By Robert Roxburgh
SPRINGVILLE – Tuesday morning started just as like any other for Ryan Johnson, a Springville McDonald”s regular customer. He stepped in line and casually ordered his breakfast before taking a seat next to a bearded man and two women with their faces veiled, their belongings lying in a heap at their feet.
After finishing his meal, Johnson left the restaurant to return to work. He had only started to leave the parking lot when the bearded man asked him for a ride to the nearest bus station. Johnson drove them to a nearby stop and handed the man $5 to purchase bus fare to Salt Lake.
Several hours later and after several tips, police discovered the three individuals walking near 10200 South and State Street in Sandy. They were identified as Elizabeth Smart and her alleged abductors, Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Eileen Barzee.
“Elizabeth Smart was in my car this morning,” Johnson said. “I”m watching it on TV and I still can”t believe it.”
Alejandra Ortega, a McDonald”s manager at 1455 North Main in Springville, remembers serving the trio around 9:30 a.m. She said she had no idea that one of the women was Elizabeth Smart.
“She was wearing a white veil,” Ortega said.
Ortega said Smart was also wearing a gray wig and sunglasses.
“I”m like, ”why”s she wearing sunglasses inside?”” Ortega said.
Ortega said Smart never talked or said anything when the trio approached the counter. The women then left, leaving Mitchell alone.
“He said, ”I want to order but I have my wife and daughter with me. They”re in the restroom.”” Ortega said.
Ortega said Mitchell waited for about a minute. That”s when the two women came out of the restroom.
“I only talked with the guy the whole time,” Ortega said. “I took the order. They stood in front of me, he ordered, then he asked for a glass of water and went back. Then he came back again and ordered three more Sausage Egg McMuffins.”
Ortega said Mitchell returned once more to ask for bus information.
A security videotape shows footage of the three in the lobby of the restaurant just before 10 a.m. Ortega said the trio was seated in the restaurant lobby for almost an hour.
“They were eating and talking but Elizabeth never moved or anything,” Ortega said. “They were really suspicious to me. The man and the woman were the only ones talking. He was asking me too many questions. But he was a really nice guy.”
Ortega said each individual was adorned with flowers.
“I thought it was some religious thing,” Ortega said. “You know people wear funny things on their head. You never know.”
Video also shows that the trio was carrying baggage with them.
“Each person was carrying a package with them, but I don”t know what it was,” Ortega said. “My store manager said, ”hey, someone”s moved into our lobby” because there were three big bags on the floor.”
Rhonda Ebel, another Springville McDonald”s customer service manager, said Mitchell approached her after eating to ask for more bus information.
“I felt weird but didn”t act upon it,” Ebel said.
Ebel said Mitchell then left the restaurant.
Alberto Lopez is in charge of daily maintenance at the Springville McDonald”s. He said he saw the three on the lot for a long time waiting for the bus.
But Ortega never saw them board a bus.
“Where did they go? I don”t know,” Ortega said.
That”s when Johnson stepped in.
Johnson took the trio to a bus stop where Jared Souther, a former McDonald”s employee, said he rode UTA bus No. 830 to Orem with the trio. He said the three transients got on the bus shortly after 10 a.m. and sat across from him. Mitchell then talked to Souther about his religious beliefs.
“As we came to the Transit Center, they wanted to get off and transfer there for the number 811 to Sandy,” Souther said. “I told them to stay on and they could transfer at UVSC.”
When the bus arrived at UVSC, Souther and Mitchell continued to talk for another 10 minutes.
“I asked if the girl was his daughter, and he said yes,” Souther said. “A few minutes later he shook hands with me and told me his name was Peter. He introduced his wife, and his daughter, Juliet.”
Souther said “Juliet” had on the same gray wig and sunglasses that Ortega had noticed at the restaurant.
“In my mind I didn”t think it was his daughter,” Souther said. “I asked him why his daughter was wearing a wig, and he got really angry.”
Souther said he felt uncomfortable after that and excused himself to go to the restroom.
“I walked up some stairs and down a sidewalk to overlook the bus stop, but they were gone even though their bus was still 10 minutes away,” Souther said.
Souther said he then found a police officer and told him that he thought he had seen the man wanted in the Elizabeth Smart case. The officer said he would look into it and pass the information on to the Sandy police where they were headed.
It wasn”t until later that Souther”s suspicions were confirmed with reports of Smart”s safe return. Souther said he felt guilty for not calling 911.
“I feel that God placed me in a place, and I failed to do everything possible,” Souther said. “I just feel if I could turn back the clock I would have worked harder to stop them and save Elizabeth.”
Ortega didn”t make the connection until she saw the news later that day.
“I was shocked because I was right there in front of her,” Ortega said. “I was wondering why she didn”t say anything, why she didn”t yell for help. I”m still in shock. I could have done something, but I didn”t recognize her.”