Everything changed after Elizabeth Smart. —Paul Murphy, coordinator, Utah Amber Alert system
Interactive Timeline: Elizabeth Smart Kidnapping — A look back
Find more stories about the Elizabeth Smart case at the end of this article.
SALT LAKE CITY — Ten years ago Tuesday was the start of what would become one of the most infamous crimes in Utah history.
During the early morning hours of June 5, 2002, a man cut the kitchen window screen of the Federal Heights home of Ed and Lois Smart, entered the house, went to an upstairs bedroom and abducted Elizabeth Smart from her bed as her terrified sister, 8-year-old Mary Katherine, feigned sleep.
Fast forward to today, and Elizabeth Smart is safe, married and living a happy life while her two abductors are in prison. While the criminal proceedings are over, the legacy of her case can still be seen today in the way law enforcement agencies in Utah — and across the nation — investigate missing and abducted children.
"Everything changed after Elizabeth Smart," said Paul Murphy, coordinator of the state's Amber Alert system.
"The department has changed dramatically (over the past 10 years)," added Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank.
Utah is now considered a leader in Amber Alert coordination and in how missing children cases are investigated. Since Elizabeth Smart's kidnapping, agencies across the country and even around the world have created more elaborate alerts and plans to help locate missing children.
"To see how far we've come, it makes me so happy," Elizabeth's father, Ed Smart, said Monday. "It makes me feel really good to think so many people have come together to make such a huge difference."
In the weeks that followed the kidnapping, both police and the public participated in massive search efforts for Elizabeth. It wasn't until nine months later when she and her kidnappers, Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee, were spotted walking down State Street in Sandy. All were dressed in robes and wigs.
Much of the nation was shocked to learn that Elizabeth Smart was still alive.
After lengthy court proceedings in both federal and state courts, Mitchell was eventually convicted in December of 2010 and was sentenced to life in prison. He is currently serving his time at the Tucson Federal Prison.
Barzee struck plea deals in both her state and federal cases. She is currently serving her sentence in a federal prison in Texas. She could get out as early as 2016 because of good behavior. When she is released, she will be transferred to the Utah State Prison to serve up to 15 years there.
Smart, 24, after serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was married in February to Matthew Gilmour in the LDS temple in Hawaii. The couple still lives in Utah. In addition to becoming a correspondent for ABC News, she also stays busy with numerous speaking engagements across the country as part of her Elizabeth Smart Foundation.
"Too many families experience the nightmare of having a child go missing. I know what it is like to be that child. I know what it is like to think that one false move may lead to not only your own death, but the death of family members as well," she wrote on her foundation's website. "Nobody can ever blame a child for their actions when they are being threatened, bullied, forced or coerced into doing something unthinkable. That is why the Elizabeth Smart Foundation was created, because what if we could prevent future crimes against children? Wouldn’t it be worth it to do everything to bring home that one child?"
Smart declined a request from the Deseret News for an interview.
Smart's case marked the first time the Amber Alert System was ever used in Utah. Back then, it was known as the Rachael Alert, named after 3-year-old Rachael Runyan who was abducted and murdered in 1982. No one has ever been arrested in connection with that case.
Utah became the ninth state in the nation to acquire an Amber Alert. There have been a total of 34 Amber Alerts issued in Utah, including Smart's.
"The nationwide publicity about that (Smart) case prompted many states to create their own Amber Alert plan and inspired Congress to start creating a nationwide Amber Alert plan," the Utah Attorney General Office's Amber Alert website states.
"After Elizabeth Smart, I received calls from states across the country," Murphy said.
Immediately after Smart's abduction, Murphy said Utah was contacted by California about setting up an Amber Alert system. Almost as soon as the system was set up, two teenage girls were rescued because the alert was displayed on electronic freeway signs.
Just last week, Murphy said Utah was contacted by officials in Ireland about setting up an Amber Alert there.
The second ever Amber Alert in Utah was also issued by Salt Lake police. Seven months after Smart was abducted, a 3-year-old boy was taken. A motorist saw an electronic freeway sign and spotted the vehicle police were seeking. Less than five hours after the alert was issued, the boy was safely recovered.
Of those 34 Utah Amber Alerts beginning with Smart — resulting from the abductions of 39 children — 17 children have been found directly because of the system. Three children remain missing and three others were later found dead.
Nationally, Murphy said the number of children who have been rescued because of the Amber Alert has now reached about 600.
Ten years ago, an Amber Alert was issued in Utah after a fax was sent to a local TV station, Murphy said. Today, Amber Alerts appear as texts, emails, Facebook postings, freeway signs, tweets, radio and TV broadcasts and more.
"We have tried to notify people every possible way when an Amber Alert takes place," he said.
