By Alex Tresniowski
June 24, 2002 12:00 PM

The pale blue ribbons and “Pray for Elizabeth” banners turned up everywhere, and volunteers by the thousands fanned out across Salt Lake City in search of something, anything. But as the first frantic days passed, the flow of a family’s tears began to ebb. “We’ve cried until we’re all cried out,” says Edward Smart, 47, whose daughter Elizabeth, 14, was taken at gunpoint from her bedroom on June 5 and (at the time of publication) was still missing. “None of us can rest until we have her back.”

The abduction of Elizabeth Smart is an all-too-familiar story, as thousands of children are kidnapped by strangers every year. But this time there was a chilling twist—the abductor broke into the Smarts’ three-story, $1.19 million home around 1 a.m. and snatched Elizabeth while her 9-year-old sister Mary Katherine cowered in the bed they shared. The brazen crime galvanized Salt Lake citizens, who responded in droves to help the Smarts, Mormons with deep roots in the community. There was no ransom note and little evidence to go on, but police soon narrowed their search to the Smarts’ upscale Federal Heights neighborhood. “It is possible we have already talked to, or will soon talk to, the suspect,” Salt Lake City Police Chief Rick Dinse announced on June 11.

Back on the evening of June 4, before she was kidnapped, Elizabeth—the second oldest of six children born to Edward, a mortgage broker and real estate agent, and Lois, 45, a dedicated mother and homemaker—received awards for fitness and academics at a ceremony at her high school. Somewhere between 1 and 1:15 a.m., long after the Smarts had said their customary family prayer before bed, a male intruder apparently pried open a main-floor window, crept up the stairs and awakened Elizabeth. Before walking her out of the house, he warned Mary Katherine that he would harm Elizabeth if she told anyone about what happened. Three hours later, the terrified girl finally alerted her father. At first “I thought she’d had a nightmare,” says Edward. But then “I started running from room to room. I couldn’t find her. I was really rattled.”

On June 9 police subjected Edward to a lie detector test as part of their investigation. Since the Smarts’ 6, 675-sq.-ft. house is up for sale, police questioned potential buyers and contractors who were recently inside. “To get in and out the way he did, [the suspect] had to know the layout,” says Lou Bertram, a retired FBI agent who worked on several abduction cases. Investigators also considered the possibility that Elizabeth met her abductor through the Internet, though people who know the eighth-grader—an A student who likes to ride horses and run track-say that’s unlikely. “[Detectives] were wondering if she’d run away, like maybe this had all been staged, but there’s no way,” says her friend and neighbor Laurie Angell, 14. “She didn’t have any boyfriends.”

After the kidnapping, the Smarts contacted the Laura Recovery Center, a Texas-based organization that helps to mobilize search efforts. Around 2,000 volunteers on each of the first few days canvassed a 50-square-mile area. “I just couldn’t sit and watch this unfold without doing something,” says Cari Smith, 25, who passed out flyers. “You wonder, ‘What if this was my family?’ This is just so heartbreaking.”

The Smarts arranged for Mary Katherine to spend time with other relatives to protect her from the publicity surrounding her sister’s kidnapping. Lois Smart, so distraught in the days after June 5 that she could barely speak, is, say friends, doing better now; Edward, who was hospitalized with exhaustion on June 7, is also feeling stronger. Yet as the days pass and the mystery deepens, he grapples with a question he cannot answer: Who could have done this? “It’s baffling,” he says, unable to think of any enemies or suspicious acquaintances. And how could this monster have gotten away so cleanly with his crime? “You know, sometimes the steps creak,” says Edward. “I’m a light sleeper. I just can’t believe that I didn’t hear a thing. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare, it really is.”

Alex Tresniowski

Cathy Free in Salt Lake City