Most stories that start off like Elizabeth Smart's do not have happy endings.
At best, the answers that a family seeks and may even finally get only serve as a form of a closure, an OK to stop looking, to stop hoping. A go-ahead to officially start the grieving process.
But nine months after the 14-year-old was kidnapped on June 5, 2002, from the bedroom she shared with her 9-year-old sister in their family's house in Salt Lake City, Utah, Elizabeth Smart came home.
"I don't know what she's gone through and I'm sure she's been through hell," her dad, Ed Smart, told reporters after his daughter was rescued on March 12, 2003. He and wife Lois Smart and their five other children had never given up hope that Elizabeth was still alive.
With the now 15-year-old Smart back home and her kidnapper, 49-year-old Brian David Mitchell, in custody, that could have been the end of it. A few weeks of investigating and tearful interviews, a follow-up here and there for the major milestones, such as when Elizabeth graduated high school, got married, had children of her own.
But as the details of the story started coming out in the ensuing weeks, months and years, as Elizabeth became a symbol of human resiliency and an advocate for child victims of violence, a fuller picture emerged of just how truly terrifying and potentially soul-crushing her experience was. Not to mention, with a highly telegenic victim and a ripped-from-a-nightmare villain, the story rights sold themselves.
Lois Smart via Getty Images
The night Elizabeth was taken, nothing seemed amiss in the Smart household. She and her sister, Mary Katherine, prepared for bed as usual. Ed made sure the doors were locked but he didn't put on the alarm because sometimes the kids would set it off if they got up and moved around the house. So, he left it off that night.
At around 2 a.m. on June 5, Elizabeth woke to find Mitchell standing over her. He hustled her out of bed, threatening to harm her if she made a sound, ordered her to put her shoes on and walked her out of the bedroom.
Mary Katherine heard it all. She and her sister were sleeping in the same bed and she had woken up as well. Pretending to be a asleep, she heard the man threaten Elizabeth. She later told police she got out of bed and went toward her parents' room as soon as she felt they were no longer in the hallway, but then she spotted the man and ran back into the bedroom, where she hid for two hours, scared he was still in the house. She finally told her parents at around 4 a.m. She said the man had a gun.
Lois and Ed searched all over the house first, hoping that when Mary Katherine came to them and announced, "Elizabeth is gone," the child had just had a nightmare and Elizabeth had gone to sleep elsewhere.
Standing in the kitchen, Lois noticed the window. She had left a window open to air out the kitchen the night before after burning some food, and she saw that the screen had been cut.
"I was hysterical, and I was—we were yelling," Lois Smart would recall later. "I was yelling for Ed, 'Call the police! Call the police!' It's a horrible, horrible feeling."
Despite Mary Katherine's account, police still had to investigate the possibility of a domestic incident, or that Elizabeth had run away. Ed Smart was given a polygraph test, the questioning of parents in such cases a not-uncommon occurrence, a few days after Elizabeth disappeared.
Scott Mc Kiernan/ZUMAPRESS.com
"When asked by law enforcement I fully cooperated because I have nothing to hide," he said in a statement. "We are doing everything in our power to bring back Elizabeth back."
Within a day of her disappearance, their community had rallied en masse. A massive volunteer-fueled search got underway, with at least 2,000 people (and hundreds of members of the media) showing up from all over the country to help look for the teen in the greater Salt Lake City area and nearby mountains. Candlelit vigils were held in town. People donated use of their private planes and helicopters to aid the search.
Ed's brother Tom Smart, heartened by the outpouring of support, admitted to the New York Times, "The first time I heard, I thought she's a goner, some psychopath has killed her." But, he added, "Amazing miracles happen. I truly believe that. Even though it may seem crazy and it defies reason, rational logic and statistics, we all believe she's alive. That's why our spiritual belief is so important."
After a week had gone by, however, the number of volunteers had reportedly shrunk to a few hundred.
AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac
In July, a month after Elizabeth vanished, Ed Smart told the Deseret News, "There's a big hole in our family. I really thought this would be over long ago, and I don't know how long it's going to go on...There's no way I'm going to be able to forget Elizabeth and get her out of my mind, but life goes on. You can't just shut down and crawl in a hole."
