Elizabeth Smart, the precocious Salt Lake City teenager snatched in the night from her bedroom nine months ago by an unknown assailant, was found alive and well Wednesday in the company of a drifter who had once worked as a handyman at her family's home.
The startling conclusion to a crime that had captivated the country because of its chilling circumstances came Wednesday afternoon in a Salt Lake City suburb about 15 miles from where Elizabeth had disappeared.
Police said they stopped the drifter, who had been wanted for questioning in the case, shortly after two people reported spotting him near a fast-food restaurant. Elizabeth, 15, was found with him, unharmed and wearing a dark wig. She was rescued without incident and swiftly reunited with her family, whose hope of finding her alive had been dwindling because the huge, unrelenting search for her since last summer had been futile.
"Elizabeth is here and well and appears to be physically unharmed," said Rick Dinse, the Salt Lake City police chief. Describing her as "very alert," he said she had rejoined her family in a tearful reunion.
"It was emotional, exciting and thrilling for everybody," he said. "Her parents were in tears. I saw her in tears. As you can imagine, she was very excited. It was the kind of reunion you would expect."
A family spokesman, Chris Thomas, who attended the reunion, said Elizabeth was "very sharp and very articulate."
"It's like she was at school," Thomas said, "She had questions about how her brothers and sisters were doing. Like Andrew got straight As. That surprised her."
Police said they have two suspects in custody. They identified the drifter as Brian Mitchell. A woman with him when Elizabeth was found, whom police identified as Wanda Barzee, has been arrested. Neither has been charged. Many details of the break in the case were vague Wednesday night, but police said they believe the teenager had been held against her will.
They also said they are investigating whether she had spent part of the past eight months living on the road with her alleged kidnappers and traveling as far as San Diego and South Florida.
Mitchell had emerged as a possible suspect in recent weeks, and sketches of him had been released around Salt Lake City, but police said that they did not know his whereabouts and that there was some confusion about his name. He also has been identified as Emmanuel Mitchell.
Investigators said that when they approached Mitchell and the two women Wednesday afternoon, they initially thought they were transients because they were disheveled and wearing baggy clothing and had flowers in their hair.
But they soon realized they had Elizabeth, a blue-eyed, blond-haired girl who played the harp, rode horses and acted in school plays.
"A lot of people in Salt Lake City had thought she was gone for good," said Jason Olsen, a spokesman for the school Elizabeth attended. "This is a big relief."
Police said Elizabeth identified herself to officers in the suburb of Sandy, Utah, as soon as they approached Mitchell and Barzee.
Elizabeth disappeared June 5. Her 9-year-old sister, Mary Katherine, who shared a room with her, told investigators Elizabeth was abducted from her bed about 1 a.m. by a soft-spoken man who had climbed through a window of the Smarts' two-story home and threatened the two girls with a gun. The entire Smart family had been sleeping at the time.
The younger girl provided police with a rough description of the kidnapper, but the widespread search for him quickly went cold.
Ed Smart, a real estate broker, also began a desperate national campaign to find his daughter. Hundreds of volunteers spent weeks combing Salt Lake City and its surrounding foothills. Photos of Elizabeth blanketed the region.
The investigation had been focused on Richard Ricci, a handyman who had worked for Smart. He was arrested days after the disappearance on a parole violation but denied abducting Elizabeth and was not charged. He died of a brain hemorrhage in August while in custody, dashing hopes that Elizabeth would be found.
Ricci's widow, Angela, called the news of Elizabeth's return a "joyous day for us and the Smarts."
In recent weeks, with no encouraging signs emerging from the investigation, the Smart family's grief, and frustration with police, had apparently deepened.
Ed Smart told the Salt Lake City Tribune this week the family wished police had publicized Mitchell's name and description much earlier. His brother, Tom Smart, was quoted as saying, "They should have caught this guy by now."
"I believe these investigators worked very hard to locate Mr. Mitchell," he said. "We didn't give a lot of information out. Just because we didn't talk to you (the media) about it doesn't mean we didn't know what we were doing."
Crowds were gathering at the street corner where Elizabeth was found Wednesday with balloons and flowers.
"Welcome home Elizabeth. Thank you God" appeared on the sign in front of the Pathways home and garden store at the corner of 10200 S. State St..
Two other businesses have placed poster-board signs at the intersection saying "Welcome home Elizabeth. We love you."
On Wednesday, the Smart family renewed its call for a national "Amber Alert" system to swiftly notify the public of missing children through the media.
Hundreds of children and teenagers disappear nationwide each year, and those missing for extended times usually end up victims of foul play and are rarely found alive.
Marc Klaas, who has become a national advocate for missing children since his daughter Polly was abducted and killed in Northern California a decade ago, called the triumphant end of the Smart case extraordinary.
"Its almost unbelievable," he said. "I think this puts hope in the hearts of every parent of a missing child in America."
_ Information from the Associated Press, the New York Times and Salt Lake Tribune was used in this report.