By: Kelly Chapman
SALT LAKE CITY (KSTU) — Twenty years ago this week, Utah and the entire nation breathed a sigh of relief when Elizabeth Smart was found in a Sandy neighborhood nine months after being abducted from her Salt Lake City home. Smart is now 35 years old, a wife, a mother of three, and a survivor.
“I have a wonderful life and there’s every reason to believe that like there is nothing quite as resilient I think in this whole world as the human spirit,” said Smart this week.
The world first heard her name on June 5, 2002, after her abduction in the middle of the night.
“I woke up to a dark figure standing above me telling me they had a knife at my neck to get up and go with them,” Smart recalled.
What ensued was a media frenzy and a desperate family trying to find the then 14-year-old. During her months of captivity, Elizabeth was living a nightmare while the state and nation searched and prayed for her safe return
Now, two decades after her rescue, the Smart family spokesperson, Chris Thomas, has come out with a new book, “Unexpected,” revealing never-before-heard stories of the search, family dynamics and lessons learned during a dramatic mission to find a little girl everyone seemed to be captivated by.
Thomas still keeps a bin full of crucial items to the Smart search. As family spokesperson, a role he moved into because Elizabeth’s cousin started an internship at his public relations firm just 2 weeks prior to the abduction, Thomas stepped up to help the grieving family in need, and soon became the face of media updates and a critical part of the family’s strategy to find Elizabeth.
Recently, Thomas shared that immediately after Elizabeth was kidnapped, the Smarts created a circle of individuals to lead the charge aside from what the police were doing.
RELATED: Elizabeth Smart speaks 20 years after her kidnapping
“The board consisted of a group of men and women who were well educated and had strong opinions,” said Thomas. “Elizabeth’s parents, Ed and Lois, navigating uncharted territory.”
“The Smarts did a really remarkable job at dividing and conquering. Lois really focused on the children and Ed continued to work but also focus on the investigation.”
Several months into the empty search, it was Lois who was resigned to perhaps never seeing her daughter again.
“She had to let go,” Thomas recalled, “and really, at one point, she went up into the canyon and buried her badge with Elizabeth’s picture on it and said goodbye.”
Thomas admits there were some challenging times when they wondered if Elizabeth was ever going to be found.
“I had this moment where [I thought] is this ever going to end? Are they ever going to find her?” Thomas admits.
But Chris said it was Ed Smart who never lost hope and that his faith never diminished. During a trip to New York City where Chris and Ed were advocating for missing children awareness, a father’s intuition took over.
“After midnight there was a knock at my door,” Chris shared. “[Ed] came in and said, ‘I need to talk, I can’t sleep.’ He said, ‘Call me crazy, but Elizabeth is alive and she’s out there. We have to find her. Are we doing everything we can to find her?
“I went from my hope was fading to sky high, like what do we do? How do we get there?”
Meanwhile, back in Utah, a revelation shared by Mary Katherine, Elizabeth’s younger sister with whom she shared a bedroom, about a man she says took Smart in the dark hours of the night was a break in the case that Thomas said was actually frustrating within the Smart family.
“Law enforcement sabotaged that,” Thomas claims. “They told the media that was something I had concocted to get the story back into the news.”
But it was anything but made up.
On March 12, 2003, Elizabeth was spotted by Good Samaritans on State Street in Sandy, along with her captors recognized from police sketches. Even today, she remembers her first contact with police.
“The police officer is like, no we need you to say who you are,” Elizabeth said. “You know, there’s this girl, she’s been missing now for a very long time. Her family has never stopped searching for her, they want her to come home more than anything in this world.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh! Could he mean me? Could he actually mean me? It really wasn’t until that moment that I was able to be like, ‘I am Elizabeth Smart!'”
KSTU anchors Bob Evans and Hope Woodside announce the news that Elizabeth Smart has been found on March 12, 2003
Thomas immediately received a phone call from Ed Smart telling him that he had been summoned to the Sandy City Police Department and not to talk to anyone, not to stop, and get there as quickly as he could.
While Ed Smart was on his way, Thomas reached out to a longtime high school friend who happened to be a detective for the Sandy police.
“I started calling him incessantly until he finally answered and said, ‘Yes, we brought in an indigent teenager that we believe is Elizabeth Smart,’ and I took a deep breath and was trying to withhold the tears saying, ‘Where did you find the body?, and he said, ‘What body? She’s in the room next to me, she’s alive!”
The family spokesperson was the first to receive the miraculous news and was able to pass it on to a frantic father in the police parking lot.
“[Ed Smart] was afraid to go into the station, and one of the most remarkable parts of the experience was telling Ed that his daughter was alive and waiting for him, and the phone just went quiet after that,” Thomas said.
“I didn’t know what was happening,” Elizabeth recalled. “So my dad appeared in the room; like it just happened so fast he didn’t hesitate, he just ran over and grabbed ahold of me and was hugging me.”
For Thomas, one of the most poignant moments was when the entire family was reunited at the police station. A joyous time where time itself seemed to pick back up where it left off.
“I was in the elevator when we went down to get into an unmarked police car to take her to Primary Children’s Hospital, and in the elevator Elizabeth and her brother Andrew get in this sparring match; I mean, it was incredible where Andrew says, ‘Hey, guess what, I got straight As,’ and Elizabeth said, ‘Did you cheat or something?’ and she elbows him, and I mean it’s like the sibling rivalry never even left off,” Thomas shared.
That same night back at the smart home, Chris was finally introduced by Ed to Elizabeth, a meeting nine months in the making to last a lifetime formed by a bond nobody should ever endure.
“He said, ‘Elizabeth, you don’t know who this is, do you?’ and she’s like, no, and he said, ‘This is Chris, he is like a brother to me and he should be to you, too,'” Thomas remembers two decades later.
When asked what he hopes people have learned from the horror that gripped the state 20 years ago, Thomas had a simple answer.
“No matter what the outcome is I think everyone deserves to be found. Everyone deserves to have their story told, everyone deserves their name to be remembered, everyone deserves an ending.”
This story was originally published March 12 by KSTU in Salt Lake City, an E.W. Scripps Company.