells Thomas.
Smart was also there and recounted when Thomas asked her if she would be OK if he wrote a book.
"You lived it. It's part of your story as well," she recalled telling him before offering a few comments about the book.
"Typically I don't attach too much sentiment to my 'anniversary,' if you will. I mean, I will forever be grateful, don't let me mislead you. I will forever be grateful. But typically — and especially these days when my kids just don't care — I don't do anything too special about it. But I do have to say, it was quite special reading Chris' book because I didn't live the other side. I didn't know what it was like," Smart said.
While she has heard about the events written in Thomas' book, many times those stories have come from a family member who was dealing, at the time, with a lot of stress and anxiety.
"There's still a lot of trauma and emotion attached to that time in my family's life," she said, adding that the book provided clarity for her about much of what happened.
"I saw things very differently. I wasn't as emotionally invested. I looked at it from a different lens than they did," Thomas said about why his book offers a fresh perspective to a story that most people have heard many times over the past two decades.
"Having 20 years is a lot of time to think. Looking at it now, I had the opportunity to analyze a lot. And as I wrote the book, I went through the four books that have already been written about the case. I went through numerous news articles," Thomas recalled. "Every day things were happening so quickly and you didn't quite know where they were going or what was going to come next. In writing the book, you could go to those points and slow those down and analyze them and also look at them from different perspectives: What were people thinking? Why were they doing what they were doing?
"I think it was important to provide that context. It helped me understand things that had happened as well. Things that maybe I had had some hard feelings about over the years, to better understand and see where people were coming from. So it was a very cathartic experience."
No idea he’d still be talking about it 20 years later
For the nine months that Smart was missing, Thomas became as visible in the effort to find her as members of the Smart family, themselves. He was hired to be the family's spokesman and help handle the media — even though Thomas had never met Elizabeth and didn't know her. He had recently become a partner with the Intrepid Group, a Salt Lake-based public relations firm. The day before Smart's abduction, Thomas and his wife celebrated their one-year anniversary.
Elizabeth's cousin, Sierra, had started an internship with Intrepid a couple of weeks earlier. Thomas also knew Tom Smart, Elizabeth's uncle who was a Deseret News photographer, as well as Mike Grass, whose father was Ray Grass, the longtime Outdoors editor for the Deseret News. With those media connections, Thomas received a call to help in the case of a girl who was abducted from her bedroom at knifepoint.
"Everyone thought she would be found in a few days and we'd go back to our regular clients," Thomas recalled. "We had no idea this would go on for 9½ months and, heaven forbid, we'd be talking about it 20 years later."
In the first several weeks of Smart's disappearance, Thomas worked with a team of eight people to field a tsunami of media requests.
"Initially there was so much attention. There were days that the extended Smart family were doing 50 to 60 interviews a day. There were days when it just wasn't humanly possible to field every media request. So having those twice-daily press conferences in the early days was an important way to provide information and then doing the best we could to divide and conquer outside of that," he recalled. "We wanted to be as organized and as strategic as we possibly could. And in the same vein, being true to the authenticity of the family in the case."
As the weeks and months went on, Thomas was forced to take a sabbatical from work so he could focus on the Smart case. His physical and emotional health took a toll. Four of his teeth received permanent damage due to grinding them on a daily basis due to the stress, Thomas writes in his book.
On a typical day, Thomas and his team would be up at 3:30 a.m. preparing for the morning news programs and talk shows, and by 11:30 p.m. be looking at news clips from the day and strategizing about what the talking points the next morning should be.
"In those early days I was working 20-plus hour days," he said. "I'm grateful I was young because there's no way I could keep that pace up now, even for a few days. It was intense. Things were happening constantly. I could never be in enough places or know enough things or be prepared well enough for the circumstances because they were constantly changing."
Thomas said, especially early on, a lot of the information the Smart family received was from the media.
"It was almost uncanny how often we heard new information from the media before we heard it from law enforcement," he said. "Things weren't always correct, either."
With every new piece of information, Thomas said he and his team would have to figure out what it meant. How should they respond to it? How do they make sense of it?
Thomas, however, credits many of the lessons he learned growing up — sometimes from the unlikeliest of sources — that helped him deal with the pressures of the Smart case.
The Latter-day Saint community and service
While Smart says she enjoyed reading the parts of Thomas' book that focus on the search effort, what she found more exciting were the personal stories he writes about concerning his childhood and growing up in the Millcreek area.
