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Kidnapping and release of Elizabeth Smart in PEOPLE 50 Years of True Crime Stories

People is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a look back at half a century's best true crime stories. In the summer of 2003, readers were captivated by the plight of Elizabeth Smart, a 14-year-old girl who was kidnapped at knifepoint from her bedroom in her family's Salt Lake City home and held captive for nine months by Brian David Mitchell, a religious fanatic who claimed to be a prophet named Immanuel.

After Elizabeth returned home safely after being discovered in disguise on a street in Sandy, Utah, several members of her family spoke to People for a March 31, 2003, cover story about her ordeal and recovery from her trauma. Read “Elizabeth Smart: Her Amazing Story” in full below and get People 50 years of true crime stories now at Amazon and at kiosks.

The child, lost but now found, stood before her family, showing off clothes. Just a day after Elizabeth Smart returned to her Salt Lake City home, her relatives hosted a party for her 15th birthday, which had come without her on November 3.

Elizabeth had freshly painted her toenails pink and was unwrapping presents, mostly clothes to replenish the wardrobe she had outgrown. “We had a fashion show,” says her aunt Julie Smart. “She came out in every new outfit and we said, 'Oh, you look so cute.' She didn't say much, but she was beaming.”

Elizabeth Smart with her family, who never gave up searching for her until she returned nine months after her abduction.

Thomas Schröder


In quieter moments, however, her silence told a different story. “It's clear to me that she has been through a serious trauma,” says her aunt Cynthia Smart Owens. “There is a lack of lightness. She carries a burden.”

Nine months after Smart was taken from her bedroom at knifepoint as she slept, she appeared out of nowhere on a busy street in Sandy, Utah, on March 12 after four people recognized the man she was with: Brian David Mitchell, 49, who was profiled days earlier America's Most Wanted.

She was dirty and dressed up, and clearly under the influence of Mitchell, a religious fanatic who had spent a day working as a roofer at the Smarts' house in 2001 and claimed to be a prophet named Immanuel. But she was alive and well, which was a blessing.

President Bush interrupted his war plans to call her ecstatic parents, Ed and Lois Smart. “We always knew it would be a miracle if Elizabeth were still alive,” says her uncle Tom Smart. “But we always believed that a miracle was possible. And it was.”

On March 18, prosecutors charged Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, 57, with aggravated kidnapping, burglary and sexual assault. They also charged that after the kidnapping, Mitchell forced Elizabeth to walk four miles in her pajamas to a remote camp that had no bathroom facilities and little protection.

He threatened to kill her and her family and kept her there until October. He often hid her in a hole covered with boards or tied a cable to her leg and tied her to a tree.

In addition, “she was raped,” said Chris Thomas, spokesman for the Smart family. People. The Smarts were particularly concerned that prosecutors might bring sexual abuse charges because they wanted to protect Elizabeth from having to relive that aspect of her ordeal at trial.

“Her biggest concern right now is to help her get over it,” says America's Most Wanted Moderator John Walsh, who advises the Smarts. “What she needs is to be back with her family to restore some normality.”

Lois and Ed Smart hug their daughter Elizabeth at the Smart family home in Salt Lake City, Utah, on March 13, 2003. Elizabeth was kidnapped at gunpoint last June and traveled across the country with her captors.

Elizabeth was sullen and distant when the officers arrested her, but she perked up when her father, Ed
47, arrived at the Sandy Police Station. Officer Karen Jones recalls that Ed Smart “just stood there with his mouth open and his eyes wide open and then all he heard was sobbing.”

On her first night back in the Smarts' $1.2 million home in Salt Lake City, Elizabeth watched her favorite movie. The problem with the angels, She read dozens of emails from well-wishers, met the family's two new dogs, played her harp and slept next to 10-year-old Mary Katherine in the same bed from which she was taken.

The next day, local police cordoned off the streets near the Smarts' home for Elizabeth's birthday party. The guest of honor did not show up, but left a message on a large poster that read, “I am the luckiest girl in the world!”

Hardly anyone would dispute that. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in most serious abductions the child is injured or killed within the first three hours. “Statistics say that won't happen, but statistics aren't always right,” says Shirley Goins, the center's West Coast executive director. “This really did happen, and someone came home.”

The loss of her daughter was the last thing on Lois Smart’s mind when she met Brian David Mitchell.
a street in Salt Lake City in November 2001. While preaching and begging, he found a charitable soul in Lois, who gave him $5 and offered to spend a day repairing the roof of her house.

