Elizabeth Smart: long journey home

With her return, search for answers continues

MSNBC Dateline/March 14, 2003

To America, she was the angelic little girl playing the harp in a home video. And on her first night back with her family, that was one of the first things she did. Her father says it took a little encouragement to get her to play, but that hearing her was wonderful. As Elizabeth Smart re-embraces her family in Salt Lake City, the search is on for answers. There is new information and a much fuller picture of the alleged kidnappers, their movements and possible motives, as well as the first detailed accounting of just how many close calls and missed opportunities there were - that might have ended Elizabeth's nine-month ordeal so much sooner.

Holy Man?

The road that eventually led Brian Mitchell to Ed Smart's home actually began out there in the desert outside Salt Lake City in the mid-1980s, long before Ed Smart's eldest daughter had even been born. Relatives say Brian Mitchell told them that it was out there, amid the scrub and sand, that he decided to take a trip on LSD. It was a trip, he later claimed that revealed the mind of God.

"He actually said that he had taken, I think it was 10 hits, of acid and went out to the desert and talked to God," says Derrick Thompson. "And my comment to him was, 'Well, no kidding, who wouldn't.'"

Brian Mitchell's stepchildren aren't sure when he took the LSD but guess that it was shortly before their mother brought him home to meet them in 1985.

"You could see right through his eyes. He's, like, soulless," says Thompson. "That's what I thought. I mean the first day we met him we went outside and talked. And it was like, wow, cuckoo."

In 1986, Brian, then 32, and Wanda, who was 40, were married. A home video from that year shows a couple that appears to be the life of the party. But it wasn't long, they say, before things at home started to drastically change. Brian padlocked the TV and at night spent hours kneeling in prayer.

"He started only eating seeds and vegetables," says Thompson. "He was just very obsessed."

But if Brian Mitchell's stepson thought him strict, overbearing and strange, his stepdaughter says she was petrified.

"He'd come in at night, try to tuck me into bed," says Louree Gaylor. "Caress my hair, give me a little kiss on the lips even though I didn't want one. And he'd make me give him a hug and a little pelvic thrust along the ways."

Did she tell her mom?

"No," says Gaylor. "I heard her scream at night. I don't know what he was doing to her, but the screams scared me. So I just stayed in bed."

She says Brian's advances never turned into sexual abuse, but by 1988 she knew she had to leave.

By all accounts, her daughter's leaving home devastated Wanda. She even went so far as to tell the teenager that she considered her dead.

"She seemed to almost have a mental breakdown after that," a turning point in his mom's life, says Thompson.

By the mid-1990s, Elizabeth Smart was just beginning to learn her ABCs. Brian Mitchell's family and friends say his life was passing the point of no return. It would be years before their paths crossed, but by now Brian was already convinced that he was God's prophet and that he and Wanda should drop everything and hit the open road.

C. Samuel West, a self-described natural healer, says he met them in 1996 and could see the change occurring.

"I met him when he started going down," says West. "Still very nice, very sweet, but I saw there was something wrong."

West says that when he saw them a year later, they were wearing robes. West says that Brian insisted on being called "DAH-veed" and Wanda wanted to be known as "ELLA-dah." They'd been living out of a push cart, he says, panhandling for money.

"People would just give him money," says West. "They just liked him and Ella-dah. Down there on the street they stood out."

By late 1998, West says, the man he now called David considered himself to be on par with God. He'd even decided to rewrite parts of the Book of Mormon, the founding text of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"It really got bad when he started vocalizing who he thought he was, that he was representing Jesus down there on the streets," says West.

In 1999, as Elizabeth Smart was entering middle school, Brian and Wanda, who'd been wandering the country, headed for Salt Lake City . By now, Brian had changed his name again, from David to Emmanuel, a Hebrew word meaning "God with us."

"They were preaching the words of God. Sometimes he even appeared to be acting as if he was God," says Ed Snoddy, an outreach worker for Salt Lake City 's homeless.

Snoddy says he tried to get them into one of the city's shelters and tell them where the local food pantries were, but this couple didn't want help. He says they simply wanted to preach to anyone who would listen, panhandle from anyone who would give.

"When you saw him panhandle, he would say God bless you and God be with you," says Snoddy.