In the book, "Unexpected," Thomas alternates between describing what was happening behind the scenes with the inner Smart family circle while Elizabeth Smart was missing, and about experiences from his own childhood. In particular, he recounts being raised as an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and how his faith and the lessons he learned from his childhood played a role in how he handled all that surrounded the investigation into Smart's disappearance and the subsequent drawn-out legal proceedings for Mitchell and Barzee.
"It wasn't something I set out to write about when I started the book," Thomas said, before later realizing "what an important role the culture played" in dealing with the Smart case.
"It was such a key part of the search effort. It was such a key part of the organization of our community."
Thomas says one of the most enduring and "life-changing memories" from that time is seeing the thousands of volunteers who showed up each day from all walks of life to help look for Smart. He remembers seeing a bus pull up at the search command post and people, some of whom were homeless, get off, just as a Porsche pulled up next to them and a "crazy well-dressed" driver got out. A short time later, both groups were sitting at the same table awaiting instructions on where to search.
"Time and time again, all walks of life came together," Thomas recalled. "They put everything aside and their focus was solely on finding Elizabeth. I remember watching these people interact and thinking, 'There's no way the man that showed up in the Porsche and the people who came on the bus, in any other setting, would connect in the way they did.' And that was so remarkable to see how service ... changes hearts, and how that really brings people together.
"Service is part of our DNA," Thomas continued, talking about the Latter-day Saint faithful. "It was such an amazing story to people on the outside. They couldn't believe that 10,000 people would stop everything, many taking off work, to go and search for her."
Thomas would hear over and over from people outside of Utah about how well the members of the church "take care of their own" and how well-organized the search efforts were. He also says church members are "very competitive," which contributed to the success of the intense search efforts and was true of the Smart family who "would stop at nothing to find Elizabeth."
Tension with police, media
Thomas also talks in his book about some of the not-so-found memories during that time, including conflicts with the Salt Lake City Police Department and some members of the media.
"Most members of the media, especially locally, are good folks with no agenda. Not everyone is like that. There are those with an agenda and out to make a name for themselves and try to sensationalize a story," he said.
Thomas says there is no way to control the media narrative. But by coming up with a plan to make the Smart family so available and constantly holding press conferences, even when there wasn't any new information to release, he says they were able to influence that narrative.
"The Smarts were such an articulate, bright family. They were a dream to work with because they got it. At times it was difficult. There were things in the media that were very hurtful and times they were very frustrated. And at the same time they recognized it was one of the best tools for finding Elizabeth, which it ultimately was, and they were willing to do whatever it took," Thomas said. "The Smarts knew that their lives were going to be torn apart because they were going to be scrutinized, and we all had skeletons in our closet and those were all going to be picked apart. And they were willing to do that to find Elizabeth."
Thomas says there were also members of law enforcement who worked well with the Smarts.
"I do believe everyone was trying to do the best that they could. There tends to be a lot of tribalism in law enforcement. ... During that time there was a lot of herd mentality with the police," he said. "I thought it was important to go back and look at that, and to look at it fairly and objectively. And in the same vein, I wanted to write a book that would be inspiring, and people would read and not go away pointing fingers or having hard feelings toward anyone. I really do believe the vast majority of people in law enforcement and in the media and the family were really doing the best that we could. We just live in a really imperfect world."
Thomas says there were points during the nine-month ordeal when, as he calls it, the dog was wagging the tail; and other points when the tail was wagging the dog.
"There were several points in the investigation where the police, in some cases, were manipulating the media, and in some cases the media was manipulating the police. But there was quite a bit of interplay there that most people have been very surprised about," he said.
Mary Katherine’s epiphany
The low point for Thomas, however, came after Elizabeth Smart's sister, then 9-year-old Mary Katherine — who feigned sleep in the bed next to her sister as Mitchell took her from the bedroom — had her epiphany that the person who took her sister was Mitchell and not Richard Ricci, a handyman who had worked in the Smart house and taken items from their house but steadfastly maintained he had nothing to do with the kidnapping.
"There was that tension between law enforcement and the family and that was incredibly difficult, especially after Mary Katherine had the epiphany in October and remembered the voice in the room was Brian David Mitchell. At the time he was only known as 'Immanuel.' It's been reported, but I don't know that it's widely known, that she didn't get a good enough look at Mitchell to recognize any of his features. It was the voice. She recognized the voice somehow, which is incredible because he wasn't talking loud," Thomas recalled.
