SALT LAKE CITY - Elizabeth Smart, the 15-year-old who was abducted from her bedroom nine months ago, was found alive yesterday afternoon walking with a drifter who had once worked briefly for her family.
"She is well and healthy," said Chief Rick Dinse of the Salt Lake City police, after the teen-ager was whisked to safety and the drifter and a female companion were taken into custody.
"Miracles do exist," said Elizabeth's uncle, Tom Smart, before describing a joyful family reunion.
Police had been tipped off by callers who spotted the three on a street, all wearing wigs and the woman and girl also wearing long blue, pillowcase-like veils.
Police identified the drifter as Brian David Mitchell, but others said he went by the name Emmanuel and was a self-described prophet to the homeless. Relatives said he lived in a teepee in the mountains outside Salt Lake City.
Mitchell and the second suspect, identified only as Wanda Barzee, were taken to the Sandy police station and later were booked into the Salt Lake County Jail for investigation of aggravated kidnapping. Mitchell was also being held on an outstanding warrant for retail theft.
A spokesman for the Smart family, Chris Thomas, said Elizabeth told her parents she had been moved from encampment to encampment around the country, unable to escape because two people were with her at all times.
The arrests, in the Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy, were prompted by tips from citizens, including one who recognized Emmanuel from his images in newspapers and on television.
Elizabeth's mother, Lois Smart, had met Emmanuel in November 2001 in downtown Salt Lake City, where he was panhandling. She said she gave him $5 and hired him to help her husband work on the roof of their home in the affluent Federal Heights neighborhood. After about five hours, he just left.
In the early morning darkness of June 5, Elizabeth, then 14, was taken from the bedroom she shared with her sister, Mary Katherine, 9.
Mary Katherine said a man with a gun had taken Elizabeth, threatening to hurt her if she didn't keep quiet. The younger girl pretended to be asleep.
Police said he might have entered the house by cutting a window screen near the back door.
Police, citizens and a children's recovery group - the Laura Recovery Center Foundation, named after a 12-year-old girl kidnapped and murdered five years ago in Texas - began a widespread search. It caused considerable tension between Elizabeth's family and the police.
The Smarts thought investigators were moving too slowly. Police, on the other hand, said the Smarts compromised the investigation by organizing their own search and disturbing evidence.
The Smarts also had criticized the Salt Lake City Police Department publicly for concentrating on other suspects, including a handyman, Richard Albert Ricci, who also had worked at the Smart home.
Ricci pleaded innocent to unrelated burglary and theft charges, then died in August of a brain hemorrhage.
In October, Elizabeth's parents said Mary Katherine had come to them to say Emmanuel seemed to resemble the kidnapper. Four months later, the Smart family held a news conference and released a sketch of the bearded man they knew as Emmanuel.
After that news conference, Mitchell's sister called authorities to identify him. His stepson, Mark Thompson, gave investigators photographs of him clean-shaven and said his stepfather was "capable" of kidnapping a child.
Shortly before 1 p.m. yesterday, the Smarts' long search began to draw to an end.
Rudy and Nancy Montoya of West Jordan, another suburb, spotted three people walking along State Street in Sandy, a bedroom community of modest homes 20 miles south of Salt Lake City, and called police.
Moments later, Anita Dickerson, a mother of seven, also spotted Mitchell, with a woman and a girl, as she and her husband drove past.
Ordering her husband to pull over, Dickerson got out of the car and followed them. She looked Mitchell in the face, retreated toward the car and told her husband, "That's him."
Her husband grabbed his cell phone, she said, and called police.
A witness, Todd McCall, said Elizabeth crouched down as officers arrived. McCall said both women wore clothing that covered them from wrist to ankles. He said Mitchell wore flowers in his hair.
Another witness, John Ferguson, told KSL television that the women had "longer clothing on, blue almost like a pillowcase ... over the face almost like a veil.
"They were all just kind of calmly talking to the police."
The Sandy police said their officers questioned the trio, became convinced that the girl with blond hair was Elizabeth - and took Mitchell and Barzee into custody. They said they turned them over to the Salt Lake City police, along with Elizabeth.
Two hundred and eighty days after her kidnapping, she was reunited with her parents at the Salt Lake City police station.
Thomas, the family spokesman, said Elizabeth asked about her five brothers and sisters. She expressed surprise that brother Andrew had gotten straight A's.
Missy Larsen, a family friend, said she had brought brother William, 4, to the police station to greet his sister: "As William and she saw each other, they just hugged. He would hug her and look at her, and hug her and look at her."
Elizabeth's father, Ed, met with reporters at the family home, flanked by blue and yellow balloons. "I'm so happy and so grateful," he said, and then wept. "I don't know what she's gone through. I'm sure she's gone through hell.
"She's a part of our family - she's loved," Smart said. He added that she had grown a lot.
"All the children out there deserve to come home to their parents the way that Elizabeth has come back to us," Smart said. "I just hope and pray that Congress will quickly pass the Ambert Alert so those children will have a better chance."
Bob Walcutt, executive director of the Laura Recovery Center, told reporters: "It's incredible to find her after all this time. ... For families, the message is: Never give up. Never."
David Kelly and Julie Cart write for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.