In Plain Sight, a Kidnapped Girl Behind a Veil

New York Times/March 14, 2003
By Timothy Egan

Salt Lake City -- For a man now described as being at the center of one of the most intense missing-person cases in years, Brian D. Mitchell did not exactly try to blend into the scenery.

With a veiled Elizabeth Smart and his wife in tow, Mr. Mitchell showed up at a downtown block party here, a grocery store, a restaurant, even living for about a week just one block from the Salt Lake City police headquarters, numerous witnesses say.

Throughout much of last summer, while the police and volunteers were looking day and night for Elizabeth after her kidnapping, it turned out she was moving among them in the open, dressed in the most flamboyant of outfits, and at times even camped just three-and-a-half miles from the Smart home. Mr. Mitchell was stopped by the police several times, and later arrested in San Diego on a burglary charge - all while still holding Elizabeth captive, the authorities said.

Dan Gorder, a freelance photographer, took a picture of the odd-looking group, dressed in white robes that looked like hospital gowns, at a big outdoor party in downtown Salt Lake City last September, just three months after 14-year old Elizabeth was kidnapped from her home near Salt Lake City. The police said late today that they believed Elizabeth was indeed one of the people in the picture.

"They stood out in the crowd - that's for sure," Mr. Gorder said. "When I took their picture, they didn't seem to be really happy with it, but they didn't do anything."

He said that Elizabeth, who stayed close to the adults and never spoke, had not appeared to be threatened. "She could have just walked away or said something," Mr. Gorder said. "She definitely had the opportunity to walk away."

A few weeks before the party, in late August, the three were spotted at a suburban restaurant where Mr. Mitchell, with his long beard and flowing robe, and his wife, Wanda I. Barzee, 57, were so well known that the restaurant workers had a nickname for them.

"We called them Jesus and Mary," said Erin Ptaschinski, 17, a waitress at Souper Salad, in Midvale, about 10 miles south of Salt Lake City.

Ms. Ptaschinski said a girl she now believed was Elizabeth Smart came in only once with the couple, last August, and stayed about two hours, regularly getting up to get her own food at a salad bar. On the door of the restaurant was a poster of Elizabeth - at the time, perhaps, the most sought person in America.

"She could have run at that point or told us who she was," Ms. Ptaschinski said. "She just got her food and walked back to the table. She was never physically restrained."

The Salt Lake City police chief, Rick Dinse, said Elizabeth "was psychologically affected by this," but would not elaborate on whether she had begun to identify with her captors. Elizabeth's father, Ed Smart, said he believed she was "undoubtedly brainwashed."

A supervisor at the restaurant, Lindsey Dawson, also went up to the table to talk to the three people in white robes.

"It was creepy, because all you could see was her eyes," said Ms. Dawson, referring to Elizabeth. Usually, the group was allowed to eat free, workers said.

The two restaurant workers said they never realized who the vagrants were until a few weeks ago, when Tom Smart, an uncle of Elizabeth, came into the restaurant with a poster of Mr. Mitchell and his wife.

"I told him about the encounter last summer, and Tom said, 'Is there anyway that could have been Elizabeth?' " Ms. Dawson said. "I said: 'Yes. Very likely.' "

Mr. Mitchell, 49, was a self-proclaimed prophet who called himself Emmanuel, and was well known on the streets of Salt Lake City as a panhandler and preacher among the homeless. He was formerly active in the Mormon church, and has been married three times, according to records. He has lived in a half-dozen residences in the Salt Lake area in the last 14 years. Mr. Dinse said he was "a self-proclaimed polygamist."

Mr. Dinse also said, "his criminal background is very minor."

Mr. Mitchell first came to the Smart home in 2001, after he was hired to do some day labor at the house. He worked only one day, for about four hours, doing some roof repair work and raking leaves. He seemed gentle and soft-spoken, said Ed Smart, and talked about of his religious beliefs.

