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No Links Found to O.C. Man in Utah Kidnap

Salt Lake City police say they were swayed by the sex offender's alibi and by evidence from his car. Probe continues into the girl's June abduction.

November 13, 2002|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Utah police Tuesday said they no longer consider an Orange County man a suspect in the highly publicized June kidnapping of Salt Lake City girl Elizabeth Smart.

Salt Lake City police began looking at James Witbaard in August after learning that the convicted sex offender had visited Utah last summer and had family in Provo, less than an hour's drive from the crime scene.

Cooperating with Orange County authorities, Utah investigators analyzed evidence collected from Witbaard's car and found no link to Smart, said Salt Lake City Police Capt. Cory Lyman, commander of a task force investigating the girl's disappearance.

Authorities also were swayed by Witbaard's alibi, Lyman said. Orange County Deputy Public Defender Doug Lobato said he and Witbaard visited the Sheriff's Department together the morning of the girl's disappearance.

"His alibi checks out, and the physical evidence doesn't tie him [to the crime]," Lyman said.

The announcement comes six weeks after Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas suspended a veteran sex crimes prosecutor who negotiated a plea bargain with Witbaard in July. It was not known Tuesday whether the Utah decision on Witbaard would affect the prosecutor's discipline.

Smart, 14, was abducted from her home at gunpoint June 5. She has not been found.

O.C. probation officials arrested Witbaard on Sept. 12 for allegedly violating his probation by leaving the state without authorization. In a search of his car, officers found a kitchen knife, an ax and photographs of women and preteen girls in bathing suits and underwear, according to a probation report.

Among the evidence reviewed by Utah officials were hairs and other fibers from Witbaard's car. None of the evidence could be linked to Smart, officials said.

Witbaard learned in a meeting with his attorney Tuesday that he had been cleared. He had received death threats at Orange County Jail after news reports about his possible connection to the abduction.

"He's overjoyed that he's no longer a suspect," Lobato said.

Witbaard still awaits prosecution for an alleged probation violation and for allegedly failing to register with local police as a sex offender.

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