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Home  >  Topics  >  Investigations

June 10, 2002
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Abduction of Utah Girl Inspires Thousands to Join Search

by Michael Janofsky, New York Times

SALT LAKE CITY - A light rain fell this afternoon and temperatures dipped into the 40's, but the waves of volunteers kept at it, signing up at Shriners Hospital here and fanning out to search for Elizabeth Ann Smart.

It has become something of a ritual since late Thursday night, when someone broke into the bedroom Elizabeth, 14, shares with her younger sister, pointed a gun at Elizabeth, and snatched her away.

The hospital has become headquarters for the search effort, and every day, thousands of volunteers arrive to get their assignments, then set out to comb neighborhoods, valleys and hills. The police say they have responded to hundreds of leads, but have identified no suspects.

"This is the quickest mobilization we've ever seen," said Bob Smither, co-founder of the Laura Recovery Center Foundation, a Texas group that has helped organize search efforts for 35 missing children around the country since 1997, when Mr. Smither's daughter, Laura, was kidnapped and murdered.

"This is really pushing the order of magnitude in terms of community response," he said. "It's really incredible."

Mr. Smither regarded 400 people as "typically pretty good" for a volunteer effort. But here, no fewer than 2,000 people on each of the last few days, some from as far away as California, have registered to search areas that reach 50 miles in all directions from the Federal Heights neighborhood where the Smart family lives. Businesses have donated almost one million fliers that volunteers are handing out and posting around town. More than 20 owners of private planes have flown their craft in search missions across the state. A man from Montana has donated his four helicopters to the effort.

Business owners have provided food for searchers and, today, heat lamps for those sitting in the chill outside the hospital, registering volunteers.

It is not so surprising that Salt Lake would turn out in such a manner. This is a city founded by Mormon pioneers whose progeny now make up more than two-thirds of the state population and almost half of the city's. To grow up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Smart family has, is to embrace the concept of community and service. Church members typically spend a year or two abroad doing missionary work.

The Smarts are one of the area's first Mormon families, and a large one. Elizabeth is one of six children. Her father, Edward, is one of six. Her mother, Lois, is one of nine. On Edward Smart's side of the family, there are 24 grandchildren. On Lois's side, there are 51, plus more than 30 great-grandchildren.

"But it's not just about Mormons or being Mormon," said Tom Smart, Edward Smart's brother and a family spokesman, trying to not to leave out a single soul who has helped in the search for his niece. "We've had help from the Hispanic community, from Catholics, from the Greek community. It's not about somebody. It's about everybody. We didn't have to ask anyone at all for anything. People have just come forward."

Faith is playing a major role in the level of activity. Ask any of the volunteers, and that is part of their answer, why they are here.

Cristi Carter and Karen Zamudio did not know each other until they volunteered about the same time and were put in the same search group, their responsibility to comb a neighborhood and knock on doors. They returned to the hospital together this afternoon, looking a little frazzled by the weather but happy they could help. They walked a neighborhood, they said, knocking on doors, checking abandoned motor homes, looking inside cars and calling Elizabeth's name as they moved from place to place.

"I have seven kids," said Ms. Carter, who lives in Orem, Utah. "If any of them was missing, I would hope someone would help me like this."

Ms. Zamudio, who lives in West Jordan, a Salt Lake suburb, said, "I'm a mother of two. I cannot fathom what this family is going through."

Tom Smart said the family was holding up pretty well, considering. They are especially concerned about the well-being of Mary Katherine Smart, the 9-year-old sister who was sleeping in the same room when the abduction began. According to the police account, the man threatened Mary Katherine not to tell her parents, and, terrified, she waited two hours to say anything.

After giving the authorities a description of the man, Mary Katherine has spent much of her time with cousins, Tom Smart said, as the family tries to shield her from the seriousness of the event.

The daily parade of volunteers includes any number of Smarts, all of whom are trying to remain upbeat, said Tom Smart, a photographer for The Deseret News.

"The first time I heard, I thought she's a goner, some psychopath has killed her," he said of his niece, mindful that abductions often come to sad endings.

But events of the following days convinced him and his family otherwise, he said, as if the outpouring of help and support portends a happy ending, reflecting the strength of prayers and faith.

Mr. Smither conceded as much, that in one out of every seven searches in which his foundation has been involved, a child was found alive.

"Amazing miracles happen," Mr. Smart said. "I truly believe that. Even though it may seem crazy and it defies reason, rational logic and statistics, we all believe she's alive. That's why our spiritual belief is so important."






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