When Elizabeth Smart, then just fourteen years old, was abducted from her Salt Lake City bedroom in 2002 the story took the American public by storm. It was every parent’s worst nightmare come true. Years after the kidnapping, Smart has spoken up about her nine-month imprisonment. Here’s what happened.
Elizabeth Smart’s Childhood
Elizabeth Smart was born on November 3rd, 1987 in Salt Lake City. Her parents, Edward and Lois Smart, had five other children for a total of four boys and two girls. The Smart family was involved in their religious community, the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints.
Smart was known as a shy child with great potential, and who loved to play the harp. She started playing music at age five and practiced for hours each day. Her mother stayed at home to care for the children, and her father was a successful real estate developer. They were the picture of an idyllic American family, but in one night their lives were turned upside down.
Early on June 5th, 2002, Elizabeth Smart’s abductor broke into the family’s three-story home and snatched the fourteen-year-old from the bedroom she shared with her then-nine-year-old sister, Mary Katherine Smart. After Elizabeth’s kidnapper left the room, Mary Katherine reported the incident to her parents, telling them, “A man came and took her. He had a gun.” (It was later revealed he was carrying a knife.)
Lois and Ed Smart later detailed the night of the abduction in their 2003 book, Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope. They frantically ran through their once safe family home in search of their daughter, but when Lois found the cut screen in the kitchen window, reality hit and she screamed in shock.
Elizabeth’s Account of the Abduction
Years after her abduction and nine-month imprisonment, Elizabeth Smart recalled the traumatic event in court in 2009. “He placed his hand on my chest,” said Smart. “Then he put the knife up to my neck. He told me to get up and go quietly and if I didn’t then he would kill me and my family.”Terrified, the then-fourteen-year-old Elizabeth complied.
Elizabeth and the rest of the world would later find out that the man who abducted her from her home was Brian David Mitchell, a one-time street preacher, and religious fanatic. Mitchell was aided by his wife, Wanda Eileen Barzee.Mitchell exhibited disturbing behavior long before kidnapping Smart.
America’s Most Wanted
Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping drew national attention. Her family’s story resonated around the country: if it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone. As a result, tips poured in from across the state and the country, but Elizabeth’s sister, Mary Katherine, had a memory that cracked the case.
She told her parents she believed the kidnapper might have been a man named Immanuel who worked at their home in November 2001. Police released a sketch of the drifter Immanuel, and the information was run on America’s Most Wanted, ultimately resulting in a tip that led to Mitchell’s arrest.
Brian David Mitchell’s Horrifying Life
Brian David Mitchell was also born in Salt Lake City. He was the third of six children in a mainstream Mormon household. The neighbors described the family as friendly, but odd. Mitchell’s father claimed to hear a voice telling him “You are Christ.” Like his father, Mitchell believed he was in contact with a higher power and thought he was a prophet of God.
Mitchell was divorced twice, and his second wife filed a police report in 1985 alleging he molested two of their children. However, he was never charged. He was previously arrested at age 16 for exposing himself to an eight-year-old girl. His stepdaughter also stated he repeatedly molested her.
His Accomplice, Wanda Barzee
On the day Mitchell’s divorce from his second wife was finalized, he married Wanda Barzee. Barzee supported Mitchell’s delusion that he was a Messiah; he started going by Immanuel. Barzee often wandered the street with Mitchell, who dressed in robes and preached. After the kidnapping, they were accompanied by a disguised Elizabeth Smart.
Barzee and her husband tried to find women to voluntarily become polygamous wives, but when they were unsuccessful, Mitchell said he received a new revelation: they must kidnap Mormon girls ages 10 to 14 to become wives, for a total of 50 wives. After kidnapping Elizabeth Smart, the couple unsuccessfully tried to kidnap her cousin, Olivia Wright, and a 12-year-old girl in California.
Elizabeth Smart’s Rescue
Elizabeth Smart was rescued in Sandy, Utah nine months after she was kidnapped from her home. She was disguised in robes with her face and head covered, and Mitchell and Barzee were walking her down the street when police cars started pulling up next to them.
