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Mother's 'nightmare' becomes 'a wonderful dream' after son found safe

Published: Wednesday, July 1 2015 4:07 p.m. MDT

Marie Smith rests her head on her son's shoulder after being reunited with him at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 1, 2014. Steven Smith, a 14-year-old boy who has autism, went missing Wednesday night. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Marie Smith rests her head on her son's shoulder after being reunited with him at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 1, 2014. Steven Smith, a 14-year-old boy who has autism, went missing Wednesday night. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Marie Smith cried out when the call from Salt Lake police came about 10 a.m. Thursday.

"They found him," she said, breaking into tears. "We're done with this nightmare. It's now a dream — a wonderful dream."

Sixteen hours earlier, 14-year-old Steven Smith had wandered away from his family at This Is the Place Heritage Park. The boy, who has a mild form of autism, was found in the backyard of a large home in the Federal Heights neighborhood where he had spent the night.

It was a sleepless night for the Clearfield family, but Marie Smith said she was confident her son would be found and that he would be OK.

"I had a calming feeling knowing he was somewhere safe," she said. "Even better, it was right."

Steven Smith, 14, who has autism, is reunited with his parents, David and Marie Smith, at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 1, 2014. Steven went missing Wednesday night. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Steven Smith, 14, who has autism, is reunited with his parents, David and Marie Smith, at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 1, 2014. Steven went missing Wednesday night. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Shortly before 11 a.m., Steven sat in the front seat of a police car, wearing a fleece jacket with a Salt Lake City Police Department logo and a department sticker underneath.

The procession of two police cars and a pair of police motorcycles made its way through the winding roads to This Is the Place Heritage Park, where Steven's family was waiting.

"We love you," his parents said repeatedly.

Steven replied by taking a swig from a water bottle handed to him by his mother. When asked what he was thinking about, Steven said, "Playing my XBox 360." He said he had slept "in the grass" and that he had been cold.

After a few minutes of questions, Steven retreated back to the police car where an officer showed him how to turn on the emergency lights.

Salt Lake City Police officers look to see where Steven Smith, a 14-year-old boy who has autism, slept Wednesday night, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 1, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Salt Lake City Police officers look to see where Steven Smith, a 14-year-old boy who has autism, slept Wednesday night, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 1, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Steven's father, David Smith, said the boy did not want to take a nap, but he wanted to know what the family was going to do that day.

The hero who found the boy was a blind Yorkshire terrier named Sammy.

"The little kid was out there laying against the gate in the weeds," said Sammy's owner, Lynn Dixon. "Sammy can't see, but she can hear. So she heard him."

Steven was found in the backyard of Dixon's home, 650 N. Saddle Hill (1100 East). The teen had been missing since about 5:50 p.m. Wednesday when he apparently walked away while his family was unloading their vehicle.

Police later confirmed Steven was spotted about 7 p.m. near a Salt Lake fire station at 850 South and 1300 East, and was also spotted walking and snapping his fingers about 8 p.m. near 1300 East and 100 North. At the time, those who saw the boy didn't realize he was missing.

The matted grass along the fence is where police think Steven Smith, a 14-year-old boy who has autism, slept Wednesday night, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 1, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) The matted grass along the fence is where police think Steven Smith, a 14-year-old boy who has autism, slept Wednesday night, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 1, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Police believe Steven traveled through the city and not the foothills where crews searched Wednesday evening and night. He eventually wandered into Dixon's backyard — roughly 5 miles away from the park where his family had last seen him — and he laid down in a patch of weeds and spent the night.

The next morning, when Dixon let Sammy outside, the young dog immediately sensed that someone was there.

"All of a sudden I heard this barking, this serious barking, like there was an intruder or something," Dixon said. "We tried to talk to the boy, but he wouldn't respond to us. … So I called 911, and they said they had a missing person report. And they gave me a description, and it matched the boy I was looking at."

Dispatchers told Dixon to call to Steven by name. When he did, the boy responded.

Media watch as Steven Smith, 14, who has autism, is reunited with his parents, David and Marie Smith, at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 1, 2014. Steven went missing Wednesday night. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Media watch as Steven Smith, 14, who has autism, is reunited with his parents, David and Marie Smith, at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 1, 2014. Steven went missing Wednesday night. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Dixon said the boy looked cold.

"I can't believe he was out there the whole night," he said.

Later, after Steven was reunited with his family, they all went back to Dixon's home to thank him. Steven showed his family where he slept and told them he was cold. Members of his family commented they couldn't believe he had walked that far.

They then said thank you to Dixon and Sammy.

"She's a hero. She found him," Dixon said of his Yorkie. "She just heard him, started barking like it was an intruder of some sorts — a deer or something like that. … So we went out there, and there the little guy was."

Dixon said Sammy survived a cougar attack a few years ago that left her blind.

Raquel Smith hugs her brother Steven Smith at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 1, 2014. Steven, a 14-year-old boy who has autism, went missing Wednesday night. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Raquel Smith hugs her brother Steven Smith at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 1, 2014. Steven, a 14-year-old boy who has autism, went missing Wednesday night. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

"She doesn't know she's blind. Her sight transferred to her hearing and her smell, and she just goes on like nothing ever happened," he said.

The search for Steven had expanded into Davis and Utah counties Thursday morning because his parents said he liked to hike. A Utah Highway Patrol helicopter was flying over the mountains in Bountiful Thursday morning.

Nearly 200 people joined the search for Steven between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, according to Shane Siwik, who coordinated the volunteer effort. Siwik has been active in search and rescue operations after a neighborhood search helped locate his 6-year-old daughter more than a decade ago.

He was joined by many volunteers such as Trisha Nelson, of Herriman, who drove to the park when she heard the news. Her 12-year-old son also has autism.

"It really is miraculous," Nelson said after Steven had been found.

Compliance enforcement officers bike to the Bonneville Shoreline Trail to help search for Steven Smith, a boy with autism who went missing Wednesday night, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 1, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Compliance enforcement officers bike to the Bonneville Shoreline Trail to help search for Steven Smith, a boy with autism who went missing Wednesday night, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 1, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Contributing: Richard Piatt

Email: wevans@deseretnews.com; preavy@deseretnews.com, Twitter: whitevs7

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