Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her home when she was 14 years old by Brian David Mitchell. Brian and his wife, Wanda Barzee, held her captive for nine months until she was rescued by police on March 12th, 2003. In 2011, she founded the Elizabeth Smart foundation which aims to bring hope and end the victimization and exploitation of sexual assault through prevention, recovery, and advocacy.
Elizabeth Ann Smart grew up in Salt Lake City. Her father, Ed Smart, was in real estate, and her mother, Lois, was a homemaker. As a child, Elizabeth was described as being kind, smart, shy, and obedient. She started playing the harp when she was 5 and practiced for hours a day because she absolutely loved it. When she was in middle school, she was sought out to perform as a harpist at local weddings and funerals. She regularly participated in the annual fall concert at the capitol rotunda in Salt Lake City. She was very skilled at horseback riding and was a distance runner who was training to compete in cross-country racing.
In November of 2001, the Smart family went out for a shopping trip. Lois Smart was crossing the street with her two daughters, Mary Katherine and Elizabeth. It was a cold day in Salt Lake City as winter was moving in. The Smart's noticed a beggar on the street and Lois approached the man, clutching the hands of her daughters. Her sons had already asked if they could offer the man any work, but Lois handed him $5. She had no idea that the man was studying her daughter during this brief encounter. He was staring at Elizabeth and studied her hair and eye color and the clothing she wore.
Elizabeth describes herself as pretty shy, at least when she was younger. She was quiet and she had a 4.0 GPA. She was a 14 year old that liked to talk to her mom and jump on the trampoline with her friends. Two days prior to being taken, Elizabeth was sitting in Sunday school and her teacher said something that struck her. He said, “If you will pray to do what God wants you to do, He will change your life.” “If you will lose your life in the service of God, He will direct you. He will help you. So I challenge you to do that. Commit to the Heavenly Father, and He will guide your way.” Elizabeth didn't know how she could really serve God because she's just a young girl, but the teacher had an intensity in his voice that drew her in and made her think.
When Elizabeth got home from Sunday school, she went to her bedroom that she shared with her younger sister, Mary Katherine. On the other side of their bathroom, there was a walk-in-closet where she could hide and be by herself sometimes. Elizabeth had 5 siblings and it made the household a bit chaotic at times. On this particular day, she wanted to accept the challenge her teacher had given. As Elizabeth was locked in the closet, she knelt down and prayed. She basically told God that she's only 14, but would do whatever he needed her to do. One day prior to Elizabeth being kidnapped, she attended a funeral for her grandfather. So, her family was already dealing with something pretty traumatic and it rolled right into the next thing.
On June 5th, 2002, Elizabeth and her sister Mary Katherine woke up to a man in their bedroom. He was standing over Elizabeth holding a knife to her throat. He leaned over her and was so close that his beard was against her face and he whispered, “I have a knife to your neck.” “Don't make a sound. Get out of bed, or I'll kill you and your family.” Elizabeth was trying to fully wake up and figure out what was even happening, but the man repeated that he had a knife against her neck and all she could think about was protecting her family. She quietly got out of bed and the man grabbed her by the arm, held the knife at her back and he lead her towards the door. The man suddenly stopped and told Elizabeth to put her shoes on. She grabbed slippers, but he told her to put her running shoes on instead. He told her, “I'm taking you hostage. For ransom.”
The man took Elizabeth outside and he grabbed two green bags that were in the weeds and they headed towards the road that goes up the mountain. Headlights were shining from a vehicle that made it's way up the mountain road and it was a cop car. The man shoved Elizabeth behind some bushes and threatened her so she'd stay quiet. Once the cop passed them, they continued their long trek up the mountain. For a long time, Elizabeth could only see the outline of the man's body because it was so dark out and eventually, she realized she had seen him before. This was the man that her mother had given money to when they were out shopping. Her mother had also given him their number so they could help him more and he was hired to do some handiwork around their house. She pleaded with the man and told him she knew her family would pay whatever he wanted to get her back and he said that his wife was waiting for them at the top of the mountain.
Elizabeth's sister, 9 year old Mary Katherine had been sleeping right next to her and woke up during the abduction. She pretended to sleep, but saw the man leading Elizabeth out of their bedroom. Even though the man whispered, Mary Katherine was able to hear him say kill your family. She stayed in bed frozen with fear for hours, but gathered the courage to run. She grabbed a blanket, threw it over her head and darted to her parent's room. Elizabeth points out that over the years, many people have questioned how Mary Katherine could have waited so long to get her parents. She was 9. She entered her parents bedroom and said Elizabeth is gone and she still had a blanket draped over her head. She said, “you won't find her. A man came and took her.” She didn't see that the intruder had a knife, but knew he had a weapon and assumed he had a gun.
