Oct. 24 — Whether you live in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, or Salt Lake City, everyone, everywhere remembers the story of Elizabeth Smart. And most everyone remembers where they were when her story came to such an unbelievably happy end, with Elizabeth found alive. Now, more than seven months after Elizabeth’s return, Ed and Lois Smart are ready to share their account of what they went through. And for the first time, Elizabeth is speaking herself, with her parents’ blessing. For Elizabeth, now almost 16 years old, it’s been a long journey home.
Horseback riding with the Smart family in the mountains of Utah on a gorgeous fall day—Ed, Lois, Mary Katherine, and most of all, there’s Elizabeth. For all of them, there’s joy in just being together.
Katie Couric: “It is so wonderful to see both of you happy and relaxed and smiling.”
Lois Smart: “It’s nice to feel this way, happy to be relaxed and smiling.”
Couric: When you think about your ordeal, I bet you wake up sometimes in the morning and think, ‘We can’t believe that this happened to us, still.”
Lois Smart: “Yeah.”
Ed Smart: “It just was something that was, why? Why would this happen?”
In the summer of 2002, the Smarts’ story transfixed a nation. Every parent, every person, felt their anguish then. Their daughter was snatched from her bed in the middle of the night, her fate unknown for nine long months. Most people, even the Smarts themselves, believed she might be dead.
Then last March, the stunning news: Elizabeth was found. And she was alive. Her survival was a testament to her resilience and her family’s determination.
A rustic log cabin was the setting for our conversation, a peaceful retreat that’s been in the Smart family for generations. They revealed intimate details of their story that no one has heard before, details they also share in a new book, “Bringing Elizabeth Home.” They allowed us to spend some time with Elizabeth as well, once a little girl who was the object of an entire nation’s hopes and prayers, now a tall, flaxen-haired young woman working to reclaim her life.
Couric: “Tell me what goes through your mind when you think about those nine months.”
Ed Smart: “They were nine months that you couldn’t imagine ever happening in your life, to think that somebody would come into the house and take her was just, something you couldn’t believe would ever happen.”
In June of 2002 the Smarts were a picture perfect family: Ed, a successful mortgage and real estate broker, Lois, a stay at home mom, and six impossibly blond, outdoorsy kids. But it all changed overnight.
‘CALL THE POLICE!’
Couric: “Let’s talk about the night of June 4. Lois, I know your dad had died about a week before.”
Lois Smart: “Yes.”
Couric: “The funeral was the night before. Tell me what happened. You all were sleeping. And you were awakened by Mary Catherine.”
Lois Smart: “Yes. She came in and said, ‘Elizabeth’s gone.”
Then nine years old, Mary Katherine shared a bed with her sister Elizabeth, then 14.
Couric: “Was she frantic?”
Lois Smart: “She was frightened. She had a blanket. She was—”
Ed Smart: “Almost hiding behind the blanket.”
Lois Smart: “As she came in. And she said, ‘Elizabeth’s gone. A man took her with a gun.’ And of course being awoken to that, it was like, this is a bad dream.”
Couric: “Because you thought, well, maybe Elizabeth went to sleep on the sofa. Mary Katherine was bugging her or whatever—”
Lois Smart: “Yeah, taking the blankets or kicking or something. And so we weren’t alarmed. Within the next three or four minutes, it seemed like an eternity, while we were going around the house and checking everything.”
Ed Smart: “Checking each of the rooms and as you went from one room, didn’t find her, and it was — the adrenaline starts building to a point where you just, you know, is this really possible?”
Couric: “You were completely panic stricken.”
Lois Smart: “Yes. And when he came upstairs and says she’s not on the sofa, and I went flying down and turned on every light. And I saw that she wasn’t there either. As my eyes panned the room, I saw this cut screen. And I knew.”
Lois smart had burned the potatoes that night and had opened a kitchen window. Someone had cut the screen and entered their home. Someone had taken Elizabeth.
Lois Smart: “I was hysterical, and I was— we were yelling. I was yelling for Ed, ‘Call the police! Call the police!’ It’s a horrible, horrible feeling.”
Couric: “The police came immediately. And Ed, in the book, you write, ‘I remember feeling as if the police didn’t have control over the situation. It was as if they were waiting for something to happen or somebody to come and tell them what to do. I was bothered that they weren’t out looking for my daughter.’”
