To Hell and Back: The Impossible Resilience of Elizabeth Smart

Now an author, activist and mother of three, Elizabeth Smart's journey after being kidnapped from her bedroom at 14 and held captive for nine months made her a symbol of hope.

By Natalie Finn Nov 03, 2021 11:00 AMTags
Watch: Why Elizabeth Smart's New Kidnapping Movie Is So Important

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, 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.

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With Smart, by then 15, back home and her kidnappers, Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee, 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 considering the highly telegenic victim, her big, loving family and the ripped-from-a-nightmare villain, the story rights sold themselves. As more details started coming out in the ensuing weeks, months and years after her rescue, and a fuller picture emerged of just how truly terrifying and potentially soul-crushing her experience was, Smart became a symbol of human resiliency.

And still, more than 18 years since she was found and reunited with her family, she hasn't packed up her platform and retreated into anonymity, either. The author, speaker and founder of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation remains an advocate for survivors of violence, as well as a wizened voice on the subject of how to work through the most unimaginable of traumas. Which, she continues to emphasize, is a different process for everybody.

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Asked on Instagram almost a year ago when it was that she first opened up to her parents about the sexual abuse and other horrors she suffered at her captors' hands, Smart shared that she never specifically sat them down to talk about it in the privacy of their own home. Rather, they found out when she testified in court.

"Honestly when I got home I didn't want anyone to know what had happened I was embarrassed and ashamed," the now 34-year-old mother of three explained in a Nov. 29, 2020, post. "I was brought to an advocacy center where I had to disclose much of what happened to two professionals and they in turn relayed much of what happened to my parents. But I don't think my parents ever heard in detail what happened from my own lips until my court appearance almost a decade later."

That being said, she noted, her unique case didn't hinge on whether or not she confided in her family, or on whether or not they or law enforcement believed her story. It was obvious that she had been the victim of a crime, which certainly isn't the case for everybody.

"For these and many other reasons I want Victim's [sic] to know that #Ibelieveyou and I hope that as all of us move forward when we come across Victim's and survivors our first reaction is to believe them!" she continued. "Should we have friends or family disclose to us just listen, they don't owe us answers to our questions or curiosities. Love them, support them, and be their friend."

Renee Jones Schneider/Star Tribune via AP

On Nov. 30, she continued writing about how she once dealt with the "shame and embarrassment" she felt when she got home: basically by avoiding the subject. "In my mind what had happened was something that I hated and never wanted to acknowledge so I just avoided thinking/talking about it," Smart recalled.

"But I remember one day my dad came to me and started discussing the charges Brian Mitchell was going to be charged with, and I felt anger, because of all the charges he was faced with none of them included the worst things he did to me. It was ultimately in that moment that I stopped caring and worrying about the shame and embarrassment that I felt. If someone judged me for what happened, in my mind I came to the conclusion that they did not matter and clearly were not worth my time. Since then I became more and more involved in advocacy and as I went out I realized I was not alone in being a victim of rape and sexual abuse. This more than anything made me want to do more, change the culture, speak and share my story if it helped others.

"In my eyes the first step towards changing the culture of how we treat victims and survivors is to start by believing them! It is for that reason @elizabethsmartfoundation started our #webelieveyou campaign."

Instagram

But being a mom to 6-year-old Chloé, 4-year-old James, and 2 1/2-year-old Olivia means that Smart isn't finished figuring out how and when, exactly, to open up to this particular audience about what happened to her. 

"With all my children, really, I certainly never want to hide what happened in the past, because every single one of us has a past," she told E! News in January following the jaw-dropping revelation that she was "The Moth" on The Masked Dancer. She noted that Chloé had begun to ask why her mother was having all these talks, especially once she was doing more work from home during the pandemic. 

"Every single one of us has had something happen in our lives," Smart explained. "It's unrealistic to think that we will all just have a perfect life. We will all face hardships and struggles, in whatever form that may be, and so I have begun to speak to her as she asked questions. But with that being said, it's not all at once. And it's age-appropriate, to the best of my ability."

Though what Smart endured has been well-documented, as well as reenacted in a Lifetime movie Smart deemed "terrifying," it remains an unbelievable story, the strength she exhibits now hardly guaranteed when you consider the details.

Lois Smart via Getty Images

The night Smart was taken more than 19 years ago, nothing seemed amiss in the Smart household. She and her only 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., Smart 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 on her shoes 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 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. that Elizabeth had been taken by a man with a gun.

Lois and Ed searched all over the house first, hoping that when Mary Katherine came to them and announced, "Elizabeth is gone," that she had just had a nightmare and the 14-year-old had fallen asleep 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," the mother of six 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.

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"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."

Scott Mc Kiernan/ZUMAPRESS.com

Within a day of Smart's 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 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 had experienced.

