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- March 31, 2003
- Vol. 59
- No. 12
The Miracle Girl
Statistics Said She Wasn't Coming Back. Her Family Never Gave Up Hope. Nine Months After She Disappeared, Elizabeth Smart Returns Home and Makes America Smile
It will likely be a long, long time before that weight is lifted. Nine months after Elizabeth was taken at knifepoint from her bedroom as she slept, she emerged as if from nowhere on a busy street in Sandy, Utah, on March 12, after four people recognized the man she was with: Brian David Mitchell, 49, profiled days earlier on America's Most Wanted. She was dirty and disguised and clearly under the spell of Mitchell, a religious fanatic who worked as a roofer at the Smarts' home for a day in 2001 and who claimed to be a prophet named Immanuel. But she was alive and in good shape and, coming as it did amid threats of war and terror, that news seemed like some sort of a blessing. Even President Bush took time out from his war plans to phone her elated parents, Ed and Lois Smart. "We always knew that if Elizabeth was alive it would be a miracle," says her uncle Tom Smart. "But we always believed that the miracle was very, very possible. And, sure enough, it was."
The good feelings about Elizabeth's return, however, were tempered by concern and sadness as details of her horrific ordeal came to light. On March 18 prosecutors charged Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, 57, with aggravated kidnapping, burglary and sexual assault. They also charged that after abducting her, Mitchell forced Elizabeth to march four miles in her pajamas, from her home to a secluded and decrepit campsite that had no plumbing and little shelter. Threatening to kill her and her family, he kept her there until October. Often he hid her in a hole covered with boards; at other times he attached a cable to her leg and tied her to a tree.
What's more, "she was raped," Chris Thomas, spokesman for the Smart family, told PEOPLE. "Elizabeth is doing very, very well, as well as can be expected under the circumstances." The Smarts were particularly worried about prosecutors filing sexual abuse charges since they wished to shield Elizabeth from having to relive that aspect of her ordeal at trial. Now they simply hope to protect her privacy as much as they can. "Their No. 1 concern right now is helping her get over this," says America's Most Wanted host John Walsh, who has been counseling the Smarts. "What she needs is to be with her family again, to establish some normalcy. And the district attorney has to be sensitive to this girl who has been through hell."
Sullen and distant when officers took her into custody, Elizabeth perked up when her father, Ed, 47, arrived at the Sandy police station. Officer Karen Jones recalls that Ed Smart was asked, "Is this your daughter?" but did not respond. "He just stood there with an open mouth and wide eyes, and then it was just sobs," says Jones. "She stood up and they hugged and cried."
On her first night back at the Smarts' $1.2 million house in Salt Lake City's upscale Federal Heights section, Elizabeth watched her favorite movie, The Trouble with Angels, read scores of e-mails sent by well-wishers, met the family's two new dogs and played her harp. That night she slept alongside Mary Katherine, 10, in the same bed from which she was taken, though the Smarts had rearranged and repainted the bedroom long ago. The next day relatives debated whether some of her dozens of cousins should come see her. "And she said, 'I want to see everyone,' " says her uncle David. "We went around group by group so she didn't get overwhelmed. She said, 'I can't believe how tall everyone has gotten.' "
Utah police blocked off the streets near the Smarts' home for Elizabeth's birthday party. "We all ran in the street and danced and cheered," says Julie Smart. Elizabeth's parents, who sang along to "Amazing Grace" at a candlelight vigil after she disappeared, sang it again at a March 14 ceremony thanking the community for its support in Salt Lake's Liberty Park. Elizabeth did not go but sent a message written on a large poster board. "I am the luckiest girl in the world!" it read. "I'm home!"
Few would dispute that, given the grim statistics regarding children who are missing for more than a few days. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in most serious abductions the child is harmed or killed within the first three hours. "This is a unique case," says Shirley Goins, the Center's West Coast executive director. "Statistics say this won't happen, but statistics are not always right. This really happened, and somebody came home."
Losing her daughter was the last thing on Lois Smart's mind when she met Brian David Mitchell on a Salt Lake City street in November 2001. Preaching and panhandling, he found a charitable soul in Lois, who gave him $5 and offered him a day's work fixing the roof of her house. Lois and her husband, like many Mormons, often made such offers to people in need.
Mitchell's gentle demeanor, however, masked a psyche that had been in free fall for years. Raised not far from the Smarts in Salt Lake City, he did the things all little boys do: played baseball, built go-carts, ran a paper route. But his father, Shirl Mitchell, a sometime welder, fought frequently with his wife, Irene, a schoolteacher, and had little time for his children. "It was dysfunctional," admits Shirl, 80. "Brian was neglected and on the loose."
Mitchell attended the University of Utah but quit in his sophomore year. His first marriage, in 1974, ended within four years, and his two children wound up in foster care. He married again and had two more children before divorcing in the early '80s. A dedicated student of Mormonism, he met Wanda Barzee, a down-on-her-luck divorcee who had been hospitalized for a mental breakdown, at a group-counseling session in the mid-'80s. Before long, Mitchell became convinced he was a prophet and with Barzee's help tried to persuade others of his divinity. "Everybody in life was sinners except for them," says Barzee's daughter LouRee Gayler, 27, who lived with them for three years starting when she was 12. Gayler, who alleges Mitchell inappropriately kissed her, claims he was abusive in other ways: He killed her pet rabbit Peaches and served it to her for dinner. "He said it was chicken," she says. "The next day I realized my rabbit was gone."