And so it was, on a clear fall day in 2001 that Lois Smart gave the odd little man $5 and invited him home to help her husband repair their roof.

The First Connection

Lois Smart found him panhandling on the street, gave him $5, then hired him to help pull weeds and work on the roof of the family home. "Emmanuel" and Ed Smart banged nails side by side.

"When I was up there in the roof with him, could not have guessed," says Smart.

After a few hours work, Emmanuel went back to his dodgy life on the streets. And for the next seven months the Smarts continued their solid suburban routine, as tranquil as the music from Elizabeth 's harp. And then, June 5, 2002, came the images it seems everyone in the country saw, a beautiful 14-year-old girl, mysteriously snatched from her house in the dead of night. The only witness was her 9-year-old sister, Mary Katherine, who shared a bedroom with her. Mary Katherine talked of a man with a hat and a gun but couldn't identify him. Police were baffled, searchers combed the countryside, and above all, the parents pleaded, every day, for some tip, some help, some way to bring their daughter home.

They had no way to know then, and we know only now, that Elizabeth practically could hear him. She and her alleged captors were hidden in the hills right behind the Smarts' house. So close it's a wonder the searchers didn't trip over them. They were so close, heartbreakingly, Elizabeth could hear would-be rescuers calling her name.

By not calling back, Elizabeth passed up what would be the first of many chances to be discovered and rescued. Why she didn't is something we still don't know in detail. But Dr. Gail Saltz, professor of psychiatry at Weill-Cornell Medical Center, says it's easy to imagine the terror 14-year-old Elizabeth might have felt, grabbed in the middle of the night and held by a man even his own family considered frightening.

"A child who's told that they will be killed, he will find her, he will find her family, he will kill her family, if any of those things happened, that's imminently believable to a child, to an adult for that matter, and certainly to one who's been taken out of her bed at night," says Saltz.

The psychiatrist says that kind of terror can quickly give way to something else: a desire on the part of the captive to please the captor.

"It's also sort of a survival mechanism," says Saltz. "Don't anger the captor. The captor will then protect me, and make sure that I'm OK. And any small kindness that is paid to the victim, and the kindness can be as small as, they didn't kill them, will be perceived as a positive, as protective."

And remember, Emmanuel fancied himself a preacher, claimed to be a prophet of God.

"For a child, in isolation, hearing these kinds of things can be very, very powerful," says Saltz. "So, sort of, what's real? I mean, how are you to know what's real when you're out in the hills in a teepee, you know, and you've got someone telling you, "You know, I'm God. I control everything."

Then add in the possibility, as some investigators suspect, that Emmanuel is a polygamist who wanted Elizabeth as his wife, and his control might grow even stronger.

Emmanuel, his wife, Wanda, and now Elizabeth lived in a makeshift shelter in the foothills three miles from the Smart home for the whole summer of 2002. Emmanuel was the self-styled prophet in the wilderness; Elizabeth, his literally captive audience.

Police and her family were chasing across the country after dead-end leads.

Bret Edmunds, a drifter, was national news for a day or two, then cleared. Handyman Richard Ricci, an ex-con, spent months under police suspicion.

But even as national attention focused on Elizabeth 's disappearance, her captors began boldly walking the streets of Salt Lake City with her in tow. We now know they were sighted all over Salt Lake City that summer. Two women and a man, all enveloped in white robes, the women in veils, with only their eyes peeking out, they were even photographed at a party.

Party host Jason Savelsberg says even though Emmanuel was mingling and drinking, he was keeping very close tabs on his two companions.

"When someone would try to get them to speak, he would interject," says Savelsberg. "In some cases Emmanuel would say, 'Oh, they cannot talk to you.'"

Elizabeth was apparently unable or unwilling to seize a perfect opportunity to cry out for help.

"There was at least 100 people there," says Savelsberg. "All she had to do was say her name, lift her veil up or try to get away, and she easily could have."

When they boarded a city bus in August, Nicole Richardson remembers joking with her companion about the girl in the veil. "I kind of made the comment and joke about it that it'd be funny if it was Elizabeth ," says Richardson." Smart because you wouldn't be able to tell."

She feels bad now, but it seemed a harmless joke to her friend Jeremy Worthen.

