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Elizabeth Smart's Kidnapping: Secrets You Never Knew About The Famous Case

AP / Salt Lake City Police Department

I'm definitely a bit of a true crime junkie.

I obsess over every TV series, book, and podcast about America's most famous cases.

But none of them capture my imagination like Elizabeth Smart's kidnapping in 2002.

What makes the case so interesting more than a decade later is the fact that it almost ended in tragedy.

Smart could have been rescued after just a few days - or never found.

And the only reason her tragic story had a happy ending is because of a single stroke of good luck.

These are just some of the untold secrets that make Smart's kidnapping so dramatic.

Her sister witnessed the abduction

knifepoint
Antigua Newsroom

Smart was only 14 when a man broke into her home and abducted her from her bedroom at knife point.

"Don't make a sound," he said. "Get out of bed, or I'll kill you and your family."

The most crucial detail of Smart's abduction is that Smart's younger sister, Mary Katherine, watched the whole thing from her bed in the same room.

She pretended to be asleep as a man scooped up her sister and carried her out of the room.

Mary tried to run after them, but almost bumped into the kidnapper in the hallway.

Smart family home
The Smart family's home.Salt Lake Tribune

"I thought, you know, be quiet, because if he hears you, he might take you too, and you're the only person who has seen this," Mary later told ABC.

She played possum for hours before getting up to warn her parents about the kidnapping.

At first they didn't believe her, then they saw the hole Smart's kidnapper had cut in their screen door.

By then it was too late, and Smart's family would not see her for the next nine months.

But little did they know, throughout her abduction Smart was always very close to her family home.

In her own backyard

Smart's abductor took her to a camp in the mountains behind her home in Salt Lake City, Utah.

While it was isolated, the camp was just a few miles from Smart's home.

Elizabeth Smart camp.
The camp where Smart was held.KSL

In the coming days, the kidnapped girl would hear search parties looking for her nearby.

She was even close enough to hear her own uncle calling for her.

But Smart stayed quiet, afraid that her kidnapper would hurt her or her family if she made a sound.

The wrong man

One of the first suspects police narrowed in on was Richard Ricci - a handyman who had worked for the Smart family.

Richard Ricci.AP

During his interrogation, Ricci denied that he had kidnapped the girl but admitted to stealing from the Smart family.

While being held in jail, Ricci died from a brain aneurysm.

He was eventually proven to be not guilty, and Ricci's widow Angela won a $150,000 settlement for his treatment.

Sadly, Angela took her own life in 2015. Her son said that his mother never really recovered from her husband's treatment and untimely death.

The prophet Emmanuel

So who was Smart's real kidnapper?

His name was Brian David Mitchell, a religious fanatic with a history of criminal behavior and alleged sexual assaults.

Mitchell and Barzee
Smart's kidnappers Brian Mitchell and Wanda Barzee.Salt Lake City Police Department

Obsessed with his own Mormon-inspired religious beliefs, Mitchell had renamed himself Emmanuel, and written his own holy text, The Book of Immanuel David Isaiah.

But despite dressing up like Jesus and announcing that he was a god, Smart says that her abductor was a porn addict who regularly abused her.

For the next nine months, the "prophet" and his devoted wife, Wanda Barzee, made Smart's life a living hell.

Starved and brainwashed

Immediately after being abducted, Smart says she was "married" to Mitchell in a ceremony at his camp before he sexually assaulted her.

Along with repeated abuse, Smart's captors would starve and brainwash her.

Elizabeth Smart missing poster
Smart was held captive for nine months.Salt Lake Tribune

They forced her to pick a new name for herself - Smart chose Esther - and kept her tethered to a tree or stashed in a hole most of the day.

Smart says she was even made to take alcohol and drugs.

Over time, Mitchell revealed to Smart that he planned to abduct even more women, and there's some evidence that he broke into the home of Smart's cousin.

In fact, while most criminals would try to lay low and attract attention, Mitchell took a number of public trips with Smart.

Under our noses

There were a number of close calls that could have led police to Mitchell and Barzee during Smart's abduction.

Elizabeth Smart veil.
Smart, seen wearing a veil at a party with Mitchell during her abduction.Zumapress

Mitchell was actually held in jail for six days after breaking into a San Diego church, but police didn't connect the cases because he used a phony name.

Barzee and Smart would also join Mitchell on errands in public, dressed in matching veils to disguise their identities.

The kidnappers were almost caught during a trip to the Old Salt Lake City Public Library, when a librarian recognized Smart's eyes through her veil.

Old Salt Lake City Public Library
The library where a detective confronted Mitchell.Tricia Simpson - Wikimedia

A detective confronted the kidnappers, but Mitchell convinced him Smart was his daughter, and insisted he could not take off her veil.

"I felt like hope was walking out the door," Smart remembered about her close call.

"I was mad at myself that I didn’t say anything, mad at myself for not taking the chance. So close. I felt terrible that the detective hadn’t pushed harder. He just walked away."

One of these close encounters would eventually save Smart, but first her sister's memory helped to crack the case.

America's Most Wanted

Out of the blue, months after her sister was taken, Mary finally realized why her sister's kidnapper had looked so familiar.

A handyman who went by the name "Emmanuel" had worked for the Smart family years earlier, and Mary said that he had abducted Elizabeth.

Brian Mitchell police sketch.
The police sketch of Mitchell.NBC News

Police didn't completely trust Mary's memory, but agreed to make a police sketch of Emmanuel from the family's descriptions.

The photo was featured on America's Most Wanted, and a woman called to say she recognized the suspect.

She was Mitchell's sister.

Other women who had seen the police sketch recognized Mitchell in Sandy, Utah, just miles from the Smart family's home.

I Am Elizabeth Smart
A recreation of Smart's rescue from the movie 'I Am Elizabeth Smart.'Lifetime

At first Elizabeth - disguised in glasses and a wig - denied her identity to police.

"I know who you think I am. You guys think I'm that Elizabeth Smart girl who ran away," she said.

But when Smart realized Mitchell couldn't hurt her anymore, she told police the truth.

It was a dramatic end to Smart's harrowing story, but what came next for the brave survivor is the best part.

"I had to shut my heart down"

In an interview with US News about her kidnapping, Smart said that her family's unconditional love helped her survive the ordeal.

"Every time I thought I hit rock bottom, somehow these people would find something new, something worse," she said about her kidnappers."

Brian Mitchell and Wanda Barzee.
Mitchell and Barzee on trial.Salt Lake Tribune / Deseret News

"And I had to shut down my heart because it hurt so bad that I wouldn't have been able to survive."

"I knew that my family would always love me and that they wouldn't abandon me, so I made the decision to do whatever it took to survive."

Barzee was sentenced to 15 years in prison for her role in the kidnapping and abuse, while Mitchell was given a pair of life sentences.

Helping other survivors

The silver lining to Smart's awful abduction story is that today she's helping other survivors heal and recover from abuse.

Her Elizabeth Smart Foundation both prevents crimes against children and helps victims recover.

Elizabeth Smart today.
Smart and her family today.WOKV

She also speaks out for victims of violent crimes as a special media correspondent - all while raising her own growing family.

"When I'm asked to go out and interview these other victims, and these other survivors, I just think that it's so important to share their stories," Smart said.

"Not just for their own case, but for all the other victims and survivors out there to know that they're not alone."

Thankfully Smart's story has a happy ending! Do you remember her case?

[H/T: ABC, Reuters, Ranker]

I write about all sorts of things for Shared, especially weird facts, celebrity news, and viral stories. CONTACT: zachary@shared.com