Just after the kidnapping, on June 5, Mr. Mitchell and Elizabeth camped in the mountains near the Smart house. At times, Elizabeth even heard searchers calling her name, Mr. Smart said.

Late last summer, the police say, Mr. Mitchell was moving all around Salt Lake City. At the block party in early September, other people approached the three and asked about the small, veiled girl.

"I went up to Mitchell and asked, 'How come she can't even look at people?' " said Ron Lewis, 37, a banquet crew leader who was at the party. "I said, 'What's up with a religion that won't even let women speak?' " said Mr. Lewis, who told his story to the police today.

"Her eyes were all I saw of Elizabeth," Mr. Lewis said. He said at times, Mr. Mitchell and his wife held Elizabeth's hand.

"He must have really done a job on her, because all she would have had to do was to say her name," Mr. Lewis said. Later in the party, Mr. Mitchell made a scene, shouting from atop a chair, and was asked to leave, he said.

"He was shouting at the top of his voice, 'I am the word of God,' " Mr. Lewis said.

The three were also seen, repeatedly, at the Wild Oats Natural Market Place, near downtown. Mr. Mitchell was a regular customer, before and after the kidnapping, clerks there said.

"The three of them must have come in about three times," said Wally Cromar, 24, who works at the store. "We'd never seen him with a second girl before." They three were dressed in the usual white flowing robes, the faces of the women veiled.

"We get a pretty diverse group of people in here - hippies and vegans - so you try not to think about people being strange," Mr. Cromar said.

It was at the Wild Oats that Mr. Mitchell became friends with another clerk, Daniel Trotta, who invited the three to come stay with him in his small studio apartment. They stayed for about a week last October, neighbors and relatives of Mr. Trotta's said.

His apartment is just over a block from the Salt Lake City police department headquarters. During the week at his apartment, Elizabeth spoke occasionally about school, but never told Mr. Trotta her real name, he said.

Bret Benge, a 35-year hair stylist who works next door to Mr. Trotta's apartment, recalled seeing "Emmanuel" and two women there last year.

"You know, Daniel and I didn't agree on that," he said. "I didn't really like the guy, Emmanuel, but we didn't talk about it that much. I saw the three of them over here and at a party with Daniel last fall and at Wild Oats."

Mr. Benge said he did not think it was odd that he had failed to recognize Elizabeth Smart. "I never bothered to look at them real well," he said. "They were always wrapped up."

But he questioned how Elizabeth could have been oblivious to the search going on for her. "She walked right in to Wild Oats and there were posters on all the doors," he said. "It's weird. It's a strange situation."

Mr. Mitchell spent much of last year in San Diego, police said today, and was arrested at least once, and was videotaped by a number of merchants.

San Diego County Sheriff's officials said today that Mr. Mitchell was arrested last month in the burglary of a church across the street from a homeless shelter. When arrested, he gave the name Michael Jenson, said Lt. Doug Clements of the sheriff's office.

He was held for six days, then released after pleading guilty to misdemeanor vandalism.

Others spotted the three people throughout San Diego County.

"All the skateboarders saw them," said Mike Gardner. "The women always had veils on."

Mr. Mitchell and the two robed women were seen at Wrigley's supermarket, outside San Diego.

"He was the one in charge," said Widad Dermody, a clerk. "I'd ask how you doing? And only he would answer."

The police said they believed Mr. Mitchell had moved through three states: California, Nevada and Utah. They say he arrived back in Utah on Wednesday, the day of his arrest, at a time when his face had been widely shown on a television show, "America's Most Wanted."

The last official address for Mr. Mitchell in Salt Lake City, an address which he used to register to vote in late 2001, is for a run-down house in a quiet neighborhood near a school and a Mormon church. A neighbor two doors down, Jason Kirchner, said he had never seen Mr. Mitchell at the house, but had seen him downtown.

"I saw him at a food festival, Taste of Utah, last year," said Mr. Kirchner. "He had those flowing robes on. I gave him some curry. And then when I saw that face on the news I turned to my wife and said, `That's the guy we gave the curry dish to.' "

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