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Searchers Were Within Earshot of Missing Girl

Elizabeth Smart, for a time held just miles from her home, could hear her uncle's voice.

March 14, 2003|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

SALT LAKE CITY — For two months after being abducted from her bedroom last summer, Elizabeth Smart was held captive in the foothills just a few miles behind her family's million-dollar home, a place of densely knotted brush where she heard the voices of searchers yelling out her name during those first frantic days.

Family members said that after she was abducted in June, the teen was "brainwashed" and forced to live the life of a religious vagabond.

The couple accused of taking her, Brian David Mitchell, an itinerant street preacher and panhandler, and his wife, Wanda Barzee, took the girl to San Diego, where the trio lived in campsites and Mitchell was arrested and jailed for breaking into a schoolroom.

But they apparently spent at least some of the last nine months in the Salt Lake area, among residents and investigators desperately searching for Elizabeth, now 15.

On separate occasions, the three, dressed in distinctive biblical robes, with Elizabeth and Barzee wearing veils, were photographed or filmed attending a beer party nine blocks from the Smart family home and picnicking at a nearby city park. At one time last fall, they may have stayed in a basement room just around the corner from the Salt Lake City Police headquarters.

After leaving the Salt Lake area in October, the trio spent most of the winter traveling, returning here by bus Wednesday. Police confronted them that day and the three identified themselves as a family, the Marshalls, from Florida. Elizabeth, wearing a wig, veil and sunglasses, reportedly told officers her name was Augustine Marshall, and that she was a child of God.

One of the arresting officers said Elizabeth seemed tense: "We took her aside ... she kind of just blurted out, 'I know who you think I am. You guys think I'm that Elizabeth Smart girl who ran away," said Sandy Police Officer Troy Rasmussen.

"I could see her heart beating under her shirt" before she revealed her true name, Rasmussen said.

Police Chief Rick Dinse said it was clear that Elizabeth did not find it easy to escape from her captors, and that she was likely "psychologically affected" by her ordeal and by the couple's manipulations.

Dinse described Mitchell as a "self-proclaimed polygamist" but would not say whether Elizabeth had been abducted to become his wife, saying only that the matter is being investigated. The chief also would not say whether Elizabeth had been sexually assaulted. "That is something else we are not going talk about, what physically happened to her," he said.

Dinse and other law enforcement officials acknowledged that they did not move as efficiently as they could have in solving the case, perhaps spending too much time on wrong suspects such as Richard Albert Ricci, an itinerant laborer with a long criminal history. (Ricci died in February of a brain hemorrhage while in custody.)

Family members told police about Mitchell in October, but after the police refused to release three composite sketches of Mitchell, the Smart family in February went to the television show, "America's Most Wanted," for help.

Dinse said investigators were concerned the sketches would bring in false leads and bog down the case.

A spokesman for Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson said Thursday he is considering an investigation on the police's handling of the case.

Tensions between police and the Smart family seemed swept aside by the happy ending, with Smart family members saying that everyone makes mistakes -- police included.

Prosecutors, busily going through stacks of documents and tracing the trio's movements over the last nine months, say they expect indictments as early as today. The couple, among other things, would face charges of aggravated kidnapping.

"It's real. It's real," Edward Smart, the teen's father, told supporters and media gathered outside their church Thursday afternoon. The crowd rose and applauded, but minutes later were silenced by Smart's emotional account of his daughter's ordeal, saying that she had gone through "hell," that she had been "brainwashed" and that Mitchell was "an animal" who had no idea what nightmare he had brought upon the Smart family and the city of Salt Lake City.

Smart said Mitchell had stalked his daughter, "hiding in the bushes" behind the family home "and watching her" in the weeks before her June 5 abduction. Mitchell had done yard and roofing work for the family seven months earlier and was familiar with the premises.

Smith said that in June, Mitchell had crawled in through a window screen that he had cut open, and used a knife, not a gun as originally reported, to force Elizabeth out of the house. The two walked out through a back door and disappeared into the night. Search dogs at the time followed Smart's trail until it ended at a cul-de-sac abutting the foothills of the 1.2-million-acre Wasatch National Forest.

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