Suspects in Smart case draw interest in Calif.

Officials note similarities to unsolved abduction of 11-year-old girl in 1991

March 16, 2003|By Dirk Mathison | Dirk Mathison,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The recent arrests in the Elizabeth Smart case have energized a stalled investigation into the 1991 abduction of 11-year-old Jaycee Lee Dugard, according to police in the Northern California community where she was taken.

Several facts emerging from the arrests of Brian David Mitchell, 49, and Wanda Barzee, 57, might have a bearing on the Dugard kidnapping near Lake Tahoe, according to the investigators.

"There's enough here to trigger my interest," said Lt. Les Lovell, a 23-year veteran of the El Dorado County Sheriff's Department and the person who will lead the renewed effort.

Jaycee was kidnapped June 10, 1991, as she walked to her school bus on a quiet cul-de-sac. As her stepfather, Carl Probyn, watched from the family's garage 200 yards away, a late-model gray car with a man and a woman inside stopped abruptly in front of the girl. A pair of arms swept the girl into the sedan.

Probyn later described the woman as about 5 feet, 5 inches tall, sharp-featured and about 32 years old. He gave chase on a bicycle, but the car sped off. "There was nothing I could do," he recalled.

Despite a huge search and the case being featured on America's Most Wanted, the girl was not found. Investigators have been unable to identify a solid suspect.

After last week's arrest of Mitchell and Barzee in Salt Lake City, Lovell was struck by the physical likeness of the two girls. He was also intrigued by the proximity of the Dugard kidnapping to Highway 50, an interstate route that leads straight from Tahoe to Utah, where Mitchell and Barzee have lived on and off for decades.

Lovell also cited the rarity of child abductions by couples, which was a focus of attention early in the Dugard investigation. "To have a woman involved in an abduction was a big issue," recalled Don McDonald, then-Sheriff of El Dorado County, who considers the Dugard case to be a dark chapter in his career. "Let alone a man and a woman acting together."

There is also a pronounced similarity between the composite drawing based upon Probyn's description of the woman in the car and the recent mug shot of Barzee. Although Probyn now says that Barzee does not look familiar, the description he offered to police at the time resembles the mug shot of Barzee.

Lovell said he will look into reports that near the time of the Dugard disappearance, Barzee was distraught over her 14-year-old daughter's decision to live with her father.

Lovell will meet with his detectives tomorrow to map a strategy for the renewed investigation. "We'll try to meet with Salt Lake police as soon as the dust settles on the Smart case," he said.

He said his team will first try to eliminate Mitchell and Barzee as suspects by checking their whereabouts in June 1991. "If they don't have alibis, then we'll take it from there," he said.

Although Lovell cautioned that a connection between the two cases "could amount to nothing," Terry Probyn was encouraged by the prospect of a revived investigation into her daughter's abduction. "Oh God," she said from her home in Riverside, Calif. "This is the best thing I've heard in a long time. Now there's a chance."

Terry Probyn, now separated from her husband, retains a measure of hope that her daughter is alive. "I can't bury the child," she said. "I want a body or a 22-year-old daughter. I want an answer."

Dirk Mathison is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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