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A look back at the frantic search for Elizabeth Smart 15 years ago


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SALT LAKE CITY — Monday marked the 15th anniversary of Elizabeth Smart’s disappearance and the beginning of a hectic search for the then 14-year-old girl.

Smart was abducted from her home in the middle of the night on June 5, 2002, and held captive by Brian David Mitchell for nine months. The abduction caught the nation by surprise, especially with initial reports that Smart had been kidnapped at gunpoint (it was later revealed it was at knifepoint).

Mitchell was later tried and found guilty for the kidnapping and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

With the anniversary of Smart’s kidnapping, takes a look back at how the initial week played out in what was Utah’s first case involving what is now known as the Amber Alert.

June 5, 2002: Elizabeth Smart is kidnapped from her Salt Lake City home in the early hours of the morning as her younger sister watched. By 9 a.m. that morning, more than 100 officers from several neighboring jurisdictions, a state helicopter and dogs were deployed to search for Smart.

Meanwhile, a group of volunteers is organized to search the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, Emigration Canyon and Memory Grove. The search is expanded to southeastern Idaho and Wyoming as the day continues.

A Rachael Alert system (later renamed Amber Alert in 2003) is issued for the first time in state history.

June 6, 2002: As the search intensifies, mothers of previous missing children reports reach out to the Smart family to offer their support. That includes Elaine Runyan Simmons, whose daughter, Rachael, was abducted and killed that led to the Rachael Alert system.

Volunteers comb canyons searching for Smart. Smart’s father, Edward, collapses from exhaustion and is hospitalized.

June 7, 2002: Edward Smart’s brothers fill in on national talk shows as national media picks up on the story. A commencement ceremony at Bryant Middle School, where Elizabeth attended, is noted as a solemn affair as her older brother, Charles, two aunts and a grandmother accept a certification of completion for her. A moment of silence was given beforehand.

A fence outside of the school is covered with powder-blue ribbons and hearts.

Meanwhile, Salt Lake Police Chief Rick Dinse says police are frustrated by the lack of significant leads in the case. One new description is released: the shoes the abductor was wearing at the time. Roughly 100 detectives from various agencies are in the midst of going through “hundreds and hundreds of leads” and FBI profilers arrive from Virginia.

Hundreds of volunteers continue searching for Smart and donations to the family begin to flood in. Six single-engine Utah Civil Air Patrol planes also give aerial support in the searches.

June 8, 2002: “America’s Most Wanted” airs an hour-long broadcast dedicated to the search for Smart, highlighting the national media interest in the case. Program host John Walsh encourages viewers to call the TV show’s tip hotline.

June 9, 2002: Smart family members take polygraph tests, which is a routine practice. Meanwhile, churchgoers across the state from various Christian sects pray for Smart and a safe return during Sunday services.


June 14, 2002: Richard Ricci is arrested on a parole violation. He becomes the top suspect in the case. He is later charged on July 11 with burglarizing the Smarts’ home, but suffers a brain hemorrhage on August 27 and dies three days later.

October 29, 2002: Ed Smart makes a plea for national Amber Alert system, which will eventually take place the following year. The Smart family attends the signing of the bill at the White House in 2003.

February 3, 2003: Smart family releases police sketch of a man named Emmanuel, which had done work at the Smarts’ home as a roofer before the kidnapping. Two weeks later, the relatives of Brian David Mitchell step forward to say that Emmanuel is actually Mitchell, who had become a homeless preacher.

March 12, 2003: Elizabeth Smart is found alive in Sandy after nine months. Mitchell and his partner Wanda Barzee are arrested. It is learned that Smart had been taken to a campsite about four miles northeast of the family’s home for a few months before traveling to Southern California and then back to Utah.

Nov. 8, 2010: Elizabeth Smart, now 23, testifies against Mitchell in his trial. Smart testifies that she was continuously raped and threatened by Mitchell throughout the time she was held captive. She said she was forced to drink alcohol, smoke marijuana and view pornography in addition to the repeated raping.

Smart said about two months after the abduction, she had been taken to the Salt Lake City Library to look for maps of California, though she and Barzee had worn veils over their faces. A Salt Lake homicide detective asked Smart to lift up her veil after receiving reports the teen might be Smart, but Mitchell is able to talk the officer away from that.

December 10, 2010: Mitchell is found guilty on charges of kidnapping and taking Smart across state lines for sexual activity. He is later sentenced to life in federal prison with no chance of parole.

March 21, 2017: Elizabeth Smart announces she will executive produce and narrate a TV movie about her experience called “I Am Elizabeth Smart.” A book memoir entitled “My Story” was also released by Smart in 2013.