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Utah kidnapper possibly spotted

A family video of Elizabeth Smart at the beach  

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (CNN) -- Acting on a tip from volunteers, Salt Lake City authorities searched into the early hours Friday for a suspicious man they believe could be responsible for kidnapping a 14-year-old girl abducted from her suburban bedroom at gunpoint in the middle of the night.

While searching the woods of Emigration Canyon just a few miles east of Salt Lake City, one volunteer -- identifying himself only as Chad -- said he saw a man who fit the description of Elizabeth Smart's kidnapper trying to cover up his footprints.

"I found some footprints and I decided to follow it," Chad said. "I took about three steps before I saw a guy with a white hat, white shirt, so I just hid myself and basically followed him for a little while."

After losing sight of him, he and other members of his search party said they heard a couple of gunshots.

Helicopters equipped with infrared technology swept the area for hours after the tip came in around 8 p.m. Thursday (10 p.m. ET), according to Salt Lake City Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Peggy Faulkner.

Elizabeth Smart's father sends a message to his daughter (June 5)

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Missing girl's father: 'It just seemed unreal' 

The helicopters turned up no sign of anyone in the canyon, Faulkner said, and authorities had yet to decide how long they will continue to search the area.

Earlier in the day, Salt Lake City police announced a $250,000 reward for the safe return of a 14-year-old girl.

Pajama-clad Elizabeth Smart -- 5-foot-6, 105 pounds, and blonde -- was spirited away from the seven-bedroom, six-bathroom, lakeview home in the posh Federal Heights neighborhood about 1 a.m. Wednesday while her parents slept, Salt Lake City Police Chief Rick Dinse said.

Ed Smart, the teen's father, told CNN Thursday he is baffled over how someone could have entered the family's sprawling home and taken his daughter away -- and cannot begin to explain why.

His voice breaking, Smart said that "it just seemed unreal."

Lois and Ed Smart appear on CNN Thursday to discuss the disappearance.  

"I still can't believe that it's happened," he said. "You hear about these and you can't imagine what a nightmare it must be for the parents and now it has happened."

Smart, a real estate broker, said the family "can't even fathom who it is or why they took her."

Dinse announced the $250,000 reward, saying he hoped it would lead to a quick resolution to the case.

"It's estimated that the number of calls coming in are about one a minute," Dinse said. "We've had some reported sightings but none of which proved to be accurate."

"We've got a lot more information," he said, "but as far as being closer to solving the case, we're no closer."

Elizabeth Smart in a family photo
Elizabeth Smart in a family photo  

Dinse also said that investigators had not uncovered enough evidence to determine if the abduction was random or "targeted."

Smart was alerted to Elizabeth's abduction by the girl's 9-year-old sister, who had been in the same room. But the sister, who was threatened by the intruder, did not tell her parents until two hours later. Smart told CNN he thought the younger daughter had had a bad dream.

"I hear, 'A man took her,' and I rushed in there," said the visibly worn father, his arm around his trembling wife Lois. "We have six children, and I went from room to room ... and I couldn't find her."

Police described Elizabeth's abductor as a white man, 5 feet 8 inches tall, wearing a white shirt and white baseball cap and armed with a black handgun.

The Smart family home, a veritable mansion -- 6,675-square feet in a cul-de-sac with views of the lake, mountains and valley -- is equipped with a security system, but it was usually turned off at night because movements by the children would trigger its motion sensors.

Smart said that while the house is on the market -- listed at $1.19 million -- only "two or three" people have looked at it so far. Dinse said police had interviewed most of the people who had been in the home recently connected with the sale, and said they'd found "nothing that would target those individuals."

Neighbors circulate fliers with the girl's picture.  

But Dinse said police had not eliminated any suspects -- including the family.

"The family has been very cooperative in almost every area ... we're very pleased with their cooperation," he said. "As far as eliminating any suspects, we haven't eliminated any -- nor are we targeting in on anybody."

Dinse backed off an assertion on Wednesday that police had found no blood on the scene.

"I'm not going to comment on that," he said Thursday.

Police combed the hills around the neighborhood, near the University of Utah, throughout the day Wednesday without finding any clues, Dinse said.

The FBI has joined the case, and law enforcement agencies throughout Utah and in adjacent areas of Wyoming and Idaho are on the lookout for Elizabeth and her abductor.


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