Ed Smart: “I don’t know that police handled kidnappings every day. I don’t think it’s— I hope it’s not a common occurrence.”
In fact, it isn’t. Federal crime statistics say the vast majority of missing children either run away on their own or are taken by a family member.
Couric: “You understood that in a situation like this, the family is always under a cloud of suspicion.”
Lois Smart: “No, I don’t think we understood that.”
Ed Smart: “No.”
Lois Smart: “We couldn’t understand, why aren’t you out there looking for her? You know, why are you taking us? Let us help. Let us do something.”
But police were just playing the odds. There are about 115 confirmed abductions by strangers nationwide every year, a rare event. Police questioned every member of the Smart family.
Lois Smart: “They took Charles and Andrew, our two oldest boys, and questioned them. Well, you know, it’s your friends, did your friends like Elizabeth, did she run off with somebody?”
Ed Smart: “Or did you kill your sister.”
Lois Smart: “Things like that were very hurtful.”
Even as they faced police interrogations, the Smarts called upon their extended family to help publicize Elizabeth’s name and picture and to organize a massive search. Ed was at the center of it all, and so overwhelmed that in those first days, he had a breakdown.
Ed Smart: “Everything was totally out of control. And Lois had my father come over and it was just, it was very tough. And he took me to the hospital. And I just sat there crying and crying.”
A devout Mormon, Ed says he was rescued, not for the first time and certainly not for the last, by his faith.
Ed Smart: “My father came over with my bishop and gave me a blessing that, you know, I would be able to cope with things and that I needed to be home.”
Couric: “How did you get it together, I mean sometimes there are forces greater than you.”
Ed Smart: “There were. There were forces greater and I just, I knew that I had to get up and I had to go home.”
And at home, Lois too was struggling to keep herself together, struggling even to get out of bed. In some ways, she said, it was William, the baby of the family, who helped the most.
Lois: “Many mornings he’d come in and, ‘Mom, I need to eat. Mom, get out of bed, I need to do this,’ because it would’ve been very easy to just lie in bed.”
Couric: “Your other children really kept you going?”
Lois Smart: “Yes, they did. I have to think that’s part of the miracle. How I can even pull myself out of bed in the morning, and continue tending to the other children, and knowing that if I didn’t, you know, that’s as good as giving them up, too.”
Lois worried the most about Mary Katherine. The only witness to the abduction, she was deeply terrified by what she’d seen and heard the night a stranger took her big sister.
Lois Smart: “Elizabeth had stubbed her toe. And she said ouch. And he said, ‘Don’t make a sound or I’ll kill you.’”
Couric: “And Mary Katherine all this time...”
Lois Smart: “Had heard that.”
Couric: “She was so terrified, she didn’t come to your room right away?”
Ed Smart: “She tried.”
Lois Smart: “She did. She got out immediately. And saw them walking down the hall. And she thought that they were going towards her brothers’ bedroom. And that he was going to take them as well. And she thought that he saw her and she went running back and jumped into bed.”
Couric: “So it took her a while to come to your room because she was—”
Lois Smart: “Even believing maybe that we were gone—”
Couric: “So petrified.”
Lois worried that Mary Katherine’s terror and the pressure she felt to remember what she’d seen to help the police might be too much, that the criminal who took one daughter’s body, might have taken the other’s spirit.
Lois Smart: “We can’t lose both daughters. Because they both had gone through so much. And yet we had one with us. But she was dealing with and living with the idea that her sister was gone. And she was the only one that witnessed that.”
ELIZABETH SMART: HOUSEHOLD NAME
Lois committed herself to holding the family together. Ed committed himself to pushing the investigation forward any way he could.
Ed Smart: “The biggest reason was to keep Elizabeth’s face out there. If you kept her face out there maybe someone would see her, if she was out there.”
Soon it seemed everyone in America knew Elizabeth’s face and her story. The tips poured in, thousands of them, from every part of the country. But then the police identified a suspect — from right inside the Smart’s home.
Lois Smart: “I think that’s the worst torture for a mother, thinking about a child being hurt, or sick, or needs help and you can’t be there to help them and comfort them. I mean, that’s worse than anything.”
