SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Elizabeth Smart, the 15-year-old girl who vanished from her bedroom nine months ago, was found yesterday walking down a suburban street with a drifter who had briefly worked at the family’s home. The man was taken into custody, and the teenager was whisked away for a reunion with her jubilant family.
“Miracles do exist,” said Tom Smart, the girl’s uncle.
Elizabeth was returned home about 10:20 p.m. EST in an unmarked police van. She did not speak to reporters as she rushed inside the house. Relatives said Elizabeth was in good condition and had talked with police about her ordeal.
“All of the children out there deserve to come back to their parents the way Elizabeth has come back to us,” father Ed Smart said as he burst into sobs during a celebration at his home.
He added: “I don’t know what she’s gone through and I’m sure she’s been through hell. I just know that she’s a part of our family, she’s loved and we love her so much.”
The police offered no motive or details of where the teenager had been since she vanished in June. Authorities reported yesterday that employees at a grocery store near San Diego said they had seen the drifter in recent weeks. The Smarts had released a sketch of the man last month.
Police were tipped off by members of the public who spotted the drifter on a street in Sandy, 20 miles south of Elizabeth’s home in Salt Lake City. The drifter, known as Emmanuel, a woman believed to be his companion and Elizabeth were all wearing wigs when they were stopped, authorities said.
Relatives of Emmanuel, whose real name is Brian Mitchell, have described him as a self-appointed prophet for the homeless who lived in a teepee in mountains outside the city. He was hired by the Smarts in November 2001 to work on their roof. Elizabeth disappeared seven months later.
Mitchell and the second suspect, identified only as Wanda Barzee, were taken to the Sandy police station and later were booked into the Salt Lake County Jail for investigation of aggravated kidnapping. Mitchell was also being held on an outstanding warrant for retail theft.
Asked whether he believed Elizabeth was held against her will, Salt Lake City Police Chief Rick Dinse said: “At this point, yes, I do.”
A Smart family spokesman, Chris Thomas, said Elizabeth apparently had no chance to escape.
“She said there was no way, she had two people with her at all times,” he said.
Police stopped Mitchell and the others after receiving calls a minute apart from Rudy and Nancy Montoya and Anita and Alvin Dickerson. Both couples had spotted the trio carrying bedrolls and bags as they walked down the street.
Anita Dickerson, thinking the man resembled the suspect, left her car and looked him in the eye. She thought Elizabeth was an older woman wearing a scarf.
“Lots of people had to see them, they just didn’t put two and two together,” Alvin Dickerson told The Associated Press.
Elizabeth’s disappearance was part of a frightening string of incidents involving children last year that included the slayings of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam of San Diego and 5-year-old Samantha Runnion of Orange County, Calif.
News that Elizabeth was alive touched off a celebration in front of the Smarts’ home in affluent Federal Heights, with neighbors and members of the family’s Mormon ward arriving with blue and yellow balloons. After her return Wednesday night, a stream of well-wishers brought balloons and presents to the home.
“How can I even talk? This is such a miracle,” said Lynne Godfrey, 57, a neighbor. “I had given up hope – I mean, where would she have been? Who would have taken care of her for a year?”
Last month, the Smarts released a sketch of a clean-shaven Mitchell and asked for help in finding him. As recently as Tuesday, they criticized police for not devoting enough attention to finding the former handyman.
Mitchell’s sister called authorities with his identity after the news conference. The man’s stepson, Mark Thompson, also gave investigators photos of a long-haired, bearded Mitchell and said his stepfather was “capable” of kidnapping a child.
According to Thompson, Mitchell believes he is a prophet who needs to preach to the homeless. Mitchell was often seen panhandling and preaching to the homeless in downtown Salt Lake City before Elizabeth’s disappearance.