by John Nardizzi

Elizabeth Smart.  Her name is synonymous with one of the great fears that have come to mark our age: the abduction and abuse of a child by a deranged stranger. Smart’s case involved a crazed messianic figure who seems drawn from central casting. Yet Smart’s story offers deeper lessons than just being a movie – it’s a perfect example of a stranger perpetrating sex crimes on a child.  Elizabeth Smart’s journey on a long road to reclaim her own life after a terrible nine month ordeal is detailed in her new autobiography, “My Story.”

liz2Smart was one of a million ordinary American girls, a pretty blond 14-year-old who lived with her family in Salt Lake City. She played harp at numerous recitals, was a fine runner and a diligent student. She had read a book to her sister in their shared bedroom on the night of June 5, 2002 –  the night Brian David Mitchell, a self-styled homeless preacher in the downtown area was making his way toward her home in the dead of night. Mitchell was obsessed with Elizabeth, having seen her when Elizabeth’ family offered the grubby, robed figure some money to complete a few odd jobs around the family home. Mitchell had resolved to kidnap her to add her to his planned harem of wives.

In the dead of night, Mitchell worked his way back to the darkened yard of the Smart home where he had once labored.  He cut a screen and slipped inside the home, then held a knife against Smart’s throat.  “Move and I will kill you!” he warned.  Her younger sister lay terrified under the sheets, trying to witness and yet not be taken herself.  Mitchell’s plan was as bold as it was simple: he forced the young girl to climb for hours through the steep canyons behind the home. They reached a camp site deep in the brush, where, bizarrely, a woman appeared in a robe — Mitchell’s wife, Wanda Barzee. In the darkness, Barzee presided over a bizarre marriage ceremony, washing Elizabeth and clothing her in a robe for her “wedding” to Mitchell. Mitchell then raped her to “consummate” his sick notion of marriage.  Smart described the rape as leaving her “absolutely broken, absolutely shattered.” Her nine month ordeal was only beginning…

liz6The nine months of captivity was marked by endless rapes and repeated sexual abuse at the hands of Mitchell, who was often assisted by his wife, Wanda Barzee, as they tried to break her down by denying her food and water for days at a time.  Smart was often tethered to a tree as they wandered from California to Utah, clothing her in robes, wigs, and veiling her face. They plied her with drugs and alcohol and kept her in filth to quell her spirit and make her captivity seem part of a natural order, so that she would not attempt to break away.  All the while, Mitchell indoctrinated Smart in bizarre religious beliefs and told her he was a prophet.

Smart was nearly rescued several times but each time, the brazen warped machinations of Mitchell allowed him to continue his captivity of the terrorized girl:

liz7Against that backdrop, the book chronicles a series of near-rescues, notably by a homicide detective who questioned Mitchell at a library in downtown Salt Lake City. From under a table, Barzee clamped “iron” fingers into Smart’s thigh. Smart, disguised in a dirty robe and face veil, remained silent as she remembered the couple’s repeated threats to kill her family if she tried to save herself.

Why didn’t I cry out for help?” Smart reflects. The answer “comes down to fear. Fear for my life. Fear for my family.” Mitchell’s constant threats weighed on her. Part of her paralysis came from believing she had lost “everything worth having.”

The psychological attacks were sinister and well-planned. But Smart persevered. She knew that she had a better chance of being rescued if she was back where someone in Utah might see her. So she baited the megalomaniac Mitchell into taking her back to where they had started from. She told Mitchell that God desired their return to Salt Lake City and suggested that Mitchell could kidnap another wife from a Mormon camp for girls in the area. Mitchell decided to return to Salt Lake City.  Smart’s ordeal came to an end when her sister was able to describe the kidnapper:

liz3After several months, it suddenly occurred to [Smart’s sister] Mary Katherine that the kidnapper resembled a man who had once worked on their home as a handyman and who had called himself Immanuel. Police discovered that Immanuel was a man named Brian David Mitchell, and in February 2003 a passerby recognized Mitchell walking with Smart—who was veiled and wearing a wig and sunglasses. Authorities arrested Mitchell and his wife and returned Smart to her family that evening.

Smart’s story reveals disturbing truths about how our culture views victims of rape.  As Smart writes, the insidious part of Mitchell’s psychological attacks and use of rape as a weapon was that it caused her to doubt her own worth.

Smart said she was immediately haunted by the news accounts of other kidnapped children who had been killed. “I remember thinking, ‘They are the lucky ones. They’re dead, and they don’t have to live with this. They are in a better place, and no one can hurt them again.’ 

“I remember lying on the ground of that tent, feeling so worthless, so disgusting, so filthy,” she recalled. “Who could ever love me again? Would my parents look for me? Or would they just move on with their lives?”

liz4Too many times, our culture brands victim of sexual abuse with the easy stamp of “survivor” or “victim” (think of the film Mystic River  where a neighbor describes the victim of a child molestation as “damaged goods”– a victim who later is revealed as the most ethical character in a neighborhood of festering evil).  Smart came to rely on an old-fashioned faith in God and her knowledge that the love for her borne by her father, her mother, and her family, could never be overcome by anything Mitchell did to her.

“I always knew (God) loved me, and that whether I survived or didn’t, he would be there and that my family would always love me no matter what happened,” she said on CNN during an interview in 2006.

The demented prophet Mitchell thought he owned the body of Elizabeth Smart but she kept a part of her soul hidden and strong, and never revealed it to him. Smart knew she was more than just a body on the dirty floor of a tent. Her secret? Something deep within. Something the false prophet Mitchell would never recognize.


lizJohn Nardizzi is an investigator, lawyer, and writer. His writings have appeared in numerous professional and literary journals, including San Diego Writers Monthly, Oxygen, Liberty Hill Poetry Review, Lawyers Weekly USA, and PI Magazine. His fictional detective, Ray Infantino, first appeared in print in the spring 2007 edition of Austin Layman’s Crimestalker Casebook. In May 2003, John founded Nardizzi & Associates, Inc., an investigations firm that has garnered a national reputation for excellence in investigating business fraud and trial work. His investigations on behalf of people wrongfully convicted of crimes led to several million dollar settlements for clients like Dennis Maher, Scott Hornoff and Kenneth Waters, whose story was featured in the 2010 film Conviction. He lives in the Boston area and supports AS Roma and Barcelona.

Please click here to read All Things Crime Bog’s review of John’s crime novel, Telegraph Hill.

Please click below to view John Nardizzi’s previous post on serial killer and real-life Mafia hit man Richard Kuklinski:

Cracks in the “Iceman”: Richard Kuklinski, Serial Killer and Real-Life Mafia Hit Man


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