• U.S.

The Abduction of Elizabeth Smart: Her Own Story

7 minute read
Jeanette Moses / Salt Lake City

“I have a knife to your neck. Don’t make a sound. Get out of bed and come with me, or I will kill you and your family.”

Elizabeth Smart said she heard the strange man’s voice and felt something cold across her neck. On a witness stand in a Salt Lake City courtroom, she recounted his words with a calm composure belying her fright more than eight years ago. It was, she said, the early hours of June 5, 2002; she was a 14-year-old in red pajamas who was about to be taken from her bedroom — as her younger sister slept nearby — for what would be a nine-month-long nightmare as a captive of the man on trial, Brian David Mitchell. She was the third witness of the day, after her mother and sister had testified, detailing an abduction that horrified and fascinated the country. Her dramatic account was supposed to have occurred last week, but the proceedings had come to an abrupt halt last Thursday, Nov. 4, when the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals granted a temporary stay to consider the defense’s request for a change of venue. The request was denied.

(See how the Elizabeth Smart trial hit a snag.)

And so Elizabeth Smart is finally telling her story. The defendant, she said on Monday, instructed her to get her tennis shoes. He then led her out of her parents’ house in the affluent Federal Heights neighborhood of Salt Lake City, through an undeveloped back lot behind the residence, before shoving her behind a bush as a police car passed by. According to Elizabeth, the defendant said, “If this is the work of God, then let this police car pass without finding us.” Then he told her that if she didn’t stay down, she would be killed. The car passed, and for three to five hours, Elizabeth would continue her journey at knifepoint, walking up a trailhead until it merged into a dry stream bed. They then ascended a steep mountain to a camp.

Elizabeth told the jury that upon arriving at camp, she was greeted by Wanda Barzee, Mitchell’s wife. She followed Barzee into the tent. The woman instructed her to remove her red pajamas. Elizabeth refused. “She said that if I didn’t take them off, she would have the defendant come in and rip them off,” said Elizabeth before telling the jury that she removed them as well as her underwear when she was threatened again. Barzee left as Elizabeth cried in the tent. Then the defendant entered and performed a marriage ceremony to which Elizabeth screamed, “No!” “He said if I ever screamed like that again, he would duct-tape my mouth.” After the “marriage ceremony,” Mitchell forced Elizabeth to the ground and began to rape her. “I tried to fight him off me,” Elizabeth said. “A 14-year-old girl against a grown man doesn’t even out so much.”

(See TIME’s story about Elizabeth Smart’s missing nine months.)

When she awoke the next morning, a metal cable was fastened to her ankle. It was attached to another cable, part of a tether between two trees. “He said he was going to take away the temptation from running away from him,” Elizabeth said. She then described how, during her time in captivity, she used a bucket as a bathroom and was raped almost daily even as she received frequent instruction that Mitchell was a prophet. She was forced to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes and marijuana. “I felt like I had a burden the size of a mountain to carry around with me the rest of my life,” Elizabeth said.

As she and her family testified, Mitchell viewed the proceedings from an adjacent room after once again being removed for disrupting the court by singing hymns. He has sung at every proceeding since the trial began and has been removed each time on orders of the presiding judge, Dale Kimball. According to the opening statement of Mitchell’s defense lawyer, the defendant began using hymns around 1994 “to drown out his co-workers and not deal with others.”

(See the top 10 unsolved crimes.)

The defense is out to prove that Mitchell is not guilty by reason of insanity at the time of the abduction. “Very little or no disagreement exists as to what happened,” said Mitchell’s lawyer Parker Douglas. “We have general disagreement about why it happened.” “To determine justice,” he told the jury in his opening statement, “you must not only determine what happened but also why it happened.” He focused almost entirely on Mitchell’s life prior to the alleged abduction of Elizabeth Smart — his history of intense and erratic behavior, his descent into extremist fundamental religions and finally his belief that he was a prophet who needed “to restore the law of celestial marriage — plural marriage,” Douglas told the jury.

Insanity is a difficult argument. After years of legal wrangling, Mitchell was declared competent to stand trial in March 2010. Barzee was put on trial after a Utah judge approved forcibly medicating her with antipsychotic drugs to restore her mental competence. She pleaded guilty to charges of kidnapping in November 2009 and is currently serving a 15-year sentence.

Earlier in the day, Lois Smart, Elizabeth’s mother, took the stand to recall how the family first met Mitchell. It was the fall of 2001, and Lois had gone school shopping with her six children at the downtown mall. “He was a clean-cut, well-kept man that was down on his luck and needed to get some help,” Lois said. She asked him if he was looking for work before handing him $5 and her husband Ed’s name and phone number. According to Lois, at the time of their meeting, he was not singing or preaching and never mentioned religion. Mitchell went to work at the Smarts’ home, fixing a leaky roof and raking leaves for the family. It was during this time that Mitchell introduced himself to Lois as Immanuel. “[He] never mentioned that he was a prophet. He didn’t seem like he was mentally ill,” Lois said.

Lois then recounted the last night the Smarts spent with their daughter: the awards ceremony they attended for Elizabeth’s eighth-grade graduation, the potatoes that Lois burnt while rushing to cook dinner and how she opened the window to the right of the kitchen sink to get rid of the smoke. The family, devout Mormons, attended the ceremony, returned home and gathered to pray at 9 p.m. before retiring to bed. In the early hours of June 5, 2002, Lois was awakened by her younger daughter Mary Katherine. “She came into our bedroom, and she had a baby blanket wrapped around her shoulders and her head. She reminded me of a scared rabbit,” Lois explained. “She said, ‘Elizabeth is gone.’ “

The family checked the bedroom and family room and discovered that the screen of the kitchen window to the right of the sink had been cut in a U shape. Elizabeth was nowhere to be found. “My heart sank, and I yelled out to Ed to call 911 — she is gone!” said Lois.

On the stand, Mary Katherine focused on the night Elizabeth was taken. “I stayed in bed. I was scared. I couldn’t do anything. I was just shocked, petrified. I didn’t know what to do,” Mary Katherine told the jury, “knowing someone had come into my bedroom and taken my sister.” Elizabeth is expected to return to the stand Tuesday to finish her narrative and to be questioned by Mitchell’s defense.

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