SALT LAKE CITY – Elizabeth Smart, the 15-year-old girl whose disappearance nine months ago shocked and baffled the nation, was found alive Wednesday in a Salt Lake City suburb with a drifter, police said.
The man was taken into custody and the teenager was whisked away for a long-awaited reunion with her jubilant family.
"Miracles do exist," said Tom Smart, the girl's uncle.
Relatives said Elizabeth was in good condition and was talking with police about her ordeal. She was expected to go home late Wednesday.
"All of the children out there deserve to come back to their parents the way Elizabeth has come back to us," father Ed Smart said as he burst into sobs during a celebration at his home.
He added: "I don't know what she's gone through and I'm sure she's been through hell. I just know that she's a part of our family, she's loved and we love her so much."
The police offered no motive or details of where the teenager had been since she vanished last June. Authorities in San Diego were trying to confirm reports the drifter was spotted there in the past couple of weeks; the Smarts had released a sketch of the man last month.
Police were tipped off by members of the public who spotted the drifter on a street in Sandy, 20 miles south of Elizabeth's home in Salt Lake City. The drifter, known as Emmanuel, a woman believed to be his companion and Elizabeth were all wearing wigs when they were stopped, authorities said.
Relatives of Emmanuel, whose real name is Brian Mitchell, have described him as a self-appointed prophet for the homeless who lived in a teepee in mountains outside the city. He was hired by the Smarts in November 2001 to work on their roof. Elizabeth disappeared seven months later.
Mitchell and the second suspect, identified as Wanda Barzee, were both in custody. No charges were filed, but Salt Lake City Police Chief Rick Dinse said authorities were convinced Elizabeth had been kidnapped.
Asked whether he believed Elizabeth was held against her will, he said: "At this point, yes, I do."
A Smart family spokesman, Chris Thomas, said Elizabeth apparently had no chance to escape.
"She said there was no way, she had two people with her at all times," he said.
Police stopped Mitchell and the others after receiving calls a minute apart from Rudy and Nancy Montoya and Anita and Alvin Dickerson. Both couples had spotted the trio carrying bedrolls and bags as they walked down the street.
Anita Dickerson, thinking the man resembled the suspect, left her car and looked him in the eye. She thought Elizabeth was an older woman wearing a scarf.
"Lots of people had to see them, they just didn't put two and two together," Alvin Dickerson told The Associated Press.
Elizabeth's disappearance was part of a frightening string of incidents involving children last year that included the slayings of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam of San Diego and 5-year-old Samantha Runnion of Orange County, Calif.
News that Elizabeth was alive touched off a celebration in front of the Smarts' home in affluent Federal Heights, with neighbors and members of the family's Mormon ward arriving with blue and yellow balloons.
"How can I even talk? This is such a miracle," said Lynne Godfrey, 57, a neighbor. "I had given up hope -- I mean, where would she have been? Who would have taken care of her for a year?"
Last month, the Smarts released a sketch of a clean-shaven Mitchell and asked for help in finding him. As recently as Tuesday, they criticized police for not devoting enough attention to finding the former handyman.
Mitchell's sister called authorities with his identity after the news conference. The man's stepson, Mark Thompson, also gave investigators photos of a long-haired, bearded Mitchell and said his stepfather was "capable" of kidnapping a child.
According to Thompson, Mitchell believes he is a prophet who needs to preach to the homeless. Mitchell was often seen panhandling and preaching to the homeless in downtown Salt Lake City before Elizabeth's disappearance.
Elizabeth's mother, Lois Smart, has said she met Mitchell downtown when he asked for money. She gave him $5 and hired him to help her husband work on the roof. He worked for about five hours and the family didn't see him again.
Elizabeth was 14 when she vanished early on the morning of June 5. Her 9-year-old sister, Mary Katherine, said Elizabeth was taken by a man who may have gotten into the house by cutting a window screen near the back door. The little girl pretended to be asleep, and she said the gunman threatened to hurt Elizabeth if she didn't keep quiet.
When they released Mitchell's sketch last month, Elizabeth's parents said Mary Katherine had come to them recently to say "Emmanuel" bore some resemblance to the kidnapper.
After Elizabeth was found, relatives called Mary Katherine a hero.
"It is truly a miracle to me that she was able to come up with him," Ed Smart said. He had earlier expressed "frustration" at public statements made by police dismissing Mitchell as a potential suspect.
Police said they followed up more than 16,000 leads from the public besides those they came up with themselves. Dinse said police had been "aggressively seeking" Mitchell.
For months, the top suspect was Richard Ricci, a handyman who once worked in the Smart household. He insisted he had nothing to do with the kidnapping, and he died Aug. 30 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage while in prison on a parole violation.
Ricci's widow, Angela, called it a "joyous day for us and the Smarts."
Over the summer, the Smarts held twice-daily news briefings and thousands of volunteers combed the foothills of Salt Lake City, searching under brush for any sign of the blonde girl.
The family often got calls from the police alerting them to grisly discoveries that might be linked to their missing daughter; they wanted the Smarts to know before the story hit the news.
Sometimes, the news beat the police. Hands and feet had been found in a canyon, or bones had been discovered in the desert. The Smarts would call police to ask if it was Elizabeth. Every time, the answer was no.
On Wednesday, the family renewed its call for a national "Amber Alert" system to swiftly notify the public of missing children through the media.
Children's advocates were elated by the good news.
"We are very, very relieved," said Marilyn Ward, director of Child Search, a national missing children center based in Houston. "This should help the cause of missing children everywhere. We are thankful she's alive. It gives hope to people to never give up."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.