During the day, Ed and Lois—devout Mormons who both hailed from sprawling families with deep ties to the community—were trying to make things feel as normal as possible for Mary Katherine and her four brothers. They tried to keep them out of the sight of the TV crews hovering around the house and took them to regular summer activities, like swimming. But at night, the four children preferred sleeping in their parents' room with them. Neighbors and family members pitched in to keep the kids occupied while the Smarts searched for Elizabeth. Ed and Lois found themselves up in the middle of the night, sitting in the room their daughter had been taken from and wondering what she went through.
They also worried intently about Mary Katherine's well-being. Lois remembered thinking, "We can't lose both daughters. Because they both had gone through so much. And yet we had one with us. But she was dealing with and living with the idea that her sister was gone. And she was the only one that witnessed that."
And as the weeks turned into months, the Smarts remained determined to keep Elizabeth's name in the news, convinced she was out there somewhere—and the media happily obliged.
On MSNBC in August 2002, Ed told Dan Abrams that Mary Katherine had told them that she thought the voice of the man who took Elizabeth sounded "familiar."
While simultaneously processing thousands of tips and alleged sightings of Elizabeth all over Utah and beyond, police had zeroed in on a suspect, a man with a criminal record named Richard Ricci who had worked as a handyman at the Smart home and had admitted to burglarizing several houses, including theirs. He was locked up on a parole violation—but had been out when Elizabeth went missing, and he had put hundreds of unexplained miles on his car between May 30 and June 8. He was never charged in Elizabeth's case, however; Ricci ended up dying in prison of a brain hemorrhage on Aug. 30, 2002, while awaiting trial on the burglary charges.
Mauricio Menjivar/Getty Images
In the book Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope, Lois recalled coming upon her daughter's horseback-riding gear that September and going for a ride along her daughter's favorite trail. It was then, looking at the view, that it hit her that Elizabeth "may not be coming back. I remember I took the pin that I always wore of Elizabeth, and took it off and put it on a rock up there. And it was my way of letting go."
But when Ed came to her one day and suggested they hold a memorial, she said, "absolutely not."
In December 2002, America's Most Wanted host John Walsh, whose own son was kidnapped and murdered in the 1980s, had been closely following the case and he said on Larry King Live that there was a new person of interest, a man who had worked as a roofer for the Smarts. (A family spokesperson later said Walsh had prematurely shared that bit of information.)
At the same time Walsh said, "I hope that [Ricci] didn't take the secret of Elizabeth Smart to the grave with him. I talked to Ed and Lois yesterday. I said, 'Don't give up hope. Justice delayed isn't justice denied.'"
Three months later, having seen a police sketch of Brian David Mitchell, who had worked on the Smarts' roof in November 2001 using an alias, because he was wanted for questioning, two people called police to say they had seen a man who looked like the suspect walking around in a Salt Lake City suburb with two females. It was March 12, 2003, a Wednesday. Police approached the trio, which turned out to be Mitchell; his wife, Wanda Eileen Barzee; and Elizabeth Smart, who was wearing a wig, sunglasses and a veil-like head covering.
Salt Lake County Sheriff's Department
Mary Katherine had identified Mitchell the previous October as the man who abducted her sister, prompting Walsh's disclosure.
Initially police learned that Mitchell, a drifter who fancied himself a prophet and went by the name "Emmanuel," had hidden camped out in the nearby mountains with Smart before taking her to various places, including all the way to San Diego, Calif. He and Barzee were arrested and ultimately charged with aggravated kidnapping, aggravated burglary and sexual assault.
Salt Lake County Sheriff's Department
Ed Smart was called to come down to the Sandy police station without being told why. When he got there and saw his daughter, he found out his prayers had been answered. The sprawling Smart family and the people of Salt Lake City were overjoyed.
"This is a miracle. I'm just floating on air!" Elizabeth's 21-year-old cousin Sierra Smart told the Salt Lake Tribune.
Acknowledging that he had no idea yet what sort of toll the ordeal had taken on his daughter mentally, Ed Smart said in a TV interview, "I am just praying she will be OK You just can't imagine what this type of person might make her think or believe."
Elizabeth spent her first night back home with her family, going through hundreds of emails of support that had been sent to them while she was gone. She, of course, had no idea that she had become national news.
And then came the questions, namely about what went on during Elizabeth's nine months as Mitchell's prisoner. But far more harder for people to wrap their heads around was the question of why didn't she run away or signal for help when she seemingly had the opportunity to do so?