The Amber Alert has also expanded to other forms of notification, including the Endangered Missing Child Alert, which is for cases that don't quite rise to the level of an Amber Alert.
"Law enforcement is much better trained today," Murphy said.
Burbank, who had just been appointed as executive officer to Chief Rick Dinse when Smart was abducted, agreed.
"We've gotten better at dealing with missing children in the 10 years (since Smart). A lot of it has to do with Ed Smart and the work he has done in this area," Burbank said. "One of the things that jumps out in my mind is the approach to the investigation that we had regarding suspects."
For example, consider the case of 5-year-old Destiny Norton who was kidnapped and murdered in Salt Lake City in 2006. Burbank said his detectives were in the process of obtaining a confession from the man who would eventually be convicted of the crime, when a tip about another possible suspect surfaced. Even though they believed they had their man, Burbank told his detectives to pursue it to make sure all bases were covered.
"I wasn't going to miss an opportunity," he said.
Today for any major crime — not just child abductions — Burbank said more resources are dispatched than were 10 years ago.
"We call out a lot more resources immediately and really focus on those first 72 hours. In fact, sometimes it's overkill. But I think we have been very effective, especially in major crimes we investigate," he said.
Salt Lake police have had several high-profile missing women and children cases since Smart, including Destiny Norton and Lori Hacking. Assistant Police Chief Scott Atkinson said all of them, including Smart, have helped make detectives better prepared about how to handle them.
"I think we learn from every one of them, absolutely," he said.
Another change made because of the Smart case is that Salt Lake police now "secure" a potential crime scene more quickly.
One week after Smart was found, Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson appointed an independent commission to look at how police handled the investigation, and specifically whether that case and four other homicides that remained unsolved at the time had been mishandled. Because of the prolonged legal proceedings involving Mitchell and Barzee, the commission's investigation was stalled.
But Burbank said from his years in SWAT, he is accustomed to an environment of reviewing every case, whether they were successful or not, to determine whether anything can be improved.
"Anything we do, you hope we learn from it and improve upon the investigation and look critically at why we did this and if we can do it better in the future," he said. "Every single incident that we handled (in SWAT), we did a debrief where we close the doors and beat each other up significantly."
Another change that officials have noticed in the 10 years since Smart was abducted is the attitude of the public toward missing children. Murphy said most of the public no longer assumes that a missing child ran away or will simply return home on their own. And if a child did run away, now the public is more likely to stop and ask what the situation was at that child's home to cause him or her to do that.
Yet another benefit that has resulted from Smart's case and other high-profile incidents of missing children is improved communications.
"Our relationship with our federal partners is stronger now than it has ever been in our department's history," Burbank said.
To Ed Smart, it's one of the big changes from 10 years ago that he's happy to see has developed nationwide.
"Sometimes there are issues, whether it's my territory or your territory, and that type of mentality is changing across the nation. The fact is, we're working together now," he said.
Today, child abductors have been known to drop a kidnapped child off on the side of the road once they discover that an Amber Alert has been issued because they know they're going to be caught, Smart said.
Ed Smart, like his daughter, also keeps a busy schedule today traveling around the nation to talk about ways to improve the responses when children go missing. There are so many who need help, he said, that his family has felt obligated to lend a hand.
"As a family, we have just felt so indebted to so many people that have helped. We just never will be able to repay all that we have been given. … It's a great blessing in our life," he said.
In fact, talking about his daughter's abduction today isn't as hard as it once was.
"It's gotten to the point, whenever we talk about it, it's really about what we can do to help other people," Ed Smart said.
One important thing Smart has learned is the importance of encouraging parents of missing children to keep their child's story in the news.
"The bottom line to me is … the awareness campaign is in essence what brought Elizabeth home," he said. "We tried to keep Elizabeth's face out there. Initially, the Amber Alert was the catalyst to do that."
One of the biggest breaks in the Smart case came when a sketch drawing of a handyman known only as Emmanuel was shown on TV's "America's Most Wanted" and "Larry King Live" by "Wanted" host John Walsh. The sketch came from Mary Katherine, who had finally placed the voice of the person who took her sister with a man who had been hired to do work in the Smart home several months earlier.
The Smarts commissioned and released the sketch artist drawing on their own. The day after it was released, members of Mitchell's family contacted them saying they believed the man, only known then as Emmanuel, was Mitchell. Less than a month later, Mitchell and Barzee were arrested and Smart was rescued.5 comments on this story
While Ed Smart admits there were difficult times within his family when his daughter was missing, "In the end, God was in control, and I believe it was because of all of those prayers and the support of so many people that brought Elizabeth home and helped her move forward."
By continuing to make people aware of the potential dangers around them, Smart hopes his efforts will protect others from going through what his family did.
"It was the last thing in the world I thought could have happened," he said of the kidnapping, "and it was a wake up call to me."
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