Police in Sandy discovered Elizabeth, with her face virtually covered by a burkka-like white covering, in the company of Brian David Mitchell, a former handyman and street preacher known as "Emmanuel." She was later reunited with her family who planned to take her home Wednesday night.
"I think you can imagine what the reunion was like," said Salt Lake City Police Chief Rick Dinse. "It was emotional, exciting, a thrill for everybody. It was the kind of reunion you would expect."
Elizabeth had been the subject of a highly publicized nationwide search since June 5, 2002, when a man with a gun reportedly entered the family's home and forced Elizabeth from her bedroom in the middle of the night.
The baffling disappearance remained an enigma Wednesday as police and the FBI began to piece together what was apparently a meandering cross-country car journey that took Elizabeth, Mitchell and a woman, identified as Wanda Eileen Barzee, from Utah to San Diego, Atlanta, Florida and back to the Salt Lake area.
Family members said late Wednesday that Elizabeth and her two alleged captors had camped out much of the time they were on the road, and that she had had no opportunity to escape.
"We still don't know the motive, that's what the police are trying to find out," a family member said.
Dinse said that the bottom line late Wednesday was that Elizabeth, now 15, appeared healthy and had told officers that she had been kidnapped and had not willingly left her home with Mitchell.
"Do I believe that she was held against her will? Yes, I do," Dinse told reporters at a tumultuous news conference called just four hours after the rag-tag trio was stopped while on foot on a busy street in Sandy, a suburb about 13 miles south of the Smart's upscale Salt Lake City neighborhood.
Sandy officers were sent to the area around 1 p.m. MST after two citizens called and said they had seen a man wandering around who matched the description of "Emmanuel," whom police said had done work around the Smart home in 2001 for about one day.
There was no immediate confirmation of a report on Fox News that Emmanuel might have been involved in a dispute with Elizabeth's father, Edward Smart, over payment. Fox also reported that Elizabeth had told police she and Mitchell hid in the mountains near her home for a few days after she was kidnapped.
"Our officers confronted these people on the street," Sandy Police Chief Tom Chapman said. "They were evasive in their answers and were wearing wigs, so they weren't immediately recognizable."
Anita Dickerson, one of the witnesses who called police, told reporters she thought the man resembled the elusive Emmanuel, but hadn't recognized Elizabeth.
"I thought she was an older lady with a scarf and sunglasses," she said. "There was no emotion that I noticed."
John Ferguson, who witnessed the arrest, told Salt Lake City television station KSL that he saw officers talking to a man who appeared to be a transient and two women wearing "longer clothing, almost like a pillow case ... over their faces, almost like a veil."
"They were all just kind of calmly talking to the police," Ferguson said.
As the officers pressed their questioning with the trio seated on the sidewalk, it became more clear that they had not only located the missing handyman but had stumbled upon Elizabeth herself, dressed in a blonde wig, overcoat and wearing a white covering that covered he entire head except for her eyes; Barzee was dressed in similar fashion.
"We became convinced it was Elizabeth Smart," Chapman said. "We contacted Salt Lake City (police) and gave them the information. They responded to the scene."
An emotional Edward Smart met with the media outside his home, which was festooned with blue and yellow balloons and urged Congress to institute a nationwide Amber Alert system.
"I'm so happy and grateful for the prayers and the eyes (public) out there," Smart said. "I don't know what she has gone through, but I'm sure she has gone through hell. I know that she's loved and is a part of this family."
Mitchell's name did not publicly surface until last month when Salt Lake City police released a composite sketch of the man who had been often seen panhandling and preaching on the city streets where, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, he was a self-appointed prophet for the homeless.
The prime suspect in the case had been another handyman, Richard Ricci, who died in custody of an aneurysm last summer and was never charged in Elizabeth's alleged kidnapping.
By coincidence, the Tribune published a story Wednesday in which Edward Smart was critical of the police for their seeming lack of interest in Mitchell, who Elizabeth's 9-year-old sister, Mary Katherine, had said last October could have been the mysterious stranger she had seen abduct her big sister. Reportedly, it was Mitchell's former wife who had contacted the Smart family and informed them that her husband of 17 years ago was indeed a viable suspect and was a pedophile.
Dinse defended his investigators, saying that they pursued the scant leads on Mitchell's location and did not have an accurate composite sketch to release until Feb. 3.
"At the beginning of the investigation, we didn't even know about Emmanuel," Dinse said. "Everything that we did was based on calculated information. If we held anything back, it was because we thought it might impact the case."
Dinse said the detectives had been "aggressively seeking him."
Investigators said they had yet to dissect the relationship between Elizabeth and Mitchell before and after her apparent abduction. Dinse said there was no immediate indication Elizabeth had been drugged or sexually abused and that the girl seemed genuinely happy to have been found.
Neither Elizabeth nor Mary Katherine appeared to be smiling. In television images of the family driving away from police headquarters, they looked straight ahead with a grim, shell-shocked expression on their faces.
Elizabeth's parents sent out word Wednesday that they would not meet with the media for 24 hours.
In addition, U.S. Attorney Paul Warner said prosecutors would have to decide if the case will be prosecuted at the state or federal level, and who will be charged with what crimes.
"We are only four hours into the recovery of Miss Smart so we won't be able to answer all of your questions," said Chip Burris, the jubilant head of the FBI office in Salt Lake City. "But you've got a boatload of officers up there who can't wipe the smiles off their faces."
(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)