SALT LAKE CITY, UT — On June 5, 2002, 49-year-old Brian David Mitchell broke into the bedroom of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart, brandished a knife, and whispering a simple message: “Be quiet and I won’t hurt you.”
Nine months of hell followed as Mitchell held Elizabeth captive under horrific conditions.
The case mesmerized the public from the moment it hit the news on through Elizabeth’s rescue and the revelations of what she endured, followed by her long journey for justice. This remarkable woman’s ordeal and transformation still proves compelling today.
While Brian David Mitchell is locked up for life, his one-time victim has powerfully evolved into an activist, journalist, motivational speaker, and all-around inspiration.
At present, Elizabeth Smart is a 25-year-old mother of two. She volunteers tirelessly as a victims’ rights advocate, works regularly as an on-air reporter for ABC News, and travels the world giving talks on how to overcome unimaginable obstacles. And, yes, she still plays the harp.
Under any circumstances, such an individual would be extraordinary. Let’s look back now, though, on what Elizabeth survived to get where she is today.Related: Here’s What Happened When Elizabeth Smart Met Amanda Berry
On the hideous night of the abduction, Elizabeth’s nine-year-old sister Mary Katherine pretended to be asleep in a bed across the room. She saw a male figure force Elizabeth to go with him and she thought his voice sounded vaguely familiar.
Immediately after Mitchell absconded with Elizabeth, Mary Katherine alerted the girls’ parents, Edward and Lois Smart, along with the four other Smart children. Short of the ultimate nightmare of murder, Elizabeth suffered a multitude of every parents’ worst fears.
Mitchell, a fanatical street preacher who called himself “Emmanuel,” held Elizabeth captive in a small town not far from Salt Lake City, where he raped her repeatedly.
At the same time, Wanda Ileen Barzee, Mitchell’s wife, savagely beat the teen, forced her to perform slave labor, and frequently denied Elizabeth food and water.
After the only suspect, a local handyman, died from a brain hemorrhage in jail — obviously, in retrospect, while he was innocent — Mary Katherine experienced a breakthrough in her memory. She said she thought the man who took Elizabeth was “Emmanuel.”
The Smarts, devout Mormons who were (and remain) dedicated to charitable service, frequently hired homeless people and unemployed community members to perform odd jobs and help out around their home. In the past, Mitchell — aka Emmanuel — had worked for the Smarts doing roofing repairs and yard maintenance. Police briefly looked into the Emmanuel lead but, according to the Smarts, abandoned it too quickly.
Trusting their daughter’s memory, the Smarts hired a sketch artist to render a likeness of Emmanuel. The image aired on America’s Most Wanted. Members of Mitchell’s extended family caught the broadcast and told authorities where to find him.
Wanda Barzee copped a plea and got sentenced to two concurrent 15-year terms behind bars. Issues with Mitchell’s mental competency, however, prevented him from going to trial for nearly eight years.
On December 10, 2010, a judge sentenced Brian David Mitchell to two life sentences without the possibility of parole.
In the aftermath of the kidnapping, Elizabeth and her family regularly appeared in the media, sharing their story in hope that it would help others. With great dignity, Elizabeth refocused interviewers who pressed her for salacious details. While guesting on one particular talk show to support a sex-offender registration bill, the host repeatedly pushed for degrading information.
Calmly and directly, Elizabeth responded:
“I really am here to support the bill and not to go into what — you know, what happened to me…. I’m really not going to talk about this at this time … and to be frankly honest I really don’t appreciate you bringing all this up.”
Strong, eloquent, and uniquely gifted with abilities to inform and uplift, Elizabeth Smart is sharing her talents on a speaking engagement tour throughout the rest of 2017.
Upcoming appearances include a June 13 talk at the United Way of Olmsted County in Rochester, Minnesota; a July 13 event at the Heritage School in Provo, Utah; and an August 13 stop at Treasured Vessels Foundation in Dallas, Texas.
Main photo: Elizabeth Smart at the University of Missouri [WikiMedia Commons]