A joyful reunion for Elizabeth Smart and her family as questions mount

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Trapped in the hills above her anguished family's home for the first two months of her disappearance, Elizabeth Smart may have been kept from escaping or crying out for help by the growing influence of her captors, police said Thursday.

Frightened at first by her abduction at knifepoint, Elizabeth was forced to depend on her captors during her nine-month disappearance, authorities said. When found by police, the 15-year-old vehemently denied her identity when asked if she was Elizabeth Smart and told officers that the couple she was with were her parents.

"There is clearly a psychological impact that occurred at some point," Police Chief Rick Dinse said. "There is no question that she was psychologically affected."

Salt Lake police briefly outlined Elizabeth's movements over the last nine months, saying she spent the first two held by Brian Mitchell and Wanda Brazee achingly close to home in Dry Creek Canyon, a popular hiking area searched many times last summer.

In October, the three rode a bus to San Diego, and the group returned to the Salt Lake area on Wednesday, the day of their capture in the suburb of Sandy, police said.

Hours after she vanished, while in Dry Creek Canyon, Elizabeth had heard one of her uncles calling out her name but was unable to respond, her family said.

On Thursday, her family and friends focused not on what could have been, but on the astounding event many were calling a miracle: Elizabeth, taken from her bed in the middle of the night, was home again, playing the harp and watching her favorite movie, "The Trouble with Angels."

"Elizabeth is happy, she is well, and we are so happy to have her back in our arms," said her beaming father, Ed Smart.

Sierra Smart said she and several other cousins in the devout and affluent Mormon family spent about three hours with Elizabeth during her first full day at home. "She's like totally talking, totally casual," said Sierra, 22. "She got all new clothes. She gave a fashion show."

Amid the joyful reunion, however, was a growing list of questions: What about Mitchell, the shaggy-haired drifter accused of kidnapping the girl? Why didn't police find him sooner? Above all, what happened to Elizabeth during the long span since she vanished last June?

Ed Smart said he had not pressed his daughter for details of her captivity.

"What is going to come out is going to come out," he said. "I don't have it in me to try and make this harder for her than it is."

Asked how she had changed, he said she had returned home "really a young woman."

Dressed in a wig, veil and sunglasses, Elizabeth told the police officers who picked her up with Mitchell and his wife, Barzee, that her name was "Augustine."

Police questioned her aggressively about her identity, Officer Bill O'Neal said. He said she became agitated when officers asked her to remove her wig and sunglasses, and told them she recently had eye surgery.

"We took her aside ... she kind of just blurted out, 'I know who you think I am. You guys think I'm that Elizabeth Smart girl who ran away,"' O'Neal said.

"Her heart was beating so hard you could see it through her chest," he added.

The group was taken to the Sandy police station in handcuffs; police said Elizabeth never asked about her family.

Elizabeth was discovered in suburban Sandy when two couples called police after spotting Mitchell walking down the street, recognizing him from a sketch of a handyman called "Emmanuel" circulated by the Smart family. He and Barzee remained jailed Thursday on suspicion of aggravated kidnapping.

Mitchell, a 49-year-old panhandler and self-proclaimed prophet for the homeless, was often seen in downtown Salt Lake City and sometimes lived in a tepee in the foothills above the city.

Authorities in California disclosed Thursday that he had been arrested and held for five days in San Diego County last month for vandalizing a church.

A fingerprint check conducted as part of his arrest showed he had given authorities a false identity and that he was Brian Mitchell, but deputies had no reason to keep him in custody, sheriff's spokesman Chris Saunders said. Mitchell pleaded guilty and was released on probation Feb. 18.

"If we had to do it over again, there's really nothing different we could have done because Salt Lake City authorities didn't identify him as a suspect until March 1," Saunders said.

For much of the time she was gone, it now seems clear that Elizabeth was hiding in plain sight, sometimes swathed in robes and veils.

She may also have spent time in an apartment a block from a Salt Lake City police station, and attended a party in the company of her apparent abductors. Merchants and transients in Lakeside, near San Diego, said they first noticed the man and two females last fall and may have seen them again as recently as two weeks ago.

The three largely kept to themselves, and the man known as Emmanuel claimed the girl was his daughter, they said.

"They were always very pleasant," said Richard Mason, a 45-year-old homeless man. "She didn't seem like she was kidnapped. She acted like she was part of the family."

Many who spoke to Mitchell said he passed out religious fliers and attempted to preach to them.

Clay Ruis, 47, said he asked once Mitchell if the women wore veils -- even while eating -- because they were Muslim. "He said, 'No. The women are veiled to protect them from the sins of the world,"' Ruis recalled.

Daniel Trotta, who says he unknowingly sheltered Elizabeth and the drifter couple in a Salt Lake City apartment for several days last fall, claims the girl never expressed fear and had opportunities to escape or at least call police.

Police have refused to confirm Trotta's account. A Smart family spokesman said Elizabeth never had a chance to slip away because she was always with Mitchell and Barzee.

Police were besieged with thousands of tips and calls in the days after Elizabeth's disappearance. They focused much of their investigation on handyman Richard Ricci, 48, hired by the Smarts to help remodel their home.

Authorities said Ricci was a promising lead -- he had an extensive criminal record and ultimately admitted stealing jewelry and other items from the Smarts. But Ricci steadfastly denied any involvement in Elizabeth's disappearance. He was in jail for a parole violation when he died last August after suffering a brain hemorrhage.

As the case grew cold, the Smart family grew frustrated at the lack of progress.

Their 10-year-old daughter, Mary Katherine, had offered a promising lead in mid-October. She told her parents another handyman who had worked at the house may have been the man she saw in the bedroom that night -- Mitchell.

On Thursday, Smart sounded forgiving of police. He had previously accused them of acting slowly in pursuing Mitchell and concentrating too much on Ricci. Now, he said, all that matters is Elizabeth's safe return.

"I believe that some mistakes have been made," he said. "But we learn by our mistakes and we move forward. I believe that they tried to do their best."

Smart acknowledged making one mistake himself -- hiring Mitchell to work on his house in November 2001.

"When I was up there on the roof with him, I never could have guessed," Smart said. "He was so soft-spoken; he was so quiet. I never would have guessed that such an animal would have existed behind such a person."


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