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Hunt for Utah Girl Unites Strangers

Crime: Despite the well-organized efforts of searchers, three days of looking for 14-year-old Elizabeth Ann Smart have yielded nothing.

June 08, 2002|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SALT LAKE CITY — Few know the child they seek, but many knew other abducted children. That bond has drawn disparate groups of experienced searchers Friday to the scene of yet another tragedy, the mysterious disappearance of 14-year-old Elizabeth Ann Smart from her bedroom.

These experts use their peculiar skill--honed at countless searches similar to this one--to establish the grim logistics of recovering lost children.

"I think in our species we have an instinct to huddle around children and help them out of trouble," said Bob Smither, who founded the Laura Recovery Center Foundation after his 12-year-old daughter was kidnapped and murdered four years ago in Texas. "In some ways, these situations bring out the best in human nature."

The Laura Foundation has taken the lead in organizing the 1,300 citizens every day who leave work or skip school to join the search, which has so far yielded nothing after three intensive days.

As the searchers set out again Friday to comb the foothills and canyons near the girl's home, authorities conceded that their investigation had stalled.

"I don't believe we've gotten any leads that we could call really solid, any at all," said police Capt. Scott Atkinson. He described the 100 investigators as being frustrated, having gained no traction since an intruder abducted the girl at gunpoint Wednesday. "The longer we go without finding her, it becomes problematic."

The Laura Foundation, which produced a handbook on conducting missing person searches, has organized this massive manhunt by dividing the area around the Smarts' home into grids, using global positioning devices, and plugging every scrap of information into a computer.

All volunteers register and are sent out to specified areas, told what to look for and how to tag evidence, and are debriefed after each shift.

The group has been called to about 500 searches, including the hunt for 7-year-old Danielle van Dam of San Diego, who was found killed. But Smither said that, even with the compassion that usually drives people to join searches for children, what's happening here is unusual.

"It's just amazing," he said Friday, surveying the grounds of a hospital and the teeming tent city that sprung up as a staging area. Every imaginable commodity had been donated to aid the search: batteries, caps, sunscreen, water, fanny packs, cargo trucks and enough food to feed the gathering throng many times over.

"We make a phone call and suddenly 20,000 fliers are printed and delivered," said Connie Flukey, marveling at the growing wall of boxes nearby, built with unidentified but constantly arriving donated goods.

Flukey drove from Grand Junction, Colo., with three neighbors. They are part of the Abby and Jennifer Recovery Foundation, which was established this spring after the disappearance of a mother and daughter in November.

The Laura Foundation organized the Grand Junction search, and Flukey's group is its legacy.

"It just keeps going," said the mother of five, adjusting a walkie-talkie and clutching a cell phone while directing volunteers. "They helped us, we will help the next community when something like this happens. Then they will form a group and help. I won't stop until every state has a recovery center."

Strongest Lead Fizzled

For the most part, what few leads authorities had did little more than raise hopes momentarily. The case's strongest lead was the sighting of a man fitting the kidnapper's description in a heavily wooded canyon late Thursday. An all-night search led by a back-country SWAT team, tracking dogs and an infrared-equipped helicopter found nothing.

The sheriff's department said the volunteer searchers who made the report may have seen a transient who is known to live in Emigration Canyon. The search was abandoned Friday afternoon.

One tip police pursued came from the Smart family's milkman, who said he saw a suspicious vehicle in the neighborhood. The milkman gave police a license plate number, but it didn't match any known plate.

The round-the-clock investigation and search have frazzled the nerves of many in this tight-knit community. Edward Smart, the girl's father, was hospitalized Friday for exhaustion.

Later, the Smart family put out a call for pilots, planes and spotters, and said they were launching an air search today, a day after Elizabeth Smart was to have graduated from eighth grade.

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