In October 2002, four months after Elizabeth was abducted, Mary Katherine remembered on a Saturday night that it was Mitchell. Ed Smart called Thomas the next morning, "as excited as could be," Thomas recalled. But he said police didn't share their excitement.
"They were so set that it was Richard Ricci," he said. "And they completely discredited Mary Katherine, who was by far the most credible witness in that situation."
Ricci was arrested about three weeks after the kidnapping and was held in the Utah State Prison on a parole violation. Although he was never charged in connection with the abduction, he remained Salt Lake police's only suspect until Mitchell was arrested. About two months after his arrest, Ricci suffered a brain hemorrhage while in prison and died.
Thomas says while Ed Smart was watching the breaking news coverage on TV that night regarding Ricci's death, Mary Katherine walked into the room.
"She said, 'Dad, why is Richard on TV? He didn't do it. It wasn't Richard.' And they let the police know that. And despite the fact she said it wasn't Richard … they were still so fixated on him. They did not want that information coming out, hell or high water. And the family believed that was one of the most important breaks in the case. That was really, really frustrating. Probably one of the lowest moments is when we finally came out with that information in February — so that was almost five months later — and, at the time, we announced a $10,000 reward for anyone who could exonerate Richard Ricci and then put out the sketch and the information about Mary Katherine's epiphany," he said.
But Thomas said local media only gave the revelation slight attention and the national media completely ignored the Smart family. According to Thomas, the media had been told that the information wasn't credible and that he was only putting out what Mary Katherine had seen to try and drum up some coverage and get renewed interest in the Smart story.
"John Walsh was the only one who took it up," he said of the host of the nationally syndicated show "America's Most Wanted." "Without John Walsh and without 'America's Most Wanted' taking that up, I don't know how many years Elizabeth would have been gone."
The day after the sketch of "Immanuel" was released on that TV show, members of Mitchell's family identified him. Three weeks later, Mitchell and Barzee were arrested in Sandy.
Thomas says it's hard to say whether Smart might have been found five months earlier than she was if Mary Katherine's information had been released sooner or taken more seriously.
"You can second-guess whether that would have caused Elizabeth to be found earlier. There were several points during the nine months that she could have been rescued earlier," Thomas said. "But I do believe getting that information out may have been very helpful in bringing her home sooner."
Slower to judge, quicker to serve
Thomas says the idea of writing a book about his experience with the Smart case had been floating around for a while.
"It was something I thought about for a long time. After Elizabeth was rescued, I knew there was a story there, but it just never really felt right," he said.
The real genesis for the book, however, came in 2019 when Thomas was asked to speak at the Salt Lake Rotary Club. At the last minute, because the meeting fell on Veterans Day, Thomas was asked to rework his speech so it focused more on veterans. He ended up talking about his next-door neighbor while growing up, "an alcoholic and a hidden, broken war hero with a secret."
For 13 years, Thomas said he had an acrimonious relationship with his neighbor. But right before Thomas was about to leave home to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he decided to go to his neighbor's house. He ended up having a long, engaging talk with the man and gained an understanding of who the man was and what he did for his country.
It's another story in Thomas' book in which an unexpected "teacher" gave him the tools that helped him deal with one of the most publicized child kidnapping cases in history.
"I learned how to have very thick skin. I learned also not to judge. I think having an open mind was such an important part of working with the family, having an open mind with the media we worked with," he said. "Initially, there was so much suspicion on the family potentially being involved in the abduction."
Thomas says he was struggling with ideas for the book in December of 2021 and admits he was about ready to give up. And while Thomas says it wasn't his original intention to release a book on the 20th anniversary of Elizabeth's rescue, he admits that once he realized the anniversary was coming up, that deadline gave him the motivation he needed to finish it.
"It's nice with the 20th anniversary to be able to provide a new angle and some fresh perspective on this case that affected so many people. It's amazing how many people remember that period and, to a degree, considered Elizabeth and the Smart family an extension of their own family," he said.
Thomas' hope now is that his book, with the behind-the-scenes stories of the effort to find Elizabeth Smart combined with the lessons he learned growing up, all with a central theme of the Church of Jesus Christ throughout the book, will inspire readers to "be a little slower to judge and a little quicker to serve."
"I think when we do those things, we get over this polarization that's an epidemic in our country right now. We're so much more alike than we are different. Yet we all want to be right and we all want to win. But when something serious happens and we all go to work on it, we don't care anymore and we really realize what's most important."