Utah Marks Smart Abduction Anniversary

In a single harrowing year, Ed Smart (search) lost his daughter, found her against all odds, helped push a child protection act through Congress and worked relentlessly to raise public awareness of missing children.

Elizabeth Smart's (search) kidnapping changed more than the course of the young teen's life: Her family's focus and the nation's response to abducted children also have been altered.

"Life will never be the same," Ed Smart said in a recent interview. "I just hope that people realize that every day, these kidnappings go on."

Thursday marks the one-year anniversary of the then-14-year-old girl's kidnapping from her bed at knifepoint, an event that set off a national search and a global media frenzy.

Elizabeth is slowly reclaiming her life — spending a lot of time with her family and friends, going to church and shopping, thinking about where she wants to go to high school in the fall.

"She's doing great. We're getting back to normal," her father said.

Elizabeth, now 15, stood last month with her father and mother in the White House Rose Garden when President Bush signed into law a bill that encourages states to set up Amber Alert (search) systems, which disseminate information about suspected kidnappings to the news media, law enforcement agencies and businesses.

The bill-signing was a triumph for the Smarts and other families of missing children, including Donna Norris, mother of its namesake, 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, abducted and slain in 1996 in Arlington, Texas.

Elizabeth's disappearance was the first use of Utah's alert system, even though it is not credited with saving her. The alert started about 3 1/2 hours after police were notified of the girl's abduction, but Elizabeth was nowhere to be found.

On March 12, two Utah couples within minutes of each other called police to say they'd spotted a man wanted for questioning in the case — Brian David Mitchell, a drifter and self-styled prophet; with Mitchell was his wife and Elizabeth. Media coverage of the case, more than the Amber Alert, was credited as a factor in the recovery.

Still, Elizabeth's kidnapping, the February 2002 kidnap-murder in San Diego of 7-year-old Danielle Van Dam, and 7-year-old Alexis Patterson's May 2002 disappearance in Milwaukee all have raised public consciousness of child abductions, said Ben Ermini, an official with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Ermini credits Amber Alerts with saving the lives of Jacqueline Marris, 17, and Tamara Brooks, 16. They were abducted at gunpoint in August and rescued 12 hours later 100 miles away after Kern County, Calif., sheriff's deputies closed in on the suspect's stolen car and shot him to death.

It was the first time California used the alert now deployed in 43 states.

"That was a case that certainly showed how well the Amber Alert works," Ermini said. "The attention the media gave these cases has really helped parents become more aware that they have to sit down with their kids and give them safety tips."

The National Incident Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children report, released in October by Temple University, found that 797,500 children were missing in 1999, the most recent year such statistics have been compiled.

Of those, 58,200 were nonfamily abductions. Just 115 involved what the study called "stereotypical" kidnappings, that is, abductions by strangers or slight acquaintances where the child is transported 50 miles or more, kept overnight, held for ransom or killed.

The report says 81 percent of nonfamily abduction victims were 12 or older, and most were girls. Half of the 115 stereotypical kidnap victims were sexually assaulted; 40 percent were killed; and four weren't recovered.

While June 5 will always be the anniversary of the Elizabeth Smart abduction, another date is more important for the Smart family. "The landmark date for us, of course, is March 12," said Elizabeth's uncle Tom Smart.

"The day she came home ... I have heard so many stories from (people) around the world about where they were when they heard it," he said. "It was unbelievable."