When police first arrived at the scene and walked Elizabeth about 50 yards away from where Mitchell was being questioned, she at first denied being Elizabeth Smart.
"Her heart was beating so hard in her chest, you could see it," Sandy Police Capt. Bill O'Neal recalled that day to the Salt Lake City Tribune in 2013. "She was extremely nervous, visibly nervous." O'Neal admitted, however, that Smart's continued insistence that she wasn't herself started to wear at him.
"It's been 30 or 40 minutes, and we know she's not telling us the truth," he said. "But, on the other hand, she's been through an ordeal that we can't even imagine. So my frustration was, we have the answer, but just tell me the answer. And she wouldn't do that. And at the very end, I said, 'You know, for your family's sake, for your sake, for everybody that's been looking for you around the country, just tell us you're Elizabeth Smart.' Before she got into the patrol car, she said, 'Thou sayest.'"
"If you lived under intimidation and threats constantly, you know, what would you do? I think Elizabeth turned inside and survived," Ed told Katie Couric on Dateline in October 2003 during the family's first TV sit-down since Elizabeth came home. Every network had been angling for the big interview, and NBC got it as part of a package deal with Doubleday, which was publishing the Smarts' book. (CBS, however, aired the first TV movie, The Elizabeth Smart Story, that November.)
He added, "They were nine months that you couldn't imagine ever happening in your life, ever. To think that somebody would come into the house and take her was just, something you couldn't believe would ever happen."
Neither her parents nor Elizabeth, still shy of her 16th birthday, went into very much detail about what she endured. "I think there's some things different about me," the teen said, "but I think I'm still pretty much the same person."
Mitchell had forced her to keep a journal, though he'd largely tell her what to write in it. In her own show of secret rebellion, Smart would make notes in French expressing her true feelings about the situation.
Asked what one of the best things about being home was, she said, "Um, just being back and not having to be, like, told I'm a horrible, evil, wicked, evil, evil girl every 10 seconds."
The Smarts credited their faith and the strong support system of family and clergy around them for helping them stay not only strong, but optimistic, throughout the ordeal. They even prayed for her abductor—whom their 4-year-old son William would refer to as "the conductor."
Responding to the inevitable backlash that the Smarts were exploiting their daughter's trauma for their own gain, with a book deal and a national TV interview, which NBC did not pay for, Couric defended the family.
"I guess different parents would make different decisions, but I think Ed and Lois have her best interests at heart, and I don't think they would exploit their daughter," she said. Couric agreed with Smart's parents not to ask the girl questions that would make her duly uncomfortable.
Those questions would have to be answered soon enough down the road.
Despite her assurances that she was for the most part OK, Smart had been forced into what amounted to sexual slavery by Mitchell, a homeless street preacher whose similarities to Jesus ended with his long hair and beard.
A divorced father of four when he met and married Barzee in the 1980s, his stepdaughter Louree Gaylor later said that he acted inappropriately toward her when he was 12, "kissing and holding me the wrong way." Gaylor left home when she was 15 to get away from him. At some point Mitchell and Barzee were excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—which, Mitchell felt, had lost its way by abandoning polygamy as a tenet of the faith.
It was hard to tell whether he had kidnapped Elizabeth to serve as a surrogate wife for himself or a surrogate daughter for Barzee, who had been distraught when Gaylor left, or some horrifying combination of the two. He had a criminal record but of relatively minor infractions, such as a DUI and shoplifting. When she lived with Mitchell, Gaylor said in a 2003 interview, he was abusive "to a degree. He shot a dog in front of us, made me eat my own rabbit for dinner, things like that."
"My biggest thing on why [Elizabeth] stayed," she said, "could have been a little bit of a brainwashing, because they're very good at that. Or it could have been drugs involved."
Taylor Hill/Getty Images
It wasn't until 2009 that Elizabeth Smart, 21 at the time, spoke at length about being raped and constantly terrorized during the nine months she was held captive. For six years she had come across in interviews as unbelievably upbeat, considering, and impressively resilient. She graduated high school in 2006, worked as a teller at a bank and enrolled at Brigham Young University.
But all the while, she was afraid that Mitchell, who was in prison awaiting trial that whole time, was going to get out one day.
