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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Looking back now, she was so close, so many times.
In the foothills behind her home, listening to searchers shouting her name. At a party where a concerned reveler asked if she needed help. On the floor of a basement apartment, a block away from the police station.
In the end, there would be one more missed opportunity -- and then a miracle.
Nine months after Elizabeth Smart disappeared from her bedroom, hope had almost died. When children abducted by strangers are gone for a long time, they usually don't come home.
Back in June, Elizabeth's disappearance was the latest in a disturbing string. There'd been two teenagers from the same apartment complex in Oregon City, Ore., in January and March. And little Danielle van Dam outside of San Diego in February.
Ed and Lois Smart and their six children lived in a seven-bedroom estate, worth $1.1 million. Crime is rare in their affluent neighborhood northeast of downtown Salt Lake City.
Then, police say, a man cut the screen on a kitchen window and crept into Elizabeth's bedroom. At knifepoint on June 5, he took Elizabeth, as her 9-year-old sister Mary Katherine cowered in the bed. Two hours later, Mary Katherine woke her parents.
Smart, then 14, slender and dirty blonde, was an angel of a child -- a good student, the star of her basketball team, a joy with the harp.
With a sketchy description, police launched a massive search. Hundreds of volunteers fanned out in the foothills behind the Smart home.
As it turns out, authorities say, Brian David Mitchell, 49, and his wife, Wanda Barzee, 57, a pair of drifters, were hiding Elizabeth in Dry Creek Canyon, a popular hiking area just three miles from her home. Searchers crisscrossed the area repeatedly. At one point, she even heard rescuers, including her uncle, calling her name.
Mitchell, a self-proclaimed prophet, was well-known around town. He'd dress in a white robe and clasp a long staff while panhandling and preaching to passers-by near Temple Square, the holy center of the devout city. He had a disconcerting way of speaking, as if he was God.
Homeless outreach workers tried repeatedly to get him help for his mental problems, but he refused.
He had a tumultuous past. After two previous marriages and four children, he married Barzee in the mid-1980s. His new stepchildren found his behavior erratic: kind and soft-spoken; controlling and violent.
In 1998, the pair told relatives they'd gotten visions from God to sell their belongings and preach to the homeless. Mitchell built a 10-foot-long covered wagon to push around town and stocked it with blankets and canned goods.
In November 2001, Lois Smart, Elizabeth's mother, bumped into Mitchell, who now called himself Immanuel, Hebrew for "God with us," near Crossroads Mall downtown. She gave him $5 and invited him to come by her home if he wanted work. The Smarts, active in The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints, often hired homeless men to fix up things.
When he came the next day, the roof was leaking, so Elizabeth's father put him to work hammering shingles. After five hours of work, Smart paid him $50 and invited him to return. The next day, he didn't show up.
Mitchell and Barzee stayed with Mitchell's mother for a short while, but she kicked them out in May because he was abusive.
He was spending his time writing a dense, 27-page religious manifesto he called "The Book of Immanuel David Isaiah." In it, he declared he was Immanuel, a messenger from God, in the line of Joseph Smith, the prophet who founded the Mormon church in 1830.
Among other teachings, he said having multiple wives was God's true intention for his followers. And he had a special prophecy for Barzee: "Thou wilt take into thy heart and home seven sisters, and thou wilt recognize them through the spirit as thy dearest and choicest friends from all eternity."
The LDS church renounced polygamy just before the turn of the century, but has struggled with members of splinter groups who continue to keep "sister-wives." Mitchell and his wife were excommunicated several years ago for "activity promoting bizarre teachings and lifestyle" far afield of the church.
Soon after Mitchell completed his tract, Elizabeth vanished from her bedroom.
In the days after her disappearance, investigators tracked thousands of leads. Suspicion even fell on the Smarts themselves.
A few weeks later, however, detectives revealed they were questioning a convict who'd worked as a handyman at the Smart home more than a year before the kidnapping. Richard Albert Ricci was arrested on an unrelated parole violation, and eventually pleaded guilty to unrelated burglary and theft charges. But he maintained his innocence in the Smart case up until his sudden death of a brain hemorrhage in jail in August.
During the focus on Ricci, police now believe Mitchell was trying to abduct another Smart relative -- Elizabeth's 18-year-old cousin, Jessica Wright. On July 24, a window screen at her home was cut, but the would-be intruder fled when people in the house stirred.
Many thought the mystery of Elizabeth's whereabouts perished with Ricci. In reality, she remained achingly close to her house.
In August, three months after she vanished, the girl and the two drifters descended from the hills.
Mitchell was back as a fixture on the streets of downtown Salt Lake City but, this time, a third person had joined the preacher and his wife. Like them, she was cloaked in white.
In late August or early September, Mitchell and the two women strode into a party at China Blue, a popular local hangout for young people where about 150 people were drinking and dancing.
Mitchell swigged beers and spouted his teachings. The two women, their features obscured by cloths pinned across their faces, said little and stuck closely to him.
Pamela Ian noticed them immediately. She'd read about oppressed women in Afghanistan wearing burkhas. She went up to the women and asked if they were OK. The girl now known to be Elizabeth looked away, she said, and Barzee mumbled something inaudible.
