Elizabeth Smart was 'brainwashed,' father says

Kidnapped girl passed up chances to escape from her captors

The Ottawa Citizen/March 15, 2003
By Mark Hume and Stacey Burling

Elizabeth Smart holds her brother, William, at their home yesterday. Elizabeth, who was taken from her home last June, was found Wednesday. Her sister Mary Katherine is shown in background.

A man kidnaps you at gunpoint from your bedroom and makes you live with him and his wife for months.

Wouldn't you try to get away?

That's the question many people are asking about the Elizabeth Smart abduction. With the whole country looking for her, why didn't a bright teenager ask for help when she was out in public with Brian Mitchell, the man accused of taking her from her affluent home in Salt Lake City, Utah?

Ed Smart, the father of the 15-year-old girl, said in a television interview yesterday that Brian David Mitchell, a drifter who preached to street people, "brainwashed" his daughter -- a charge that, if proven, could explain some of the strange aspects of the case.

"I can just tell that he did an absolute brainwashing job on her," Mr. Smart told ABC's Good Morning America yesterday, after being reunited with his daughter.

When police found the girl Wednesday, she was walking down a suburban street in Sandy, Utah, in the company of Mr. Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, a woman said to carry around dolls she pretended were alive.

All three were wearing ill-fitting white robes, and Ms. Barzee and Ms. Smart were wearing veils and wigs.

Ms. Smart did not identify herself when first questioned by officers.

"It took some time before we could actually determine that it was her," police Chief Stephen Chapman told CNN. "Under the circumstances, that was probably very normal."

There have also been news reports that the teenage girl, who is believed to have been taken from her home at gunpoint one night, passed up opportunities to escape while living in a Salt Lake City apartment near the police station. And she was photographed last September, three months after her abduction, at a party where she could easily have raised alarms, but instead showed no signs of needing help.

The girl's failure to take advantage of opportunities to escape or call for help are all symptomatic of someone who has been brainwashed, or who has undergone a personality shift under stress, experts say.

"When you are taken away from your social support and are placed in an extreme-stress situation, you can undergo an identity-change process," said Ehor Boyanowsky, a social psychologist at Simon Fraser University.

"It's like a breakdown of your identity and a rebuilding of it" under the influence of your captors. "That was the case in the Stockholm Syndrome" in which hostages in a bank became supportive of their captors and with Patty Hearst who became an active member of her kidnapping group.

"It is known as the general adaptation syndrome ... under stress a person can go into survival mode ... you suddenly start to identify with your captors. It's traumatic bonding -- and people actually come to see their captors as their saviours," Mr. Boyanowsky said.

Police fielded more than 16,000 tips in their search for Elizabeth, but it was just one -- from Elizabeth's younger sister -- that really mattered in the end. And they are accused of ignoring it for months.

Last October, nine-year-old Mary Katherine Smart suddenly recalled that Mr. Mitchell was probably the intruder who took her older sister from their shared bed on June 5. She knew the onetime family handyman only as Emmanuel.

But police were slow to pick up the lead. It wasn't until last month that they agreed to distribute a sketch of Emmanuel made by an amateur artist. The sketch, which was shown on television and published in newspapers, quickly led to Mr. Mitchell's identification by his own stepchildren, who then released photographs of him.

Mr. Mitchell, who doesn't yet have a lawyer, was being held yesterday at the Salt Lake County jail, where officials said he wasn't responding to interview requests.

Mr. Smart sounded forgiving toward police, but gave his youngest daughter credit for cracking the case. "There's no question that Mary Katherine is our hero," he said, while pointedly withholding credit from police. Asked if police blew it, he said, "I believe that some mistakes have been made, but I know that they were trying."

Det. Dwayne Baird said it was obvious only in hindsight that Mr. Mitchell was a top suspect. He said Mr. Mitchell was one of "a lot of areas" of the case that warranted scrutiny.

"There was a lot of leads we had to follow -- and he was one of them," Mr. Baird said.

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