Panel to study work on Smart case

5-member review to focus on authorities' attention to the wrong suspect

March 18, 2003|By Tom Gorman | Tom Gorman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SALT LAKE CITY - While officials weighed charges against Elizabeth Smart's suspected abductors, Mayor Rocky Anderson launched an independent review yesterday of the Police Department's handling of the high-profile case, as well as four other police investigations.

Anderson said there was no evidence that police had mishandled the Smart case; instead, he explained, the review by a panel of five lawyers would answer "lingering questions" about the investigation in which police for months, by their own admission, focused attention on the wrong suspect.

"Many questions have been raised about the case - by the media, by the public and by the [Smart] family," Anderson said at a City Hall news conference. "Everyone deserves clear, accurate and fair answers to these questions."

He emphasized that the panel's creation should not imply that "anything inappropriate" had occurred, but that with an objective review, lessons might be learned.

A Salt Lake City Police Department spokesman said the agency would cooperate.

Smart, now 15, was taken from her family's upscale home June 5 and found - in apparently good shape and to the amazement of many - Wednesday in suburban Sandy, Utah.

Police arrested the two adults found with her: Brian David Mitchell, 49, a homeless panhandler and self-professed prophet; and his wife, Wanda Barzee, 57. Barzee and Smart were wearing robes, their faces masked by veils.

Last fall, the Smart family began urging police to focus on Mitchell, who months earlier had spent a few hours working on the roof of their home.

But police had keyed in on another suspect. Handyman Richard Ricci, a drifter who was jailed for parole violations nine days after Elizabeth's disappearance, maintained his innocence. He died of a brain hemorrhage in August, and many believed the secret of Elizabeth's disappearance had died with him.

In October, Elizabeth's younger sister, Mary Katherine - who witnessed the abduction from their shared bedroom - told her parents that she thought the kidnapper could be Mitchell, who was known to the family only as "Immanuel." Police said they were not able to come up with a detailed enough sketch of the suspect to warrant releasing it to the public. Frustrated, the family turned to the television show America's Most Wanted and released a sketch themselves. Members of Mitchell's family contacted police, suspecting he might be Immanuel.

On Wednesday, passers-by recognized Mitchell and called police. Officers apprehended him, along with Barzee and Smart, without incident.

Investigators since have pieced together details of the trio's travels through California and Nevada. They were frequently photographed in public, standing out because of their white robes and Mitchell's long hair and beard. The Smart family contends their daughter was brainwashed by Mitchell, who has written on the virtues of polygamy.

Detective Dwayne Baird said yesterday that Elizabeth is being gently questioned by police and "has been very helpful" in reconstructing the events since her abduction. The two suspects also are answering police questions, Baird said.

Mitchell's attorney, Larry Long, met with his client in jail Sunday. "He wanted me to tell the world that she is his wife, and he still loves her and knows that she still loves him, that no harm came to her during their relationship and the adventure that went on," Long told local television station KUTV.

Long said Mitchell characterized the alleged kidnapping as a "call from God."

Local prosecutors say charges are expected to be filed any day.

Tom Gorman writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune publishing newspaper.

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