Elizabeth Smart's disappearance still baffles family, police

Friday, November 29, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- For a while, Ed and Lois Smart jumped each time the phone rang.

The sound instantly filled them with both hope and dread -- hope that police were calling to say their 14-year-old kidnapped daughter Elizabeth had been found safe, dread that they were about to learn she was dead.

Now, nearly six months after a gunman stole Elizabeth at gunpoint from her bed in the middle of the night, the Smarts say the calls no longer have the same effect on them.

They accept such calls as part of their strange new life, where their vanished daughter is everywhere, yet nowhere. For while investigators have found no trace of Elizabeth, tipsters and psychics continue to report sightings and visions of the youngster.

Everyday struggle

"Every day is a struggle," Lois Smart said in an interview earlier this month. "It would be very easy for me to stay in bed, never leave."

But the Smarts have five other children, ages 4 to 16, who need their parents.

"They take their cues directly from us," Ms. Smart said. "As long as we are able to function, so are they."

The frenetic pace of the summer -- when the Smarts held twice-daily news briefings, helped coordinate huge volunteer searches, heard from or called investigators several times daily -- has slowed, and the search has been scaled back considerably.

Ed Smart, a real estate broker, said he will continue to seek media attention, always to keep Elizabeth alive in the public mind, hoping for the one tip that will break the case. He is willing, in exchange, to put up with people following him around in public, pointing at him, approaching him to strike up conversations.

The top potential suspect in the kidnapping, Richard Albert Ricci, a handyman who once worked in the Smart household, died Aug. 30 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage while in prison on a parole violation.

He said he had nothing to do with the kidnapping, and whatever he may have known he took with him to the grave.

Investigators have said they believe he was involved but may not have acted alone.

"We have no evidence that Elizabeth's not alive out there," said Salt Lake City police Capt. Cory Lyman. "There's obviously some information still missing. It could come in tonight, or it could be a long time."

Elizabeth was seized early on the morning of June 5 in front of her 9-year-old sister, Mary Katherine, by a gunman who may have gotten into the house by cutting a window screen near the back door. As the younger sister pretended to be asleep, the gunman threatened to hurt Elizabeth if she didn't keep quiet.

In the weeks that followed, Elizabeth's parents often got calls from the police, but it was never the information they wanted to hear. Often, police were calling to alert them to discoveries that might be linked to their daughter; they wanted the Smarts to know before the story hit the news.

Police have followed up more than 16,000 leads from the public in addition to those they have come up with themselves.

"There have been false sightings all over, in several states," said Elizabeth's uncle Tom Smart. "There are clues, but there are no traces. It's crazier than any fiction."

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