Investigation of Smart Case Raises More Questions

Investigation of Smart Case Raises More Questions

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Police said they made mistakes in their nine-month effort to find Elizabeth Smart, fixing on the wrong suspects and withholding a composite sketch of the man now being held in her abduction.

But at a news conference Thursday, Police Chief Rick Dinse said their two goals had been met: Elizabeth was found safe and her captors were in custody.

Members of the Smart family had criticized the department for dismissing Brian Mitchell, the self-styled preacher who was arrested along with his wife Wednesday.

Dinse acknowledged investigators were slow to release a sketch of Mitchell, who Elizabeth's sister had suggested was the abductor.

"Hindsight is 20-20 vision. If we had to go back over it again, I think every one of (our investigators) would say, `I wish we had gone public with that ... earlier," Dinse said.

In a wide-ranging news conference with FBI agent Chip Burrus, Dinse said Mitchell fancied himself a polygamist, although he refused to say if 15-year-old Elizabeth Smart was sexually assaulted.

The details of Elizabeth's captivity are gradually becoming clear. Dinse said Mitchell acted alone in snatching the girl at knifepoint from her bedroom June 5.

Mitchell, his wife and Elizabeth lived at a remote campsite for two months in the rugged foothills above the Smarts' house, spent time in Salt Lake City and then took a bus to San Diego.

Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, were arrested Wednesday after returning to Utah. Two couples who recognized Mitchell from the television show "America's Most Wanted" told police he was walking along a street in the Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy with a girl who turned out to be Smart.

Burrus said investigators were executing a search warrant in Montana but that the trio did not travel to that state. He refused to elaborate.

Dinse said the girl at first feared for her life and that the psychological impact of her capture kept her from trying to escape later when she could have done so.

Police fielded more than 16,000 tips in their search for Elizabeth Smart, but it was just one -- from Elizabeth's younger sister -- that really mattered in the end.

In October, 9-year-old Mary Katherine Smart recalled that the intruder who took her older sister from their shared bed most likely was Mitchell, a one-time family handyman then known only as Emmanuel.

But police focused on Richard Ricci, who died Aug. 30 of a brain hemorrhage and had insisted he had nothing to do with Elizabeth's disappearance.

Dinse acknowledged that half of his task force worked on Ricci while the other half pursued all other leads in the case. On Thursday, he said Ricci was not involved in the Smart abduction.

Mitchell, who didn't have a lawyer Thursday, was being held at the Salt Lake County jail, where officials said he wasn't responding to interview requests.

Officials said charges may be filed as early as Thursday.

At his own news conference earlier Thursday, Elizabeth's father, Ed Smart, gave his youngest daughter credit for cracking the case -- "there's no question that Mary Katherine is our hero" -- while pointedly withholding credit from police.

"This was a public effort," he said.

Asked if police blew it, he said, "I believe that some mistakes have been made, but I know that they were trying."

"We learn by our mistakes," he said. "We don't have professional kidnap policemen, so we do our best."

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson said he planned to propose an independent review of the way the case was handled "just to resolve any questions that may be lingering."

"I believe in openness and accessibility and it might be a good idea to bring some people in and take an independent look," Anderson told The Associated Press.

Salt Lake police spent thousands of hours on the case, the biggest for the department since the Unabomber investigation in the 1990s. But the Smart family, which held daily media briefings on the search for Elizabeth, recently became frustrated with the slow pace of the investigation.

A day before Elizabeth was found, one of her uncles accused police of dragging their feet in pursuing Mitchell. And Ed Smart said Thursday he could not understand how some investigators could so easily dismiss the tip from Mary Katherine.

When identification comes from an eyewitness, "it's not just one of 250" tips, he said. "That person goes to the top of the list."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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