Smart wrote about the “overwhelming feeling of panic” that swarmed over her in her memoir My Story. “Please, God,” she thought, “help to set me free!” When Mitchell refused to give the officers identification, they became aggressive in their interrogation. Elizabeth felt too scared to say her name until an officer pulled her aside and asked, “Are you Elizabeth Smart? Because if you are, your family has missed you so much since you were gone! They want you back. They love you.”
Her Awful Ordeal
Though Ed and Lois Smart were thrilled to have their daughter back, her nine-month imprisonment left emotional scars that Elizabeth would have to face upon her return home. In a testimony in court in October 2001, Smart provided details of her ordeal.
She described being drugged, tied to a tree, and raped by Mitchell as often as four times a day, beginning the night she was abducted from her home at knife point. After dragging her from her home, Mitchell led her to a camp in the woods three miles behind her house, then took her to a lean-in where Barzee forced her to bathe.
Smart testified that on the night of her abduction, “[Barzee] eventually just proceeded to wash my feet and told me to change out of my pajamas into a robe type of garment. And when I refused, she said if I didn’t, she would have Brian Mitchell come rip my pajamas off. I put the robe on … he came and performed a ceremony, which was to marry me to him. After that, he proceeded to rape me.”
Despite the overwhelming evidence, Mitchell was twice found to be mentally incompetent for trial in Utah state court. Though Smart’s testimony is harrowing, providing the court with important details about how Mitchell planned the attacks was critical to mounting a federal case against him.
An Early Release For One Of Smart’s Captors
Photo credit: Steve Griffin-Pool/Getty Images
On September 11, 2018, it was announced that co-captor Wanda Barzee would be released from a Utah prison on September 19, more than five years earlier than initially expected. Barzee, now 72, hadn’t been credited properly with the time she had served in federal prison, according to the Utah Board of Pardons.
Frustrated by the decision, Elizabeth Smart issued this statement: “It is incomprehensible how someone who has not cooperated with her mental health evaluations or risk assessments and someone who did not show up to her own parole hearing can be released into our community.” She added that she needed time to process this development before saying anything more publicly.
After Elizabeth was rescued, her father, Ed Smart, told reporters he believed his daughter had been brainwashed into staying with Mitchell during her nine-month imprisonment. “I can tell he did an absolute brainwashing on her,” Ed Smart said. “It’s going to make it difficult and it’s going to be a long road, but she’s a strong girl and I know she’s going to make it.”
Elizabeth was kept very close to the Smart family home for three months. Mitchell and Barzee hid in the mountains, even as hundreds of searchers called her name. Elizabeth later explained that she feared for her life and the life of her family, which is why she complied with Mitchell during her kidnapping.
Flaunting His Power
At times, Mitchell seemed to flaunt his power over Smart by taking her out in public dressed in robes with her face and head covered. Elizabeth was hiding in plain sight. In 2013 Smart did an hour-long interview with Meredith Vieira about her ordeal.
During one trip to a city library to look at maps of California, a woman recognized Smart and called the police. However, when an officer came to the library, Mitchell convinced him that the girl was his daughter and she was only wearing a headscarf due to her religion. “This man’s statements were cogent,” the officer told NBC. Barzee had a ‘vice-like’ grip on her leg throughout the encounter. It wasn’t the only time Smart was near rescue.
Hiding in the Woods
Before Mitchell and Barzee moved Smart to California, he hid her in the woods behind the Smart family home. At one point, Smart heard her uncle calling out for her from a search party in the woods, but feared screaming out because of a threat from Mitchell. “If they ever get into this camp, I will kill them,” he told her.
After Smart was moved to California, Mitchell began talking about moving to the East Coast, but Elizabeth feared no one would recognize her there. She began telling Mitchell that she had a feeling that God wanted them to move back to Utah, and played into his belief that he was a profit.
Criticism of the Investigation
A Desert News journalist, Lee Benson, also co-authored a book with Elizabeth’s uncle, Tom Smart. In Plain Sight: The Startling Truth Behind the Elizabeth Smart Investigation heavily criticized the investigation process by the Salt Lake City Police Department and examined the ways the media both manipulated the family and helped lead to her recovery. The criticism of how the case was handled also drew attention to policy reforms that were needed.
One of the most shocking things the book reveals is just how many of the eyewitness accounts by Mary Katherine Smart were ignored, and how many sightings of Elizabeth the investigators failed to follow up on during the search.