Lois and her husband, like many Mormons, often made such offers to those in need. But Mitchell's gentle demeanor concealed a twisted psyche. A twice-divorced father of four, he met Wanda Barzee, a down-on-her-luck divorcee who was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown, at a group therapy session in the mid-1980s.

Mitchell, a Mormon, was convinced he was a prophet and, with Barzee's help, tried to convince others of his divinity. Barzee's daughter LouRee Gayler, 27, who lived with them for three years starting when she was 12, claims Mitchell kissed her inappropriately and also alleges he killed their pet rabbit, Peaches, and served it to her for dinner. “He said it was chicken,” she says. “The next day I realized my rabbit was gone.”

Brian David Mitchell.

Salt Lake County Sheriff's Department/Getty


In the mid-1990s, Mitchell and Barzee sold all their property and began living off the land.
Apparently, on June 5, 2002, following a vision that he would have seven wives, Mitchell cut a hole in the kitchen partition in the Smarts' house and led Elizabeth into the Wasatch Mountains.

Over the next two weeks, about 850 searches were conducted using helicopters, infrared cameras and bloodhounds. Elizabeth told relatives that during one of these searches, she heard her uncle, David Francom, calling her name, but was unable to answer, apparently because she was hidden in a shelter covered with boards – which would also have prevented her from being detected by the infrared cameras.

Her disappearance drew national attention, but even after the camera crews left, the extended Smart family remained strong and devoted countless hours to the cause. Ed in particular “had a strong feeling the whole time that his daughter was alive,” says Cynthia Smart Owens. “He was a rock.”

Police initially focused on the late Richard Albert Ricci, 48, a handyman who worked for the Smarts and had a long criminal record. But seven weeks after Elizabeth's disappearance, someone cut through a screen in the bedroom window at the home of Elizabeth's cousin Jessica, now 18, and fled when a dog began barking (police have charged Mitchell with that attempted kidnapping).

“When I heard that, I thought they were trying to find a mate for Elizabeth,” says David Smart. “We thought, 'There's no question she's alive.'”

The real miracle may have happened last October, when Mary Katherine told her parents she remembered the man who had kidnapped Elizabeth – the worker she knew as Immanuel. When Ed Smart heard what his daughter had to say, “he choked and immediately called the Salt Lake City police,” David says. “He said, 'I worked with that guy on the roof.'”

The police sketch was published on February 3, 2003, after which Mitchell's sister submitted photos that were then shown in a February episode of America's Most Wanted. On March 1, another episode featured new photos of Mitchell.

Wanda Barzee.

Salt Lake County Sheriff's Department/Getty


On March 12, two different couples who had watched the show saw Mitchell walking on State Street and called 911. Four police officers arrived at the scene and spoke with Elizabeth, who was wearing sunglasses and a gray wig under a white T-shirt around her head.

She said her name was Augustine Marshall and stuck to that story even after officers separated her from Mitchell and Barzee. As per protocol, Officer Karen Jones handcuffed her and Sgt. Victor Quezada asked one final time, “Are you Elizabeth?” Her response, “You say so.”

On the way to the police station, Elizabeth began to cry and asked: “What will happen to them? [Mitchell and Barzee]”Will they be okay?”

Elizabeth Smart married her husband Matthew Gilmour in 2012.

Presley Ann/WireImage


Experts say she will likely need lengthy therapy to overcome the lasting influence of her captors.

For now, her relatives believe, it is much more important to surround her with love and give her the simple pleasures that were taken from her nine months ago: the bubble baths she loves, the favorite sweets that Mary Katherine immediately bought her, the Christmas tree that her friends and cousins ​​decorated with miniature harps in her honor.

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The day after Elizabeth's rescue, a family friend came by to cut her hair, which her captors had braided into tight plaits. As her long blonde locks were cut to her shoulders and playfully tossed back, “we all just sat there and watched,” says David Smart. “It was so refreshing to see the real face and not a picture.”

When David tells this story, he starts to cry. “She has changed,” he says, “but she is still our angel.”

Elizabeth Smart has spent the years since her rescue sharing her incredible journey to becoming an inspirational writer and mother, and has spoken publicly about her experiences to help other survivors. and to ensure that her children know her story. In 2011, she founded the Elizabeth Smart Foundation (now part of the Malouf Foundation) to combat sexual violence. Today, she is a mother of three children and married Matthew Gilmour in 2012 before publishing her books My story in 2013 and Where there is hope 2018.