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Possible Suspect in Utah Girl's Kidnap Pursued

Crime: Searchers in Salt Lake City spot someone fitting description of the 14-year-old's abductor.

June 07, 2002|JULIE CART and TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SALT LAKE CITY — After a day of frustrating dead ends, authorities late Thursday night were tracking a possible suspect in the kidnapping of a 14-year-old girl from her bedroom.

Volunteer searchers deep in a canyon in the hills behind the teen's home glimpsed a man who fit the description of the kidnapper around 6 p.m. PDT. The man fled, searchers said, then soon after they heard gunshots.

The volunteers moved back down Emigration Canyon, and deputies formed a human cordon around the area along with search dogs, according to sheriff's spokeswoman Peggy Faulkner.

With darkness deepening, a helicopter fitted with heat-sensing infrared equipment was sent about 9 p.m. PDT.

The searchers, many of them teenagers, remained at the bottom of the popular recreational canyon, keeping vigil. Official vehicles sped past them, carrying backcountry SWAT teams, trained to negotiate difficult terrain in the dark.

"At this point, all we have is a suspicious person," Faulkner said.

It was the first break in the puzzling case. Earlier in the day police said they had received thousands of telephone tips from throughout the country, but none brought them closer to identifying a suspect in the predawn kidnapping of Elizabeth Ann Smart on Wednesday.

No one, including the parents, has been ruled out as a suspect, said Salt Lake City Police Chief Rick Dinse. "The family has been very cooperative in just about every area you could imagine," he added.

More than a thousand volunteers fanned out Thursday in the upscale neighborhood and in the foothills and canyons near the home where the teen was kidnapped at gunpoint. Investigators sorted through possible leads.

"We have a lot more information--a lot of things that have not panned out," Dinse said.

There was no known motive for the kidnapping, he said, nor was it known whether Elizabeth was targeted or randomly snatched from her home.

He said there was no indication that the abductor had previously visited the house, which is for sale for $1.19 million. Interviews of people who toured the house in recent weeks provided no clues, Dinse said.

About 1,300 volunteers, scores of journalists, and city and state officials converged Thursday morning at Shriner's Hospital, just a few blocks from the family home. The hospital lawns became a staging area for the search.

Volunteers included teenagers on inline skates who taped orange fliers on street posts, men in business suits who said they were too distracted to work and housewives in hiking boots who combed through vegetation for evidence.

A young woman from Norway who had been in Salt Lake City since the Winter Olympics said she was caught up in the community's response to the kidnapping.

"I don't have children, but I have sisters," Stine Hellerud said. "Even though I don't live here, I felt like I had to help and maybe make a difference."

Kathie Curtis, a mother of five, joined the search in part because a friend was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and killed 19 years ago in the same area.

"At that time, there was no mechanism for searching. There was nothing we could do. I felt so helpless," Curtis said. "This triggered all my memories of that."

Searchers were instructed to place orange tape around anything that looked suspicious in the hills, as they walked, red-faced, on the hot afternoon.

Jon Dunn said he caught his breath when he saw a white cap, similar to what the kidnapper was said to be wearing. Looking closer, he said, he realized it had been discarded months earlier.

"I did a lot of bushwhacking and didn't find much except two big rattlesnakes," he said.

Elizabeth's parents, Edward and Lois Smart, appearing stressed and exhausted, pleaded for their daughter's safe return.

"We just can't even fathom who it is or why they took her," Edward Smart, a real estate and mortgage broker, told CNN. "She's as near perfect as a daughter can be. She plays the harp. She loved everyone. I don't know of any enemies that she has, or any people who would want to harm her."

Elizabeth was taken about 2 a.m. Wednesday after the abductor apparently entered the three-story house through an unlocked window. The parents and all six of their children were asleep in the home.

The kidnapper entered the bedroom shared by Elizabeth and her 9-year-old sister and ordered the younger girl to remain quiet or Elizabeth would be hurt.

Elizabeth was taken away wearing her red satin pajamas after she was allowed to grab a pair of shoes.

The younger girl ran and told her parents two hours later, and they called police. She described the kidnapper as a soft-spoken white man, 5 feet, 8 inches, with dark hair. She said the kidnapper was wearing a light-colored denim-type jacket and a white baseball cap.

Concerned that police were slow to react, Ed Smart called church friends Wednesday morning for help.

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