YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Nation

Police Criticized for Few Results on Missing Girl

Investigation: Utah officials release more details on the suspect in Elizabeth A. Smart's abduction but give no indication they are closer to an arrest.


SALT LAKE CITY — With no apparent progress in solving the kidnapping of 14-year-old Elizabeth A. Smart, police here are now finding themselves on the defensive.

Even as Police Chief Rick Dinse was telling reporters Wednesday that he remained confident that a suspect would be found, a local radio talk show host was baiting listeners to call in and criticize the two-week investigation as "shabby."

The criticism wasn't lost on the police.

"We're taking some hits, and all we can do is shake our heads," said Sgt. Fred Louis, a spokesman for the Salt Lake City Police Department. "We're a proud department, a professional department."

But other than offering a more detailed description of the suspect, elicited from Elizabeth's 9-year-old sister, authorities have offered no other indication they are on track to arrest a suspect.

Police say that Mary Katherine Smart feigned sleep and witnessed her sister's abduction from their shared bedroom while other family members were asleep.

"We have pretty thoroughly allowed her to recall the information," Dinse said Wednesday. "She hasn't wavered a bit. Mary Katherine has been a great witness."

A joint police-FBI task force of more than 100 investigators is culling through more than 8,000 tips. Of the 1,300 most promising ones, about 400 have yet to be pursued, Dinse said.

An "A" list of suspects--persons convicted of sex offenses--has been exhausted, Louis said, and investigators are refocusing their efforts on persons who live or work in the upscale, hilltop neighborhood where the Smart family lives. Investigators are also looking to those who know the family for possible leads.

"Some of our leads have taken us two or three steps" toward a suspect, Louis said. "We're looking at some people closer and closer, dissecting them. We have eliminated some suspects, and we're starting to narrow our search."

Wednesday's press briefing was contentious, with reporters expressing annoyance that previously released information about the case has proven inaccurate. On Tuesday, for instance, police updated their description of the suspect, who initially was described as a white man, about 5-foot-8, with dark hair, wearing a light jacket and a light baseball hat.

Based on four interviews with Mary Katherine, police now say they are looking for a white man in his 30s, with dark hair on his arms and back of his hands, wearing tan pants, a light polo shirt, and a flat, tan golfing hat.

Consistently, he has been described as soft-spoken and nice but carrying a handgun.

Authorities said the earlier description was quickly gathered from information the 9-year-old gave her parents. It was released within hours of the abduction, without benefit of police first interviewing the girl.

Initially, it also was reported that the abductor threatened the younger girl if she didn't remain quiet, leading her to not tell her parents for about two hours that her older sister had been kidnapped. Police now say Mary Katherine pretended to be asleep and heard the abductor demand that Elizabeth remain quiet.

As the man and Elizabeth walked down a hallway, Mary Katherine sneaked another look--and fearful he was still in the house, remained quiet for two hours, police now say.

Detectives are not disclosing what other evidence or information they've obtained in the investigation, but Dinse hinted that investigators have more to go on than just the physical description.

"We aren't telling you everything we know about the investigation, and we aren't going to until we're further along," Dinse said.

Louis said there is no composite sketch of the abductor because the 9-year-old was unable to sufficiently describe his facial features. He also said police have declined offers from more than 100 psychics to help in the investigation.

Dinse said some of the tips have been useless--including one from Michigan in which a person claimed to have spotted the suspect. For all the frustration among authorities and the community over the apparent lack of progress, other law enforcement experts say they are not surprised the investigation seems to be moving slowly.

"This case may never be cleared, through no fault of the police," said D.P. Van Blaricom, a former chief of police for Bellevue, Wash., who now testifies at trials dealing with police malpractice. "I've had people disappear who we never found."

As they have throughout the last two weeks, Elizabeth's parents Wednesday remained upbeat, even through tears.

"Every time I've spoken to you," Ed Smart told reporters, "I feel in my heart she is alive and waiting to be found. My wife and I feel very strongly she is alive. We pray all the time, and we feel the prayers of others."

Said Lois Smart, addressing her daughter directly: "Elizabeth, I think of you every minute of the day."

Los Angeles Times Articles