Elizabeth Smart’s Life Now
Elizabeth Smart attended Brigham Young University, and met her husband, Matthew Gilmour, while on a Mormon mission trip in Paris, France. The couple got married in 2012 in Hawaii. Smart reclaimed her life, and had a daughter, Chloe, and is expecting another child with her husband.
“The thing that attracted me the most to her—at the beginning and now—is how confident she is, especially considering everything she’s been through,” said Gilmour. When her friends and family gathered for her wedding, Smart told them it was “the greatest day [she] could have ever imagined.” After all she’s survived, finding love and having a family is the ultimate success for Elizabeth.
Inspiring a Child Protection Bill
Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping raised concern across the country from parents who feared child protection laws weren’t strong enough to protect their own children. In 2003, Elizabeth Smart’s story inspired President George W. Bush to sign the measure called the Protect Act of 2003.
The measure enhanced penalties for youth abduction, boosted funding for missing and exploited children, and cracked down on inappropriate and exploitative images of children, including images created digitally.Elizabeth Smart and her mother met with President Bush to discuss the act. Elizabeth also went on to advocate for children a few years after her own kidnapping ordeal.
The Elizabeth Smart Foundation
In 2011, Elizabeth Smart established the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, an organization that helps promote the “Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force” organized for law enforcement agencies. In addition to trying to prevent and stop predatory crimes against children, the task for focuses on empowering children through education and supporting law enforcement during rescue operations.
In the foundation’s story, Smart writes, “Too many families experience the nightmare of having a child go missing. I know what it is like to be that child. I know what it is like to think that one false move may lead to not only your own death but the death of family members as well.” One of the organization’s initiatives, radKIDS, focuses on empowering children before they find themselves in a terrifying situation.
Her Work With radKIDS
When Brian David Michell came to Smart’s home and held her at knife point, she was too terrified to fight back. “The majority of those who fight back are able to get away—but I didn’t know that,” she later told TIME. “The only thing I was told by my school was ‘Don’t get in a car with a stranger,’ and that didn’t really apply to what happens when someone breaks into your home and has a knife at your neck.”
Her own situation inspired Smart’s work with radKIDS. Smart’s initiative places focus on what children can do to fight back. The initiative was founded by former police officer Steve Daley who said, “I was tired of showing up [after the fact.] I knew we needed a different way to protect the kids.” Now they lead a five-day training program to give children the ability to take care of themselves.
Elizabeth Smart’s Memoir
In 2013, Elizabeth Smart released a memoir about her ordeal titled My Story. The trial testimony was disturbing, but the memoir revealed even more details about her captivity and includes an inside look at what Elizabeth was thinking at the time.
The memoir revealed the ways that Mitchell’s wife sanctioned Elizabeth’s rape on the first night she was abducted, as well as the way Mitchell forced her to drink heavily. The memoir was co-written by GOP congressman Chris Stewart, who is also Mormon. The memoir also reveals the happiness Elizabeth has found now. After her abduction, her mother told her, “The best punishment you could ever give him is to be happy, is to move forward with your life.” That’s exactly what Smart has done.
Bringing Elizabeth Home
Shortly after Elizabeth Smart was rescued, Ed and Lois Smart published the book Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope about the terror of finding out their child had been abducted and their harrowing journey to bring her back home.
The book doesn’t focus on the details of what happened to Elizabeth during her nine-month imprisonment, but instead, focuses on how the family tried to come together when every parent’s worst fear became their reality. Their poignant journey begins the night of the abduction, and end when Elizabeth returns, though Ed and Lois admit they thought they would never see their daughter again.
Just eight months after Elizabeth Smart was rescued, the made-for-TV movie The Elizabeth Smart Story was broadcast. It was based on Ed and Lois Smart’s book and directed by Bobby Roth. The movie follows the journey of the Smart family from Elizabeth’s kidnapping to their reunion.
Amber Marshall, who went on to star in the CBC series Heartland, played Elizabeth Smart, while Lindsay Frost played Lois Smart, Dylan Baker played Ed Smart, and Hannah Lochner played Mary Katherine Smart. Three of the film’s stars, Hannah Lochner, Jacob Kraemer (Andrew Smart), and Amber Marshall, were nominated for the 2004 Young Artist Awards.