In the days and weeks following her abduction, Elizabeth Smart became a household name, her face familiar to anyone with a TV. But no one knew what mattered: Where was she? Was she suffering? Was she alive or dead? For those who loved her, not knowing was excruciating. The entire Smart family sought comfort in prayer. Lois says all the children prayed for Elizabeth.
Lois Smart: “Bless her that she’ll be warm. Help her that she’ll have food. Bless Elizabeth that she’ll be strong. That she’ll be able to make it through this.”
She says they would even pray for Elizabeth’s abductor — although her youngest had trouble with that word.
Lois Smart: “William, our four year old, would say, “‘Bless the conductor. Let him let Elizabeth go.’”
Police were going through lists of everyone the Smarts knew, everyone who’d ever been in their home. Very soon they hit on a name: Richard Ricci.
Ed Smart: “Circumstantially, he was the person.”
Ricci was a handyman who’d worked in the Smart home in the spring and summer of 2001. Checking his background, police found he had a history of violent crime. When they questioned him, they found he seemed to have put hundreds of miles on his jeep around the time of Elizabeth’s abduction, but he wouldn’t say how. And there was something else. Richard Ricci admitted stealing from the homes of the Smarts and one of their neighbors.
Ed Smart: “We didn’t find out until we were into the investigation that he had broken into our neighbor’s home. When that came up, it was just like this big light turned on, like well, good heavens.”
But there was one person who doubted Ricci was the kidnapper, the sole witness, nine-year-old Mary Katherine.
Ed Smart: “When Mary Katherine saw his picture on TV, ‘What’s Richard doing there?’ It wasn’t Richard.”
Lois Smart: “But we weren’t always comfortable with that, when Mary Katherine said that, because it was dark.”
Ed Smart: “It was very dark.”
Lois Smart: “And that’s a lot of pressure, putting that on a nine-year-old and saying, you know, could you really see a face? Could she really be certain that it was not Richard Ricci?”
Police held Ricci for parole violations. They leaned on him hard all through June and July, but he denied kidnapping Elizabeth. Then, on August 27, the prime suspect had a brain aneurysm. Richard Ricci died August 30 without ever regaining consciousness.
Couric: “When Richard Ricci died, did you feel as if in a way, Elizabeth had died, too?”
Lois Smart: “Part of me felt that way. We may never know where she was now.”
LETTING GO, HOLDING ON
It was September. Elizabeth had been missing for three months now. Deep inside, Lois realized for her own sanity she had to accept the fact that Elizabeth might never come home.
Lois Smart: “In order for me to carry on, I couldn’t live in that darkness, always thinking, what is she going through? What is happening to her? And to feel like maybe she was in a better place where she wasn’t suffering was easier for me.”
Couric: “You write quite poignantly about coming up here and riding a horse on Elizabeth’s favorite trail.”
Lois Smart: “Yes. I found her cowboy boots and her spurs and her hat and her gloves. And I thought, I’m gonna do this ride for Elizabeth.”
Couric: “You got up, I guess, and had this incredible panoramic view. And at that point, you write that you broke down and accepted the possibility.”
Lois Smart: “That she may not be coming back. I remember I took the pin that I always wore of Elizabeth, and took it off and put it on a rock up there. And it was my way of letting go.”
Katie:“You accepted the possibility that Elizabeth might be dead, but Ed had a harder time doing that, didn’t he?”
Lois: “Yes, he did.”
Ed Smart: I couldn’t. And I said to her if you feel so strongly, we’ve got to have a memorial service, because I can’t stop. I just can’t.”
Then Lois suddenly knew she didn’t want that either. As much as she needed to let go, she needed Ed to hold on.
Lois Smart: “So when he came to me and said we need to have a memorial. I said absolutely not. We are not going to have that. We don’t know. I didn’t want Ed ever to feel the same way as I did. And with him feeling the way he did, and I felt the way I did, it worked better for us.”
By October, Elizabeth had been missing for four months now. The trail seemed utterly cold. After Richard Ricci’s death police continued to investigate him, but found nothing that would lead them to Elizabeth.
Lois was trying to accept the inevitable. Ed could not. He wanted to keep searching, but had no idea where. Then, another night-time visit from Mary Katherine would change everything.
Lois Smart: “We had been out that night. And she — it was later. And she’d come into our bedroom and said, ‘I think I know who did it, Dad.’”
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints