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Case Renews Interest in Girl's '91 Abduction

March 16, 2003|Dirk Mathison | Times Staff Writer

The recent arrests in the Elizabeth Smart case have energized a stalled investigation into the 1991 abduction of 11-year-old Jaycee Lee Dugard, according to police in the Northern California community where she was taken.

Several facts emerging from the arrests of Brian David Mitchell, 49, and Wanda Barzee, 57, may have a bearing on the Dugard kidnapping in South Lake Tahoe, investigators said.

"There's enough here to trigger my interest," said Lt. Les Lovell, a 23-year veteran of the El Dorado County Sheriff's Department and the person who will head the renewed effort.

Dugard was kidnapped on June 10, 1991, as she walked to her school bus on a quiet cul-de-sac. As Dugard's stepfather, Carl Probyn, watched from the family garage 200 yards away, a late-model gray car -- with a man and a second person, believed to be a woman, inside -- stopped abruptly in front of the girl. A pair of arms swept Jaycee into the sedan.

Probyn later described the second person as being about 5 feet, 5 inches tall, sharp-featured and about 30 years old. He gave chase on a bicycle, but the car sped off. "There was nothing I could do," he recalled.

Despite a massive search, local outrage and being featured on the "America's Most Wanted" television program, Dugard was not found. Investigators have been unable to identify a solid suspect.

After last week's arrest of Mitchell and Barzee in Salt Lake City, Lovell said, he was struck by the physical similarities of Smart and Dugard. He was also intrigued by the proximity of the Dugard kidnapping to U.S. Highway 50, which runs straight from Lake Tahoe to Utah, where Mitchell and Barzee have lived on and off for decades.

Lovell also cited the rarity of child abductions by couples. "To have a woman involved in an abduction was a big issue, let alone a man and a woman acting together," recalled Don McDonald, then sheriff of El Dorado County, who considers the Dugard case to be a dark chapter in his career.

There is also a pronounced similarity between the composite drawing based upon Carl Probyn's description of the second person in the car and the recent police mug shot of Barzee. Although Probyn now says Barzee does not look familiar, the description he gave police resembles her mug shot.

Lovell said he will check reports that around the time Dugard was taken, Barzee was distraught over her 14-year-old daughter's decision to live with her father.

"Everything points to looking at the [Smart] case a little bit harder," he said. "This is significant."

Lovell will meet with his detectives Monday to map a strategy for the renewed investigation. "We'll try to meet with Salt Lake police as soon as the dust settles on the Smart case," he said.

He said his team will first try to eliminate Mitchell and Barzee as suspects by checking their whereabouts in June 1991. "If they don't have alibis, then we'll take it from there," he said.

Although Lovell cautioned that a connection between the cases could be nothing, Jaycee's mother was encouraged by the prospect of a revived investigation into her daughter's abduction. "Oh God," Terry Probyn said from her home in Riverside. "This is the best thing I've heard in a long time. Now there's a chance."

Probyn, who is separated from her husband, retains a measure of hope that her daughter is alive. "I can't bury the child," she said. "I want a body or a 22-year-old daughter. I want an answer."

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