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."

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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 said 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 equestrian 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 1981, 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.)

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.'"

Salt Lake County Sheriff's Department

But as it turned out, in October 2002 Mary Katherine had identified Brian David Mitchell, who had worked on the Smarts' roof in November 2001 using an alias, as the man who abducted her sister, and that's the roofer Walsh was referring to. (In his own book on the investigation, In Plain Sight, Elizabeth's uncle Tom Smart credited Walsh for his role in keeping the story alive, which Tom felt played a big role in finding his niece.)

Three months later, having seen a police sketch of Mitchell, two people called police to say they had spotted a man who looked like the person of interest walking around in a Salt Lake City suburb with two females. It was March 12, 2003, a Wednesday. Police approached the trio, who 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.

Police learned that Mitchell, a drifter who fancied himself a prophet and went by the name "Emmanuel," had 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 eventually 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 City 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 then-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 psychologically, 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 difficult 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?

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When police first arrived at the scene and walked the teen 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 to the Salt Lake City Tribune in 2013. "She was extremely nervous, visibly nervous." O'Neal admitted, however, that the girl's continued insistence that she wasn't herself started to lose steam.

"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.'"

But who's to say what anyone would have done in her shoes?

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"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."

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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 then-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 unasked questions would be answered soon enough.

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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 her daughter 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 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 her experience, and impressively resilient. She graduated high school in 2006, worked as a teller at a bank and enrolled at Brigham Young University to study music. (She's a veteran harp player.)

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.

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At trial, Smart testified that she had been treated like an animal. Before Mitchell 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 they took Elizabeth. As part of the deal, she agreed to aid in the prosecution of her husband.

Asked in court 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."

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Smart has spent more than 15 years advocating for victims of sexual violence and pushing for more comprehensive laws to protect children. Her memoir, My Story, written with Chris Stewart, was published in 2013 and she narrated and served as a producer on the 2017 Lifetime movie I Am Elizabeth Smart.

Alana Boden played Smart, Skeet Ulrich played Mitchell and Deirdre Lovejoy was 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."

Sergei Bachlakov/A&E

"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?'"

At the 2017 Summer TCA Press Tour, Smart told E! News that she felt it was an ideal time to tell her story to another generation of girls.

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"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."

She continued, "They shouldn't have to keep it a secret, they shouldn't have to hold it inside. Everyone deserves to be happy. 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."

That conversation happened to have taken place before the 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 in the fall of 2017. But news that there is evil lurking in plain sight didn't come as a surprise to Smart, who found strength and purpose in recovering from her own hellish experience and, days after #MeToo spread like wildfire across social media, she spoke during a forum at BYU about the importance of fostering an environment in which victims don't feel the need to suffer in silence.

She has shared her thoughts on cases such as the 2018 abduction of 13-year-old Jayme Closs, who escaped her kidnapper after three months ("a miracle," Smart called it), and appeared on Red Table Talk last month to discuss Gabby Petito and the plights of other missing women whose families were just as desperate for answers as Gabby's but who hadn't received the same level of media coverage.

Smart also recently helped tell another survivor's story as an executive producer of the Oxygen special Escaping Captivity: The Kara Robinson Story, which delved into the night in 2002 when a 15-year-old Robinson managed to get away from a man who, it turned out, was responsible for the deaths of at least three girls between the ages of 16 and 12.

And Nov. 1 marked the first day of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation's annual month-long "We Believe You!" campaign, an extension of their daily mission, which is to provide a safe, supportive space for survivors to share their stories and access the resources they need to heal.

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Smart met her husband, Matthew Gilmour, on a Mormon mission trip to Paris in 2009. She said on Today in 2017 that she was already assuring Chloé, who was 2 at the time, that she could tell her mom anything—and Smart would 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."

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Son James was born in 2017 and daughter Olivia followed in 2018, the same year Smart published her second book, Where There's Hope: Healing, Moving Forward and Never Giving Up.

"My life has been and is filled with love and support," she wrote in the preface. "I am happy, but at the same time I'm dumbfounded at how different this life is compared to the life I imagined before I was kidnapped and brutally taught that 'happily ever after' is a myth."

Innocent plans to perhaps become a music teacher fell by the wayside. Instead, "I'm traveling almost constantly, doing everything I can to advocate for exploited women and children through the Elizabeth Smart Foundation and as a reporter at large for Daily Crime Watch and other news programs. I do quite a bit of public speaking, sharing my story and talking about what helped me survive and recover from this traumatic experience."

"I never asked for or wanted this platform," she continued, "but it is what it is, so I'm determined to use it to help others."

(Originally published Nov. 18, 2017, at 5 a.m. PT, previously updated Dec. 1, 2020, at 12 p.m. PT)

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