That a beautiful teenage girl could be kidnapped from her comfortable home in an outrage that generated hour after hour of television coverage and galleys of newsprint and yet be spirited around the nation for nine months without being noticed is a measure of the great disconnect that is now the community of America.
Within the lifetimes of a lot of living citizens this could not have happened. I refer to the Town America which has now passed, a town in which everybody knew everybody else, or at least knew somebody who did, knew more perhaps than was comfortable for some, but in that skein of knowledge produced something that went with the town, security.
No widow then could lie dead for weeks in an apartment, unnoticed. No child, veiled or not, could be escorted through the city unremarked. The idea that humanity was nobody’s business was an alien thought, only naturalized over recent years. In hard times, work-seeking men would gather in hotel lobbies looking for rides from travelers in the hope of finding “something” in the next town. They would get rides, too, aided by hotel clerks who would button-hole salesmen checking out for the road.
The saga of Elizabeth Smart speaks of how far we have come on the way to a cloister in which each looks at his keyboard. She was taken June 5, 2002, from that plush Salt Lake City home, from a family that had hours of video of a Hollywood-pretty girl, at the beach, at the harp she played, at family outings. And it was all played and played in America’s living rooms, for weeks. It is all playing again, now that Miss Smart, a year older at 15, is back with her family. Police cheered. A Salt Lake FBI agent going by the name of “Chip” actually launched a press conference cheerleader style. The police chief, Rick Dinse, spoke glowingly and frequently evoked the Smart family’s stoic faith.
Chief Dinse, like another chief, Charles Moose of Montgomery County, is trailed by an unpleasant memory. His white box truck, the vehicle that led Moose and company astray in the search for the snipers of last fall, is the ghost of a handyman, Richard Ricci. You remember him; the handyman who did work for the Smarts, stole a few items from them (Ricci had a lengthy criminal record), became the suspect in the Elizabeth abduction, and then, last August, died of an aneurysm. Through it all, the only witness to the abduction, Elizabeth’s younger sister, Mary Katherine, insisted Ricci was not the man she saw that night, the one who threatened harm if she told what was happening.
Last October, Mary Katherine came to her father with another recollection. The man that night resembled another fellow who had done work in the house also, an Emmanuel. Ed Smart went to the police. Emmanuel tuned out to be a drifter named Brian Mitchell, known around town as a street preacher.
But where was America now? Did you see or hear much or anything about any Emmanuel? In December there was a brief piece on the abduction on cable. America’s Most Wanted’s John Walsh tried to keep the Smart case alive. Ah, but hadn’t Ricci’s death just about closed the case? The Smarts didn’t think so. Irked that police would not give up on Ricci, they held another press conference February 3rd of this year and offered $10,000 to anyone who could clear Richard Ricci! The sketch of Emmanuel brought forth his sister and some ex-stepsons with photographs of Brian Mitchell in his various shaved and unshaved guises.
Wednesday’s edition of the Salt Lake Tribune carried Tom and Ed Smart’s interview in which the brothers criticized police for not pursuing Mitchell more vigorously, the first public family break with authorities still chasing the ghost of Richard Ricci. In fairness, police were trying to find some trace of Mitchell, thought he might be in Florida.
Turns out he was a few miles away, on State Street in Sandy, the suburban town adjacent Salt Lake City. A couple spotted a strange looking man walking along with two women who seemed concealed in mufti. A woman got out of her car and got a closer look and decided it was the fellow the Smarts were looking for, called police on a cell phone, and the story began to end. The smaller woman was Elizabeth.
Over time we shall hear all of it, or some of it. The best information is that the abductor took Elizabeth that night up into the hills above the Smarts’ home. Whether Mitchell’s alleged woman companion, Wanda, was with them then is not known. There were other reported travels, to San Diego, California, perhaps to the East Coast. And there are photos of the trio taken at functions in Salt Lake City over recent months. But, nobody called.
Nobody, that is, until the nosy couple on State Street, who stopped the car, got out and looked, defying all the modern tenets of isolate living: judge not, know not, look not. It was bad luck that Elizabeth Smart was gone so long. She had faded from the screen.
It was her parents’ dogged determination that saved her. And the recurring memory of her little sister.
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