SALT LAKE CITY, Aug. 31 (UPI) -- The search for Elizabeth Smart continued Saturday as the missing Utah girl's family expressed hope that the death of the best, and possibly only, suspect in the apparent kidnapping would prompt acquaintances of Richard Ricci to come forward with new information that will crack the frustrating case.
Ricci, a former handyman for the Smart family, died Friday night after being taken off life support at a Salt Lake City hospital where he had been in a coma after collapsing in his jail cell Tuesday with a brain hemorrhage.
"As far as the investigation, we believe this turn of events may help because other people who were involved, or people who may know something about Richard, will come forward and tell all," the Smarts said in a statement Friday night.
The statement expressed sympathy for Ricci's wife, Angela, but was primarily aimed at those who may know something about 14-year-old Elizabeth's disappearance earlier this summer but had kept quiet out of loyalty to Ricci or out of fear of retribution from the ex-convict whose criminal record covered most of his adult life.
"Perhaps those people will now be more inclined to tell police what they know," family spokesman Chris Thomas said.
When he collapsed Tuesday night, Ricci was in jail on charges he had burglarized the Smart home a year prior to Elizabeth's abduction. The former handyman, 48, came to the attention of police and FBI agents because of his past and because he reportedly was not considered truthful in a polygraph test.
Ricci had denied any involvement in Elizabeth's kidnapping, reportedly by a man in a tan cap who slipped into the family's $1 million home during the pre-dawn hours of June 5 and forced the teenager to leave with him in her pajamas and tennis shoes. There has been no sign of the girl since then.
Police have conceded that Ricci's death has nearly derailed the investigation, although they vowed to continue following up on leads.
The Smart family and their supporters continued to organize volunteer searches in the Salt Lake area and urged people to keep an eye out for anything suspicious. A flyer distributed to hunters stalking game in the Utah mountains urged them to be on lookout for odd smells and other unusual occurrences in remote areas.
Edward Smart Friday offered a $3,000 reward for the location of whoever gave Ricci a ride home from an auto repair shop three days after the kidnapping. The owner of the shop said that the vehicles odometer appeared to indicate that around 1,000 had been put on the Jeep Cherokee since the time it had been picked up by Ricci after an earlier visit a few days before the abduction.
If accurate, the odometer suggested that Ricci could have conceivably driven Elizabeth 500 miles from Salt Lake City, although Angela Ricci has insisted that he was home with her the night of June 5.
Mrs. Ricci has maintained her husband's innocence throughout the ordeal.
"I know that the world will never know the Richard that his family and I knew, but I will always remember him as a kind and gentle man who was a loving husband to me and a caring father to my son," Mrs. Ricci said in a written statement.
(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)