About Utah: 'Invisible' FBI agent unveiled Brian David Mitchell

Published: Sunday, Dec. 12 2010 12:30 a.m. MST

FBI agent Mick Fennerty, talking with Elizabeth Smart and her mother, Lois, was key to solving the kidnapping case.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

In the end, he was miles from the news cameras, the microphones and the klieg lights, working yet another case in yet another jurisdiction, out of sight, unavailable for comment — appropriately enough.

FBI agent Mick Fennerty was never visible in the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case — not during the nine months Elizabeth was missing, not during her rescue and definitely not during the trial that concluded Friday with a guilty verdict against Brian David Mitchell, the man who took her.

Even though he was always at its epicenter.

Who is Mick Fennerty? you ask.

He's the guy Brad Pitt plays in the movie.

Fennerty was omnipresent in the Smart investigation — well, until right there at the end when they kicked him off for solving it.

It's a story of a lawman trusting his instincts and doing his job so well and for all the right reasons, with no focus on public acclaim or, for that matter, peer acceptance, that eight years later his critical involvement remains more footnote than front and center knowledge.

He was there on Day One, June 5, 2002, when police tape went up around the home on Kristianna Circle and the manhunt began for the 14-year-old girl taken from her bed in the middle of the night. A native of Astoria, Ore., Fennerty's first posting as an FBI special agent was in Salt Lake City. Since graduating from the FBI Academy at Quantico in early 1997, he'd been on the job 5½ years at the time of the kidnapping.

He was the first federal officer to arrive at the scene that first morning, at the behest of local law enforcement officials in charge. From the start he baby-sat the case. As local coordinator of the FBI Crimes Against Children unit, he immediately called in a team of child abduction experts from Washington, D.C., to produce a profile of the perp.

Troubled by a lack of tangible evidence, Fennerty never did buy into the prevailing notion that the perp was Richard Ricci, the onetime Smart handyman and ex-con who quickly became the police's most prominent person of interest. His intuition that Ricci wasn't their man was heightened when a botched break-in occurred later in the summer at the home of Elizabeth's cousin, Jessica Wright.

The break-in attempt had two eerie earmarks to the successful break-in seven weeks earlier at Elizabeth's house — a chair propped up underneath the window and a cut screen — that led Fennerty to canvas the neighborhood with agents despite the fact the sheriff's office dismissed the episode as a prank.

More germane was the fact that by then Ricci was back in prison.

A month later, when Ricci died, Fennerty refused to bury the case with him. He endured eye-rolls from most everyone else on the task force as he continually pursued other leads, worked with the extended Smart family when relations with police became strained, and kept the case alive.

In February of 2003, when police were tepidly pursuing a lead about a religious vagabond named Brian David Mitchell, Fennerty personally scanned police photographs of Mitchell, bypassed bureaucratic channels that might have slowed or outright thwarted his efforts, and sent the photos off directly to FBI headquarters in Washington so they could be aired that weekend on John Walsh's crime-stopper TV show, "America's Most Wanted."

For that he was taken off the case. From late February on, the FBI had him cool his heels as he awaited a previously scheduled reassignment to Washington, D.C.

On March 12, 2003, Fennerty was on an airplane bound for D.C. when Elizabeth was rescued from the clutches of Brian David Mitchell in Sandy — in response to 911 calls from two couples who recognized the kidnapper from "America's Most Wanted."

The FBI agent had dozens of cell phone messages when he landed at Reagan Airport. After retrieving the messages — "They found Elizabeth Smart and she's alive" — his knees buckled and he fell to the floor in the airport concourse.

About that same time, at the celebratory press conference in Salt Lake City, Ed Smart, Elizabeth's father, stood up and, after shouting "It's real!" added, without elaboration, "Mick Fennerty, wherever you are, thank you!"

Then, as now, almost no one knew who Ed was talking about.

In Washington, Fennerty worked for a year as a supervisor in the FBI Crimes Against Children unit. In 2004, he joined Elizabeth Smart at the White House when President George W. Bush signed the national Amber Alert into law.

From 2004 through 2007, he spent three years working as a supervising FBI special agent at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va. After that, he returned to his home state of Oregon, stationed in Eugene, where he remains a Crimes Against Children coordinator to this day.

As soon as Mitchell was convicted Friday, I called Mick Fennerty at his office in Eugene for a reaction.

Alas, I didn't get one. He politely declined comment, citing FBI protocol that all observations on the case, and the outcome, were to come from James McTighe, the Salt Lake City special agent in charge.

In the end, as invisible as in the beginning.

Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com.

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