On the very first night after she was kidnapped, Smart testified during her captor's competency hearing to determine if he was mentally fit to stand trial, Mitchell "performed a ceremony to marry me to him and after that he proceeded to rape me." He would sexually assault her "on a daily basis, up to three or four times," she said. She could hardly remember a 24-hour period when he didn't rape her. He forced her to drink alcohol and showed her pornography.
"Wanda would get very upset with him," Smart recalled. "She'd say 'All you do is lust after her.'" Mitchell would tether her to trees with ropes or chains to prevent her from escaping.
She was not questioned about why she didn't attempt to escape during a week-long period when Mitchell was in jail after breaking into a church in San Diego.
At trial, Smart testified that she had been treated like an animal. Before he raped her the first time, she had pleaded with him to stop, saying, "I'm just a little girl."
Mitchell's attorney didn't question Smart's version of events; rather, he continued to insist his client was insane.
Mitchell was convicted in 2010 of kidnapping and transporting a minor across state lines to engage in sexual activity. He's currently serving a life sentence in federal prison in Arizona. Barzee was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison, minus time served, after pleading guilty in 2009 to kidnapping and unlawful transportation of a minor. She also pleaded guilty but mentally ill to a state charge of conspiracy to commit aggravated kidnapping for an attempt to abduct Smart's teenage cousin a month after Elizabeth was taken. As part of the deal, she agreed to aid in the prosecution of her husband.
Asked by the prosecution to describe her captor, Smart didn't hold back. "Evil, wicked, manipulative, sneaky, selfish, greedy, not spiritual, not religious and not close to God," she said.
When he was sentenced, she looked Mitchell in the face and declared, "You will never hurt me again."
Since graduating from high school, Smart has spent the last 11 years advocating for victims of sexual violence and pushing for more comprehensive laws to protect children from violent crime. Her memoir, My Story, written with Chris Stewart, was published in 2013 and she narrated and served as a producer on the Lifetime movie premiering tonight, I Am Elizabeth Smart.
Alana Boden plays Smart, Skeet Ulrich plays Mitchell and Deirdre Lovejoy is Barzee. Smart recalled to the Deseret News seeing Ulrich on set "and it was just kind of like this moment of being taken aback because he looked so much like Brian Mitchell," she said. The actor himself, she noted, was "lovely and kind."
"It's a pretty gruesome story," Smart said. "Certainly a lot of very bad things happen, and I thought, 'How could you possibly show that without it either coming off as dark and terrible and give you nightmares at night, or sugar-coating everything and making it seem like, 'Oh, this terrible thing happened but it really wasn't that bad, and then a miracle happened?'"
"I have met so many survivors and I've worked with so many victims and I've heard so many other people's stories," she said. "I can't tell you how many times I've been approached after I've given a speech or something and somebody's come up to me and said, 'I've never told anyone this before but when I was 14 I was raped' or 'when I was 12 my dad sold me to pay the mortgage on the house.' I have had so many people come up to me and disclose their abuse that's happened to them and they've never told anyone."
Smart happened to be speaking before the recent surge of revelations about sexual abuse and harassment and the general mistreatment of women in entertainment, politics, the tech world and everywhere else started to dominate headlines. But news that there is evil lurking in plain sight wouldn't have come as a surprise to Smart, who found strength and purpose in recovering from her own hellish experience.
"They shouldn't have to keep it a secret, they shouldn't have to hold it inside. Everyone deserves to be happy," Smart said. "No one deserves to be hurt in the way that I was hurt, the way that so many survivors and other victims are being hurt. No one has the right to do that to them. So I want them to know that they're not alone."
Smart is now a mother of two with her husband of five years, Matthew Gilmour, whom she met in Paris in 2009 on a Mormon mission trip. She said on Today earlier this week that she's already assuring her 2-year-old daughter Chloe that the child can tell her mom anything—and Smart will always be on her daughter's side.
"I always tell her, 'No one has the right to hurt you. No one has the right to scare you or make you feel afraid. And if anyone hurts you, you tell mama,'" Smart said. "If I say it enough, and I'm there, she can tell me and she knows I have her corner. She knows she can come to me. I will fight for her and I will believe her."
I Am Elizabeth Smart premieres Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime.
(E! and NBC are both members of the NBCUniversal family.)