EL CAJON, Calif. – Authorities in California said Friday they spoke repeatedly with the man suspected of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart in recent months, but the veiled young woman who accompanied him never indicated she was in trouble.
The girl was Elizabeth Smart, the Utah teenager who was abducted last June and reunited with her family this week.
The couple suspected of taking her, Brian Mitchell and Wanda Barzee, spent several months with Elizabeth in a rural town east of San Diego, authorities said.
The three were conspicuous in their off-white robes and veils but gave authorities no reason to think there was anything seriously amiss, San Diego County Sheriff's Capt. Glenn Revell said.
"Most of us would agree, being dressed unusually or behaving somewhat unusually doesn't necessarily equate to criminal behavior," he said. "And we all treasure the freedom to live as each of us wishes to live."
The attitude of independence is especially strong in Lakeside, an unincorporated town 25 miles east of San Diego that is a haven for dozens of homeless people.
Sheriff's deputies said they first spoke with Mitchell, a 49-year-old drifter who went by the name Emmanuel, in late October after residents complained he was panhandling and preaching on street corners.
A deputy warned Mitchell panhandling was illegal and tried to make eye contact with Barzee and Elizabeth, who stood quietly behind him, Revell said.
The deputy was trying to see "if there was any indication that they wanted to talk with him privately and there was no such indication," he said.
Mitchell gave his name as David Shirlson, an apparent reference to his father, who is named Shirl. The officer checked the name and found no outstanding warrants.
Deputies approached the trio on at least two other occasions to ask if they wanted shelter, food or jobs. They declined each time.
Mitchell was arrested after breaking into a church on Feb. 12, was jailed for six days and ended up pleading guilty to vandalism. Mitchell, who identified himself then as Michael Jensen, said he, his wife and the girl, who he called his daughter, had no firm address.
"We're staying with some friends in the Lord Jesus Christ," he said in the videotaped proceeding. "I'm a minister for the Lord."
Mitchell apologized and said the break-in came after a night of drinking.
"The whole night was just a nightmare," he told the judge. "This week in jail has been like Jonah getting swallowed by the whale. It's turned me right around and I know I need to do what the Lord wants me to do with my life."
Revell said it is unclear where Barzee and Elizabeth were during Mitchell's time behind bars. Federal investigators have said the trio stayed at campsites often used by the homeless.