After about an hour-and-a-half, a group of partygoers grew annoyed by Mitchell's ramblings. Ian, 30, decided the three had to go.
She escorted Mitchell to the door and asked the women a second time: "Do you need help?"
On Sept. 27, Mitchell was caught shoplifting beer and other supplies from a downtown grocery store. He gave the misspelled name "Immenuel," but skipped out on his arraignment two weeks later.
By October, the weather had turned chilly. Daniel Trotta, 24, was working as a cashier at the health-food store Wild Oats Natural Marketplace when he met Mitchell and his two companions.
Trotta invited the group to stay in his $400-a-month, one-room basement apartment, a block from the Salt Lake City Police Department. They slept on the floor for a week.
He played them punk music. They sang hymns for him. The women didn't talk much. At one point, he said, he asked Elizabeth for her name. She was about to respond, when Mitchell said, "Just call her my love and joy."
The trio then went west to San Diego.
But unknown to them, investigators had just gotten a major clue: While reading one day, Mary Katherine had an epiphany -- the man who'd taken her sister might have been "Emmanuel," the man she'd seen helping her dad months before.
The Smarts went to the police and hired a freelance sketch artist to draw the suspect's picture. But the cops were skeptical. They dutifully searched among the homeless population, but Ricci remained their prime suspect.
As the family stewed over what they viewed as a promising lead being frittered away, Elizabeth and the pair of drifters were becoming a familiar sight in Lakeside, 25 miles outside of San Diego. They often ate lunch next to Lindo Lake, at the center of town. At night, they sometimes slept under a highway bridge.
In early February, frustrated by investigators' unwillingness to consider Emmanuel, the Smarts held a press conference to publicize his sketch. One of Mitchell's sisters called police and provided her brother's real name.
On Feb. 12, Mitchell was arrested a second time, for breaking into a Lakeside church. He gave the alias Michael Jensen and told authorities his wife and daughter were staying nearby.
For six days, he was behind bars. But, not knowing he was a suspect in the Smart case, authorities let him go. During her time alone with Barzee, it appears Elizabeth did not try to escape.
Just before Mitchell was released, "America's Most Wanted" aired a segment on Emmanuel. Derrick Thompson, Mitchell's stepson, happened to be watching and instantly recognized his erratic stepfather. He and his brother, Mark, searched for Mitchell downtown, but turned up nothing.
A few weeks later, police said they likely encountered the trio Tuesday when they questioned three "transient" people outside a Burger King in North Las Vegas, Nev. The restaurant is near Interstate 15, the most direct route between San Diego and Salt Lake City, some 400 miles to the north.
According to police, the three didn't provide identification, but gave their names as Peter Marshal, Julitte Marshal and Augustine Marshal. Those names -- with slight variations in spelling -- are the same aliases Mitchell, Barzee and Elizabeth would use in a later confrontation with police.
On Wednesday, about 9:30 a.m., Ryan Johnson took a break from his job at Champion Safe Co. in Springville, about 40 miles from Salt Lake City. He was grabbing a bite to eat at McDonald's when he saw a strange-looking couple and a young girl. The man had a long, scraggily beard and wore a brown cap with a flower wrapped around it. The woman wore a white shirt and had flowers in her hair as well. Both were dirty.
But the girl really caught his eye. She wore a green shirt and had a green cloth looped over her head like a bandanna. It was the wig that got him -- gray and obvious.
Johnson slid into the booth behind the group. When he'd finished eating, they'd gotten up as well. Outside, the man's eyes met his. Noticing the bags the three were carrying, Johnson offered them a ride. After they piled in, he asked where they'd come from.
"San Diego," the man said. "I got a revelation from God" to come to Salt Lake City to preach.
He introduced his wife and the girl he called his daughter. Johnson eyed the girl in the rear-view mirror. He thought she looked vaguely familiar. It occurred to him that she might be the missing teenager, but he wasn't sure.
He dropped them off at a bus station.
Back at work, his suspicions nagged him. He flipped open a phone book for the Provo Police Department. The number he dialed just rang and rang. Unknown to him until later, he'd actually called the Provo Police Department credit union.
Just before 1 p.m., Alvin and Anita Dickerson stopped in at a Kinko's copy store in Sandy, just south of Salt Lake City. The couple was heading north on State Street when they spotted the bedraggled threesome walking.
Alvin Dickerson suggested it might be the homeless man being sought in connection with the Smart case. Pull into the parking lot, Anita Dickerson told her husband. She got out and stared at the man. She felt for her cell phone in her purse.
Just before she dialed, Rudy and Nancy Montoya, who had just walked out of Kinko's, were doing the same thing.
Police arrived moments later. They were pretty sure they had Emmanuel. But was this Elizabeth?
At first, she denied it.
Officer Troy Rasmussen, a barrel-chested patrol veteran, told her he thought she was the missing teenager. Still, she insisted she wasn't. But he could see her heart pounding through her T-shirt.
The officers held up a picture next to her face and asked her again if she was Elizabeth.
"Thou sayest," answered the girl, just as Jesus said in the Bible when asked by Pontius Pilate if he was the king of the Jews. She burst into tears.
Nine months later, Elizabeth Smart had been found.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)