In the early morning of June 5, 2002, Mary Katherine Smart woke up to the sounds of a male voice in the bedroom she shared with her older sister in Salt Lake City, Utah. She heard the man threatening her sister, so she pretended to sleep. Before she knew it, her sister, Elizabeth, was gone. The man had told Elizabeth to be quiet and threatened to kill her family if she did not comply with his wishes. A few hours later, Mary Katherine ran to her parents’ room and told them that Elizabeth had been taken. At first, Ed and Lois Smart believed that their youngest daughter had had a nightmare, but as they searched the house and discovered that there was no sign of Elizabeth, they grew concerned and called 911. Within an hour, the harrowing search for 14 year-old Elizabeth Smart had begun.
The Search Begins
In the first search of the house, investigators determined that the abductor had entered through an unlocked window in the kitchen by cutting a hole in the screen and climbing through. Search dogs were able to track Elizabeth’s scent up until a few feet away from the home. By that morning, Elizabeth’s kidnapping was already a media frenzy. Investigators searched the family’s computers to see if Elizabeth had been contacted by anyone suspicious online, but could not find anything. Since the Smarts were in the process of renovating their home in preparation to sell it, they knew that anyone involved with the renovations could have been part of the abduction. Investigators made a list of the contractors, repairmen, and real-estate professionals who had been in contact with the family and interviewed them. In an effort to speed the process along, the Smart family offered a $250,000 reward to anyone who could provide information leading to Elizabeth’s safe return.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth was being dragged through the nearby forest to a campsite by her abductors, Brian David Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee. She was forced to change into a white robe that matched the clothing of her abductors, and was tied to a tree. Mitchell planned to take Elizabeth as his second wife, in accordance with the Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ (LDS) tradition of polygamy, which had been banned by the church in 1890. Mitchell believed that he was a prophet and brainwashed Elizabeth into believing that he would kill her family if she tried to escape. Mitchell and Barzee frequently took Elizabeth out in public, though she was hidden behind her robes and a veil.
Mary Katherine’s Epiphany
Over the next few months, investigators focused on a number of suspects, all of whom had worked at the Smarts’ house or in the area. However, none of them seemed to fit Mary Katherine’s descriptions. About four months into Elizabeth’s disappearance, Mary Katherine had an epiphany: she believed she knew who had kidnapped her sister. She told her parents that she believed the abductor was a homeless man known only to the family as Emmanuel. He had worked on the house for one day several months before Elizabeth’s disappearance. The family only knew him as a homeless man who liked to preach to the homeless. They did not know his real name: Brian David Mitchell. The investigators had Emmanuel’s name on their list of possible suspects early on in the investigation, but because of a typing error in the police’s computer system, the name “Emmanuel” had not brought up Mitchell’s arrest record. Initially, investigators were skeptical of Mary Katherine’s sudden realization, and continued pursuing an investigation in their deceased prime suspect, Richard Ricci. The Smart family decided to take matters into their own hands. They contacted John Walsh, who dedicated a new segment of his show America’s Most Wanted to update the public on Elizabeth’s case. Walsh showed composite sketches of Emmanuel done from Mary Katherine’s descriptions. One of the viewers of the show that night was Derrick Thompson, the son of Wanda Barzee, Mitchell’s wife. In addition, Mitchell’s ex-wife recognized him from the sketches and called the police. She told police that Mitchell was sexually abusive and that she believed he was keeping Elizabeth alive if he had her.
By the time Mitchell was beginning to be identified, he had transported his wife and Elizabeth to California, where he had his sights set on another wife, a twelve-year-old daughter of a local LDS clergyman. Mitchell had been invited for dinner at the girl’s house, under the guise of joining the church. A few weeks later when Mitchell tried to kidnap the girl, he was unable to break in and gave up on his plan. A few weeks later, Mitchell was arrested for breaking into a pre-school but gave another false name. He was held in prison for a few days until he had a hearing. In the meantime, Barzee became concerned that her husband had not returned, and went to another campsite to search and pray for him. She left Elizabeth alone, but she did not try to escape.
Meanwhile, on America’s Most Wanted, Walsh showed some photos of Mitchell that his stepsons had sent in. A viewer in California called and reported that she had seen a man that looked similar, accompanied by two women wearing veils and robes. Mitchell and Barzee became aware that they were being searched for, so they abandoned their robes and began to travel away from California. There were a number of sightings in California and Las Vegas, but they were gone by the time police arrived. On March 12, the trio arrived in Sandy, Utah, and several people called 911, believing that the man was Brian David Mitchell. Police arrived in time and recognized Elizabeth. When they separated her from her captors, she continued to maintain her story that she was not Elizabeth Smart and that she was traveling of her own free will. After some more questioning and after seeing her own missing persons poster, Elizabeth admitted her identity.
That day, Ed Smart was asked to go to a local police station, where he assumed he was going to identify Emmanuel. When he entered and saw Elizabeth, he was stunned. The news that Elizabeth had been found alive spread like wildfire. On March 18, Mitchell and Barzee were charged with aggravated kidnapping, aggravated burglary, and sexual assault. The pair were ruled incompetent to stand trial several times. On November 17, 2009, Barzee was sentenced to 15 years in prison. In March of 2010, Mitchell was finally ruled competent to stand trial and was convicted and sentenced to life in federal prison in May of 2011.
Elizabeth Smart Today
Since returning home safely from her time in captivity, Elizabeth has become an advocate for missing children and victims of sexual abuse. She spoke to Congress several times to promote bills that would aid victims and improve the sex offender registry system. She has also advocated for more comprehensive sex education, and cites her abstinence-only education as one of the reasons why she did not try to escape when she had the opportunity. Smart said that because of her upbringing, she believed that she was worthless once she was raped. According to Smart in May of 2013, “that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value. Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.” Today, Elizabeth Smart is married and has written a book that was published in 2013.