Utah Teen Found Alive After Nearly 9 Months
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Elizabeth Smart, the 15-year-old girl who vanished from her bedroom nine months ago, was found alive Wednesday in a Salt Lake City suburb with a drifter who had once done work at the family's home, police said.
"Miracles do exist," said Tom Smart, the girl's uncle. He said Elizabeth was in good condition and reuniting with jubilant relatives at the Salt Lake City police department.
Elizabeth was wearing a wig when she was found with the drifter, a man known as Emmanuel, and an unidentified woman, authorities said. Relatives of the drifter, whose real name is Brian Mitchell, have described him as a self-appointed prophet for the homeless.
A Salt Lake City police spokesman said the group was discovered standing along a road.
Mitchell was in custody at the Sandy police station.
A celebration erupted in front of the Smarts' home, with neighbors and members of the family's Mormon ward holding blue and yellow balloons.
"I'm just overwhelmed. I just couldn't be more happy," said neighbor Charlotte Hamblin, 62.
Elizabeth disappeared last June, part of a frightening string of incidents involving children that included the slayings of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam of San Diego and 5-year-old Samantha Runnion of Orange County, Calif.
A month ago, the Smarts held a news conference where they released a sketch of Mitchell, who did work at their home in November 2001. As recently as Tuesday, the family openly criticized police for not devoting enough attention to the former handyman.
Mitchell's sister called authorities with his identity after the family's Feb. 3 news conference. The man's stepson, Mark Thompson, gave investigators photos of Mitchell and said his stepfather was "capable" of kidnapping a child.
He also said Mitchell believes he is a prophet who needs to preach to the homeless and has no source of income other than handouts.
Elizabeth was 14 when she vanished early on the morning of June 5. Her 9-year-old sister, Mary Katherine, said Elizabeth was taken by a man who may have gotten into the house by cutting a window screen near the back door. The sister pretended to be asleep, and she said the gunman threatened to hurt Elizabeth if she didn't keep quiet.
The top potential suspect, Richard Ricci, a handyman who once worked in the Smart household, died Aug. 30 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage while in prison on a parole violation. He said he had nothing to do with the kidnapping.
Investigators have said they believe Ricci was involved but may not have acted alone.
Last month, Elizabeth's parents said Mary Katharine had come to them recently to say Emmanuel bore some resemblance to the kidnapper. This week, they chastised police for not going after Mitchell.
"They should have caught this guy by now," said Tom Smart. "The police are too vested in Ricci."
Elizabeth's father, Ed, was less harsh but expressed his "frustration" at public statements made by police dismissing Mitchell as a potential suspect.
Police said they followed up more than 16,000 leads from the public in addition to those they came up with themselves.
Over the summer, the Smarts held twice-daily news briefings and thousands of volunteers combed the foothills of Salt Lake City, searching under brush for any sign of the blonde girl.
The family often got calls from the police alerting them to grisly discoveries that might be linked to their missing daughter; they wanted the Smarts to know before the story hit the news.
Sometimes, the news beat the police. Hands and feet had been found in a canyon, or bones had been discovered in the desert. The Smarts would call police to ask if it was Elizabeth. Every time, the answer was no.
Children's advocates were elated by the good news.
"We are very, very relieved," said Marilyn Ward, director of Child Search, a national missing children center based in Houston. "This should help the cause of missing children everywhere. We are thankful she's alive. It gives hope to people to never give up."
Copyright 2015 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.