In the mid-'90s, Mitchell and Barzee sold all their possessions and began living off the land. Spurred by a vision that he should have seven wives, Mitchell apparently cut a hole in the kitchen screen in the Smarts' home on June 5,2002, and led Elizabeth into the Wasatch Mountains. In the next two weeks some 850 searches were conducted, with helicopters, infrared cameras and bloodhounds used to try and find her. Elizabeth told relatives she heard her uncle David Francom calling her name during one search but was unable to respond, apparently because she was hidden in a dug-out shelter that was covered with boards—something that also would have prevented the infrared cameras from spotting her.
Her disappearance drew national attention, but even after the camera crews went away, the Smart family stayed strong. "It was a near obsession," says Ed Smart's brother David, who along with Ed's four other siblings and Lois's eight brothers and sisters devoted countless hours to the cause. Ed, in particular, "had a strong sense all the way through that his daughter was alive," says Cynthia Smart Owens. "He was a rock."
Early on, police focused on Richard Albert Ricci, 48, a handyman who worked for the Smarts and had a long criminal record (in prison on a parole violation, Ricci suffered a brain hemorrhage and died on Aug. 30). "One lead investigator told us, 'We're 99 percent sure it was Ricci, he acted alone, and Elizabeth is dead," says Owens. But seven weeks after Elizabeth vanished, someone cut through a bedroom window screen in the home of Elizabeth's cousin Jessica, now 18, and fled when a dog began barking (police have charged Mitchell with this attempted kidnapping). "When I heard that, I thought they were trying to get a companion for Elizabeth," says David Smart. "We were like, 'No question, she's alive.' "
Perhaps the real miracle of the case was the breakthrough that came last October, when Mary Katherine walked into her parents' bedroom and told her parents she remembered who took Elizabeth—the worker she knew as Immanuel. Early on, the Smarts were encouraged not to pressure Mary Katherine for details and to allow her to summon them at her own pace. "Think of her memory like a slow cooker," says Jeanne Boylan, a forensic artist who worked with Mary Katherine. "It was bubbling up in increments and over time, and to hurry it would have destroyed it." When Ed Smart heard what his daughter had to say, "he choked up and immediately called the Salt Lake City PD," says David. "He said, 'I worked with this guy on the roof, let me do the sketch.' He just kept after them."
Yet the police sketch was not released until Feb. 3, 2003, when the Smarts called a press conference to publicize their finding. Lead investigator Capt. Cory Lyman, now chief of police in Ketchum, Idaho, later said in an interview that not releasing the sketch sooner was "the wrong choice." But Det. Dwayne Baird of the Salt Lake City Police Department says, "Ed Smart hired hundreds of people, mostly transients, to work on his house. We had to look at everyone else, too."
Meanwhile, Brian David Mitchell was mostly hiding in plain sight (see box page 47). But by the time he brought Barzee and Elizabeth back to Salt Lake City on March 12, he was already a marked man. After the police sketch was finally released on Feb. 3, Mitchell's sister came forward with photos that were then featured in a February episode of America's Most Wanted. On March 1 another episode included new photos of Mitchell. On March 12 two separate couples who had seen that show spotted Mitchell walking on State Street, and called 911 (see box page 48). Four police officers arrived at the scene and spoke with Elizabeth, who was wearing sunglasses and a gray wig beneath a white T-shirt wrapped around her head. She said her name was Augustine Marshall and stuck to that story even after the officers separated her from Mitchell and Barzee. Following regulations, Officer Karen Jones handcuffed her, and Sgt. Victor Quezada asked one last time, "Are you Elizabeth?" Her response: "Thou sayest."
On the way to the police station, Elizabeth began to cry and asked, "What's going to happen to them [Mitchell and Barzee]? Are they going to be okay?" Experts say she will likely require lengthy counseling to overcome the lingering influence of her abductors. So far, her parents have no plans to rush her into therapy, though "we're sure at some point that is going to be needed," says Chris Smart.
For now, her relatives believe, it is far more important to surround her with love and to provide those simple pleasures that were snatched from her nine months ago: the bubble baths she adores, the favorite candy that her sister Mary Katherine rushed out to buy her, the pot roast her grandmother cooked especially for her, the Christmas tree her friends and cousins decorated with miniature harps in her honor.
On the day after Elizabeth's rescue, a family friend came over to cut her hair, which had been tightly braided by her captors. As her long blonde locks were trimmed to her shoulders and given a playful flip, several relatives gathered around, mesmerized by the scene. "We all just sat there and watched," says David Smart. "It was so refreshing to see the real live face and not a picture." Telling the story makes David cry. "She has changed," he says, "but she is still our angel."
Vickie Bane, Lorenzo Benet, Michael Fleeman, Cathy Free and Todd Gold in Salt Lake City, Lyndon Stambler in San Diego and Hope Hamashige in New York City
- Vickie Bane,
- Lorenzo Benet,
- Michael Fleeman,
- Cathy Free,
- Todd Gold,
- Lyndon Stambler,
- Hope Hamashige.
January 29, 2015
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