The girls' parents jumped out of bed and ran to the kitchen and saw the screen that had been cut, so they called for help. As the chaos is unfolding inside the house, none of them knew that Elizabeth was being forced to climb and crawl through the weeds and trees with her abductor. The man was getting more agitated as time went on and when the sun began to come up, he realized that Elizabeth was wearing bright red, silk pajamas. She stuck out like a sore thumb, so he handed her a grey shirt to put on. As they're hiking, the man suddenly shouts “Hephzibah” (Hef-zi-bah) and a woman's voice called back Immanuel. An older woman stepped out of the trees, grabbed Elizabeth and hugged her, but it wasn't kind. Elizabeth felt like the woman was showing her how strong she was. She was dominant. They were standing in a small camp with tents and tarps. It was evident that these people had been camping there for awhile.
The woman lead Elizabeth into a large tent and there was a water basin inside. The woman's real name wasn't Hephzibah, it was actually Wanda, so we can just use that so it's less confusing. Wanda told Elizabeth she needed to take her clothes off so she could bathe her and Elizabeth was upset and told her no. She told Wanda that she just showered last night. Wanda yells out the tent and says, she showered last night, is that ok? Like she's asking if that's clean enough for her abductor. A voice responded that it was fine, but that wasn't good enough for Wanda. She told Elizabeth that she better take her clothes off or she'd have him come in the tent and rip them off of her.
Once Elizabeth was naked, Wanda had her get in the water basin and she left, so the abductor could enter. She later finds out that the man's real name wasn't Immanuel, it was Brian David Mitchell. So, Brian goes into the tent and sees Elizabeth bawling in the water basin and he tells her “I seal you to me on this Earth, and what is sealed here on Earth will be sealed in the afterlife, and I take you to be my wife. Before God and His angels as my witnesses.” Elizabeth screams no and Brian told her that if she ever pulled a stunt like that again, he'd duct tape her mouth shut. Brian forced Elizabeth onto the bed and she was begging him to stop. She tried everything. She said she was a child and hadn't even started her period yet. Brian consulted with Wanda outside and tells her what Elizabeth told him and asked if that's ok. Wanda was like, yep, that's ok. She could have saved Elizabeth, but she gave Brian permission to rape her. He did so that day and multiple times a day over the next nine months. He starved, manipulated, and tortured her.
Elizabeth remembers feeling disgusting, broken, and felt as if her soul was crushed. She wondered if her family was looking for her. Would she ever be found? Would they still want her after they realized what Brian had done to her? She was different now. Elizabeth contemplated running away in the middle of the night, but it wasn't possible because Brian wrapped a steel cable around her ankle while she was sleeping. She was sinking into a really dark place in her brain that allowed her to believe death would be better. She had a lot of time to herself when she was held captive and Elizabeth decided to use her faith to help her. She realized that her family had always loved her no matter what she had done, surely they would accept her back and that was a reason to live and keep fighting.
Elizabeth's parents, Ed and Lois called everyone they knew asking for help on the night of their daughter's abduction. The police arrived at the home at 4:13 and friends and family flooded the home just minutes later. Unfortunately, the police didn't declare the home a crime scene or block people from coming inside, so the scene was immediately contaminated. Over the next few hours, a search party was formed and people were canvassing the neighborhood. Elizabeth's parents and brothers were immediate suspects in her disappearance, which makes sense. It didn't take long for this to blow up in the media and people were coming from all over to join the search efforts.
Elizabeth says she spent a lot of time crying at the beginning of being held at the camp. Brian told her she would would be his handmaiden and Wanda would be the mother wife. The handmaiden was basically used for sex. Brian knew how deeply religious Elizabeth was and used bible quotes against her. He would say that she's no better than anyone else and the Bible says that before you rise above all things, you have to descend below them all. He was doing her a service by teaching her these lessons and she had to experience all the evil before she could be worthy of being Brian's wife. He would do “sex lessons” or demonstrations on Wanda and forced Elizabeth to watch, then he would rape Elizabeth afterwards and he would make her sit naked in the tent all day. After Brian violated Elizabeth, he would tell her she's so lucky because he brought her out of sin, out of the ugly world. Now, Wanda was actually jealous of Elizabeth, so it seemed that she enjoyed seeing her be tortured.
Brian renamed Elizabeth Shearjashub (She-ar-josh-oob) because he was the first son of Isaiah and it means a remnant will return. Elizabeth asked if she could choose her own middle name and Brian agreed as long as it came from the Bible. She chose Esther. She just wanted something that was hers and hadn't been picked for her. He told her that God had purged and cleansed him and he was commanded to take seven wives. You see, this was all God's plan. This is the worst kind of manipulation. He says that Elizabeth shouldn't be upset, she was the lucky one. Some day she would testify to the world with his other wives that he was Immanuel and he was the chosen one from God. Even though Brian told this to Elizabeth daily, she was smart enough to realize that someone who is threatening to kill her and her family, couldn't be telling the truth about being a chosen vessel from God.
