There are few instances in our modern times where a young child has been so mercilessly tortured by hope and abuse. We often pray that our own children are able to avoid the terrible evils in the world, but sometimes the wicked come crawling in through the cracks of our homes.
The kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart first captured the attention of the country when we heard that a sweet, innocent girl had been taken from her home. However, as details of her captivity and repeated rapes started leaking to the press, the horror of what unfolded for Elizabeth and her family shocked everyone.
It all started in a quiet neighborhood in Salt Lake City, Utah, where Elizabeth grew up with her five other siblings in a devout Mormon household. She was a shy child, obedient to her parents and intelligent, playing the harp was her favorite pastime since she was five-years-old.
Well-liked and close with her friends, everyone knew she would grow up to be a confident and strong woman. No one could have expected what was going to happen to Elizabeth, or what she would have to do to survive.
You might ask yourself what sort of a person would want to take a fragile child like Elizabeth from her home and put her through hell. In order to understand evil, we have to look at where it came from.
Brian David Mitchell was also born in Salt Lake City, and led a troubled childhood thanks to his parent's unorthodox rearing.
His father was a social worker and decided the best way to prepare his son for the world was to show Mitchell sexually explicit pictures when he was only 8, which led to his perverted behavior later in life.
When he was 16, Mitchell exposed himself to a young child and was sent to a youth detention center, sending him further into his emotional isolation.
He would marry at nineteen and have two children with his first wife, divorcing 12 years later amid claims of sexual abuse of his three-year-old son.
When Mitchell married Wanda Barzee, everything slipped off the rails. His religious views became more radical, to the point where he left the Church of Latter Day Saints to form his own cult, believing himself to be a prophet on a mission from God.
Growing out his beard, wearing white robes, and setting up encampments in the forests of Utah, Mitchell was ready for the next phase of his divine plan. He needed a new wife, and unfortunately for Elizabeth Smart, she wouldn't get to say no.
As the Smart family were a traditional Mormon household, they believed in having the brothers and sisters sleep in separate rooms.
This meant Elizabeth, 14, and her sister, Mary Katherine, age 9, were alone when Mitchell cut through the screen of their kitchen window on the night of June 5, 2002.
Mitchell had picked out Elizabeth previously when he spent a day doing landscaping work for the family the year before. As he entered the room of the two girls, he pulled out a knife and woke up Mary Katherine.
While this would bring about his eventual downfall, it was also the start of the painful missed chances the family would have to endure.
Mary Katherine remembers seeing a white man, of middle age, standing in their room holding a weapon she thought was a gun, but was actually a large knife. He first came right up to her bed, but then went to Elizabeth and tapped her awake.
He forced her out of bed, moving her towards the hallway. She stubbed her toe and made a sound, to which Mitchell said "You better be quiet, and I won't hurt you."
Mary Katherine thought she recognized the voice, but couldn't place it, not yet. She waited a few minutes and got up to tell her parents, but saw Mitchell was still in the house, so went back to her room and hid.
"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," she said. "I was, like, shaking."
Hours later she woke up her parents and told them Elizabeth was gone. At first they didn't believe her story about the man, until they saw the kitchen window screen had been cut open.
A large-scale manhunt was launched, which included over 2,000 daily volunteers with bloodhounds and planes surveying from the skies.
Elizabeth's parents, Ed and Lois Smart, made a desperate plea to the kidnapper on CNN saying, "Please let her go. Please. I mean, she doesn't do anything to anyone, and there's no reason that you should have her."
On the off chance she could hear, her mother wanted Elizabeth to know "if you're out there, we're doing everything we possibly can to help you. We love you. We want you to come home safely to us."
But it was too late, Mitchell had taken Elizabeth from her family into the foothills surrounding the city, and her nightmare was about to begin.
The important thing to remember throughout this is that not only was Mitchell responsible for the pain and torment that he wielded over Elizabeth, but that his wife Wanda Barzee was just as involved in the deeds.
As soon as Mitchell had brought Elizabeth into his encampment, he handed her over to his wife, who prepared her for her "new life."
In an interview with People, she described what happened next.
“She eventually just proceeded to wash my feet and told me to change out of my pajamas into a robe type of garment,” she said. “And when I refused, she said if I didn’t, she would have Brian Mitchell come rip my pajamas off. 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.”
She would spend her days in the forests, less than 20 miles from her home, at the mercy of these two vicious monsters. Nearly every hour she was shackled to a tree using a metal cable, sometimes kept in a shallow hole covered by boards.
Mitchell would try and convince her that he was a holy prophet, later saying that the kidnapping and rapes were ordained by God, and that she would stand by his side when he would fight the Antichrist.
However, his delusions were far from benign. Elizabeth was subjected to daily rapes, three to four times a day, with threats and forced inebriation if she tried to resist, which she did.
The most infuriating aspect of her captivity is the boldness of Mitchell and Barzee, who would sometimes take her into the city where her friends, neighbors, and family would walk by her.
On one occasion, someone noticed a look of fear in the eyes of Elizabeth while at a library. A police officer approached them and asked them a few questions, but they were deflected by Mitchell, saying that his wife and "daughter" weren't allowed to speak or show their faces because of their religion.
Elizabeth had been threatened by Barzaa while this was happening, and said watching the officer leave was one of the hardest things she had to endure.
"I felt like hope was walking out the door. I was mad at myself that I didn’t say anything, mad at myself for not taking the chance. So close," she recalls. "I felt terrible that the detective hadn’t pushed harder. He just walked away."
But Mitchell's sloppiness would be his downfall, and thanks to a few lucky coincidences, Elizabeth's luck would soon turn to the better.
Five months after she watched her older sister get kidnapped at knife-point, Mary Katherine had a revelation.
Looking at pictures of bearded men one day, she suddenly connected the voice of the man she saw take Elizabeth to the man who did landscaping work of them a year before.
The drifter, who went by the name "Emmanuel," had only worked at their home for a day, but she was sure it was him.
The police were skeptical of her theory, but they worked with the family to draw up a sketch of the suspect's face. They distributed the drawing to major television stations such as America's Most Wanted, where Mitchell's family recognized his picture.
They notified the authorities and provided recent photographs of their estranged relative, who they hadn't seen in some time.
On March 12, 2003, a couple saw Mitchell walking with Elizabeth and Barzee around Salt Lake City in broad daylight. They were gathering supplies before leaving to go across the country, where they couldn't be found.
The couple called the police, saying they recognized the man from the wanted photos. Mitchell and Barzee were placed under immediate arrest and Elizabeth was taken to the hospital, and her family was told the good news; they had found her.
The trial was difficult for the community to listen to, especially the Smart family. The sexual attacks and isolation that Elizabeth had to endure was graphic, but it led to life imprisonment for Mitchell. Barzee was given 15 years, she will be free in 2024.
Elizabeth underwent extensive therapy and spiritual healing, but has now moved past the pain she was exposed to as a child. She works as an advocate for missing persons and victims of childhood abuse.
She is now married with two children and says that she has been able to live without fear thanks to her relationship with God and her family.
Of her work in the community she says, "We need to do everything we can to prevent this from happening to kids and that they come home and have a second chance at life."