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Ordeal yields wide range of emotions

Smart pictured shortly after being found Wednesday.
Smart pictured shortly after being found Wednesday.

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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (CNN) -- The nine months between the mysterious disappearance and extraordinary return of Utah teenager Elizabeth Smart put her family through an intense gamut of emotions, ranging from confusion to overwhelming relief.

Police returned Smart to her family Wednesday, long after the night of June 5, 2002, when her sister said she had been kidnapped from her bedroom.

Ed Smart told CNN that during her entire disappearance he felt his daughter was alive. "I had some strong feelings that she was still out there," he said.

But Elizabeth's aunt, Cynthia Smart Owens, said it was difficult to maintain hope throughout the ordeal.

"It's hard to quantify, but it definitely nagged at them every day and I'm sure every minute [was a] struggle to get through, and they've done it," she said.

The multi-state police investigation -- conducted by both local and federal authorities yielded so-called possible suspects as well as individuals simply wanted for questioning.

On February 3, the Smart family said Elizabeth's sister, Mary Katherine -- who said she witnessed the abduction -- had told her parents a man the family knew as Emmanuel, who had worked at the family home, might be Elizabeth's kidnapper, throwing the Smarts deeper into confusion.

"We didn't know if it was Richard Ricci," Ed Smart said. "We didn't know if it was Emmanuel. ... It took everyone's help to try and find out."

Police had said Ricci -- who also once performed small jobs at the Smart's home -- was a "possible suspect."

Ricci was never charged with kidnapping and died in prison August 30 from a brain hemorrhage while serving time for a separate crime.

Shortly after their reunion, Smart's family offered proof of the faith many had that the teenager would return home unharmed.

Concerned people had sent "volumes and volumes" of e-mails that Owens said the family had carefully bound into at least 15 binders.

"It was wonderful to be able to show her all the love that people have expressed and the prayers that have been given," she said.

"And then Edward went on to tell her how much the family has been working to try and bring her home, and we just let her know how much we love her and how much faith we have in her strength and how proud we are of her," Owens said.

David Smart, Elizabeth's uncle, indicated a sense of disbelief when he first saw his niece after her long absence.

"I had to hug her again just as a reality check that she is back," he said. "It feels like we've been tied up into a little cage and that door finally flung open."

"I just broke down in tears with the reality that she's back and that this nightmare is over."

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