Many airplanes flew over the camp while Elizabeth was there and one day, she heard someone calling her name. She believed it was her uncle, but Brian was immediately beside her making sure she didn't make a sound. Can you imagine how awful that would be? Her family was close enough for her to hear them and she couldn't call out for help. Brian said if her family found them, they would be killed. The next day, helicopters hovered right over the camp, but nothing happened and they carried on down the mountainside. The camp was really dirty and Brian had to hike to a spring at the bottom of the canyon to get water, so they had to ration the water and ran out every few days.
Elizabeth came to the conclusion that this group of people would be far more likely to kill her if she was mopey and miserable. If she wanted to survive, she needed to pretend that she was friends with them. Perhaps they would let their guard down and stop tying her up. Maybe she could stop fighting the abuse and work towards gaining the trust of her captors. Wanda and Brian actually fought all the time and it was often about Elizabeth. She would hear them yelling and Wanda would tell him that he's being lustful with Elizabeth because she's young and beautiful and it wasn't fair. After their fights, Brian would remind Wanda that he was God's servant and pray over her. She had to stay with him because she was part of the plan.
When Brian would leave the camp for water, Elizabeth often begged to go with him, but he always said she wasn't ready. On one occasion, he finally agreed to let her go and unlocked the cable she was tied to. She was overjoyed to finally get out and move and she also wanted to leave as many footprints as possible along the way. When the group eventually ran out of food rations, Brian was forced to head to town and he came back just beaming. He had seen Elizabeth's face on posters all over town and it made him proud. He couldn't wait to tell Elizabeth, but it actually gave her a sense of hope. If people were still looking for her and still fighting, then she could fight too.
Elizabeth was tethered full time for the first six weeks at the camp. Brian made it his mission to make sure she understood that if she ever got free and tried to leave, he would kill her entire family and she would have to deal with that because it would be all her fault. He started going into town a few times a week and always brought alcohol back and forced Elizabeth to drink it with him. This was EXTREMELY against her religion and he knew this. One night, Brian gives Elizabeth a bunch of alcohol, does a sexual demonstration with Wanda and says he and Elizabeth were going to do the same thing. When he leaned in to kiss her, she bit his tongue. He told her if you ever do that again, I'll never have sex with you again. WHAT?! He told her she would be the most miserable woman in the world. I honestly wonder if this would have created a bigger problem though. If she hurt him again, would he decide he didn't need her and kill her?
Elizabeth wasn't Brian's first attempt at getting an extra wife. He found a woman named Kelly and moved in with her, but Wanda got extremely jealous and things blew up. He decided to target someone younger and that's when he took 14 year old Elizabeth. He realized that she was still too old though because she fought back too much and she wasn't easy to control, so he wanted to take younger girls for his next wives. He did find a young girl on a bus that he wanted to target, but she realized he was following her and she waited until the last second to jump off the bus and he was still on it when it drove away.
Elizabeth was never allowed to talk about her family or “previous life”. Brian would yell at her if she brought it up. On one occasion, Brian was complaining about how it was really stupid that he wasn't allowed to go see his mom because she got a restraining order against him after he pushed her down a flight of stairs. He mentioned where she lived and Elizabeth was like, oh I know that neighborhood, my cousin Olivia lives right by there. Brian allowed her to continue her story, so she talked about all the things they used to do together and he goes, oh, I've see that yellow house before, I know where that is. The next day, he wakes Elizabeth up by saying, the Lord commanded him to go get Olivia to be his next wife. He spent time planning things out and decided he would kidnap Olivia on July 24th because it was a state holiday commemorating the day the Mormon pioneers made their way to Salt Lake Valley. This would mean lots of traffic, parades, fireworks, parties, everything loud.
Elizabeth was sick with worry and felt that she had betrayed her cousin and wondered if she would be sent to jail for accidentally helping Brian. She was conflicted. Part of her desperately wanted a friend or a family member to be with her, but she didn't want anyone to go through the same pain she had endured. She waited all day and when he returned, he announced that Olivia wasn't the one God wanted after all. Apparently, Brian entered Olivia's home through the window, just like he had done at Elizabeth's. But this time, when he reached inside the window, he knocked something over and it shattered. He waited and when he didn't hear voices or footsteps, he reached in again and knocked something else over. This time, lights popped on in the house and someone started shouting, so he had to leave.
Over the years, many people have criticized Elizabeth because she talks about how compliant and obedient she became and when she was finally let off the tether, people say she could have escaped. You don't know what brainwashing is like and she was 14. He was saying he would kill her entire family and he knew everything about them. His own family disowned him because he was so awful.
My Story by Elizabeth Smart