As the long months of Elizabeth Smart's absence drew on, many of those who had searched and prayed and wept for her began to doubt that she would ever be found. Not so the Smart family, who kept hunting for clues, prodding law enforcement agencies, and orchestrating a costly publicity campaign that kept Elizabeth's face in front of millions across the nation.
When Elizabeth was returned after nine months of horrendous wandering in the custody of a pair of religious fanatics, the family's joy was unbounded. It was shared by thousands in their hometown, and millions across America and even the world, for the story of Elizabeth's midnight kidnapping from her home had become internationally known.
But the Smart family's ordeal is not yet over. The publicity that they understandably generated in hopes of bringing Elizabeth home will dog them for months, probably years. The media collaborated in publicizing the search for Elizabeth. When she was finally found, platoons of reporters and cameramen descended on Salt Lake City. News organizations around the world overloaded the phones of the Deseret News with requests for our expertise, our photos, our leads, the phone numbers of key figures in the story.
Only hours behind them were the moviemakers, the book publishers, the television documentary producers who - with or without the Smart family's permission - will keep the Elizabeth Smart story alive for years.
It is an incredible story. The teenage girl is stalked and then abducted at knife point in the middle of the night from an affluent neighborhood. Months go by. Various suspects are investigated, including itinerant handymen who have worked on the Smart house. One of them is arrested on other charges, but dies in custody, perhaps taking with him relevant information. Finally "Emmanuel," who worked briefly on the house, is fingered. He is actually Brian David Mitchell, a ranting street preacher with a scraggly beard, often dressed in biblical white robes. Alert citizens, recognizing him from a photo displayed on "America's Most Wanted," call police when they see him in company with two females, also in white robes, with their faces obscured.
Although she initially denies it, one of them is Elizabeth Smart. She is returned to her family. Mr. Mitchell and the other female, his wife, Wanda, are arrested and jailed. The police investigation revolves around the thesis that Mitchell and his wife had a "revelation" that they were to take seven wives, and Elizabeth was targeted as the first of them.
After Elizabeth's kidnapping, they spent the nine months as wanderers in Utah and the San Diego area with Elizabeth in their custody.
Reporters are exploring obvious questions. How was Elizabeth treated? If there were opportunities to escape, why didn't she take them? Was she brainwashed, and, if so, how?
Answers to some of these questions will likely come as the prosecution of Mitchell and his wife proceeds, presuming they are not ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial.
The first pictures of Elizabeth at home with her family, used widely by various newspapers and news organizations, were taken by a Deseret News photographer, Tom Smart, who is her uncle. When she was kidnapped, Tom was given paid leave to support the family and help in the search for her.
When he returned to duty with the newspaper he was, to avoid any conflict, assigned to stories other than the Smart case. When Elizabeth was found, he was again released from duty. The photos he took at the request of the family were his. The family asked the Deseret News to distribute them widely and it did. The newspaper did not buy the pictures. It did not sell them. It honored a Smart family request.
Ideally, Elizabeth should have privacy to reintegrate with her family and to enjoy time for recovery and emotional mending after a horrifying ordeal. We in the journalistic profession owe her that.
It will not be easy for the Smarts. Elizabeth has become both victim and celebrity. Her own experience could offer hope to parents of abducted children still missing. It could offer lessons to parents of children whose concern about possible abduction has been heightened. Elizabeth's father, Ed Smart, is waging an animated campaign promoting in Congress the AMBER alert system, which would use highway signs and the media to spread word quickly about abductions.
Fair and appropriate coverage of the Elizabeth Smart story should continue. But a primary concern should be for the healing and future of a young girl who should never have had to undergo the experience she has.
• John Hughes, editor and chief operating editor of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.