Early in the morning of June 5, 2002, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart and her 9-year-old sister, Mary Katherine, were awoken by the sound of a break in at their Salt Lake City, Utah, home.
Mary Katherine pretended to be asleep while a man abducted her older sister. Later, she would give police an inaccurate description of the kidnapper. Mary Katherine left her room to tell her parents what had happened but saw the kidnapper and Elizabeth outside her brother’s bedroom and quickly retreated, hiding in her room for hours before finally venturing out and explaining to her parents that Elizabeth had been kidnapped.
At first, Ed and Lois Smart thought Mary Katherine simply had a nightmare. But they soon realized she was telling the truth when they discovered a window screen cut open. The next day, the parents made a public plea for their daughter’s safe return.
As the story gained national attention, a search effort with thousands of volunteers as well as search dogs and aerial surveillance was launched. Meanwhile, police struggled to find Elizabeth, since Mary Katherine didn’t see much and little forensic evidence was found at the scene.
Mary Katherine had told police that a white man, about 30 or 40-years old and wearing light-colored clothes and a golf hat, had abducted her sister. It later turned out that the abductor was 48-years old and wore black clothes with no golf hat.
Police looked into hundreds of potential suspects, but a break in the case didn’t come until four months later in October. Mary Katherine suddenly connected the voice she had heard the night Elizabeth was taken to that of an unemployed man who had worked on the family’s roof and raked leaves.
Nearly a year before Elizabeth was kidnapped, she and her mother had seen a man panhandling in downtown Salt Lake City, The Salt Lake Tribune reported. Lois Smart gave the man $5 and offered to pay him to work on her family’s home. The man said his name was “Immanuel” and accepted one day of work at the Smart home.
Police, however, were skeptical of Mary Katherine’s sudden realization because it had been so long since “Immanuel” had worked on the Smart home and because he had only worked there briefly. The Smarts hired a sketch artist to create a composite of “Immanuel’s” face based on family descriptions of the man they had hired. This sketch was featured on “America’s Most Wanted” and “Larry King Live,” where it was recognized by relatives of a man named Brian David Mitchell.
On March 12, 2003, nine months after Elizabeth had been abducted from her home, two different couples who had seen Mitchell’s photo on the news reported seeing him in Sandy, Utah, along with a woman and a girl wearing a gray wig, veil, and sunglasses. Police immediately traveled to the location and questioned the man, realizing that it was Elizabeth under the veil.
Mitchell was arrested along with his wife, Wanda Barzee, both of whom had children of their own and had been accused of abuse. Both were also active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though they didn’t follow all of the church’s teachings.
Elizabeth would later describe her kidnapping and captivity, saying that Mitchell took her into an encampment in the woods outside Salt Lake City after abducting her from her home. During testimony at Mitchell’s trial, Smart said that Barzee told her to remove her pajamas and change into a robe, and when she refused, threatened to have Mitchell come in and rip her clothes off. Smart complied.
“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,” Smart testified, according to People.
Elizabeth said that Mitchell, a self-described prophet, “used religion to get what he wanted,” which was sex. She said that Mitchell gave her drugs and alcohol to lower her resistance to his regular sexual advances and once even made Elizabeth lay in her own vomit all night after she became sick from too much alcohol.
To keep her from escaping, Mitchell tethered Elizabeth to a tree using a metal cable, but he and Barzee would also take her out in public with her face concealed. They took her to a public library to research places to move, to the grocery store, and even to a party, with Mitchell claiming she was his daughter and called her Augustine Marshall.
Three months after kidnapping Elizabeth, Mitchell and Barzee moved to San Diego County, California, where they repeatedly moved to different encampments. In February 2003, eight months after her kidnapping, Elizabeth was able to convince Mitchell to move them back to Salt Lake City by claiming that God wanted them to return there, according to The New Yorker. It was a month later when Elizabeth was rescued.
On July 26, 2005, Mitchell was found incompetent to stand trial and was confined to Utah State Hospital, with a psychologist for the defense concluding that Mitchell’s religious beliefs stretched into delusions.
On November 17, 2009, Barzee pleaded guilty to her role in Elizabeth’s abduction, telling Smart in court that she was “so sorry” for “all the pain and suffering I caused you and your family,” ABC News reported at the time. “It is my hope you will be able to find it in your heart and forgive me.”
Barzee was sentenced to 15 years in a federal prison for the kidnapping and sexual assault of Elizabeth Smart. She was also sentenced to 15 years for the attempted kidnapping of Elizabeth’s cousin, with the sentences to run concurrently.
Nearly four months after Barzee admitted to her crimes, Mitchell was deemed competent for trial and was found guilty for kidnapping and unlawful transportation of a minor across state lines for sexual activity. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Elizabeth has since authored a memoir about her experience and has become an advocate for victims. She was married in 2012 and has three children.