"She seemed really happy, almost giggly even, just joking around with the people, and just really good mood, like nothing was wrong at all," says Worthen.

But everyone watching the case was still fixed on the handyman, Ricci - now being held in prison, charged with theft. Then on Aug. 27, Ricci suffered a brain hemorrhage and died without regaining consciousness. Plenty of people thought the key suspect was dead and Elizabeth Smart would never be found.

Around Labor Day, a week after Ricci's death, a man named Russell Banz was eating dinner at the Chuck-O-Rama cafeteria in Salt Lake City when a man and two women walked in, all in robes.

"The women had to put the fork up underneath the veil as they were eating their food," says Banz, who works for the Web site of NBC affiliate KSL TV. By September of last year he must have seen Elizabeth Smart's picture thousands of times. And there was something else.

Banz was a youth group director in the Mormon Church. He'd led activities Elizabeth had participated in. He couldn't see her face, but he wonders now if she recognized his.

"She would make this weird eye contact with me," says Banz. "Like I said, once again, I don't know if it was conscious or subconscious. Beautiful eyes, that was the only piece of human flesh that you could see, with them was just the slit of her eye, and I will never forget those."

If she had finally decided to take the risk and signal for help, he didn't get the message. Now three months into her ordeal, Elizabeth was led back out into the night. And today Banz wonders, what if?

"Last night I did not sleep," says Banz. "It made me so sick to know I was that close."

And the Salt Lake City police came closer then they could imagine. On Sept. 27, three months after the kidnapping, they actually arrested Emmanuel. He was spotted at a downtown grocery store allegedly trying to steal $52 worth of gum, batteries and beer. But remember, to the police back then, he was just another street person. He was charged with misdemeanor theft and released.

In October, Daniel Trotta actually put the trio up for a few days in his downtown apartment. He knew Emmanuel a little and wanted to help him and his wife and the young woman he said was his daughter.

"When I asked for the young girl's name when she was staying at my house. Emmanuel got kind of nervous and scared and interrupting and said, 'Don't say your name. Don't say your name,'" says Trotta. "Just like, Daniel, just call her my joy in her or something like that."

Trotta's apartment was about a block from the Salt Lake City police station. It wounds Ed Smart to think how close his daughter was all last summer.

"She had spent months right up here in the months through August," says Smart. "I can't believe it."

And then, sometime last fall, when the Salt Lake City air began to chill, Emmanuel, his wife and Elizabeth hit the road. There were so many chances to be found that summer. Now she was being taken by bus to a place where no one knew her, with no way of knowing about the turn of events that would eventually save her.

Revelation on a Cold Case

By October 2002, Elizabeth Smart had been missing four months. The principal suspect was dead. The trail couldn't have been colder. Then, the sole witness, 9-year-old Mary Katherine, had a revelation.

"She came in one night about 11 o'clock and she says, 'Dad, I think I know who it is,'" recalls Ed Smart.

He says he was stunned. After months of uncertainty, they had a name: Emmanuel. It was the man who'd worked on their house for a few hours seven months before Elizabeth disappeared.

"And you know, we didn't know what to think," says Ed Smart. "I mean, I couldn't believe that for having been there for such a short time that she could have remembered him."

The family had consulted experts who counseled them not to pressure Mary Katherine, to let her memory return slowly. Now it had - but was it accurate? Common sense tells you that memories are freshest right after the event. But noted forensic psychologist N.G. Berrill says that common sense may be wrong in the case of a young girl who saw her sister kidnapped, a traumatic event to recall.

"If there's some kind of terrible event associated with that memory," says Berrill, "there may be even more obstacles that the person confronts before they can really kind of reach in and say, well, this is what I recall and this is what I remember."

The Smart family immediately went to the Salt Lake City police with Mary Katherine's information. Police interviewed her formally on Oct. 15.

But it was too late, Emmanuel was no longer in Salt Lake City. By the time the Smarts went to the police with his name, he was a couple of states away in Lakeside, Calif. People who saw them there say Emmanuel was clearly in charge. Jerry Isaacs saw them near the town park.

"They just hang together," says Isaacs. "They kind of walked a little bit behind him. They were always veiled and he never was."

There were similar words from Mark Arabo, the manager of Wrigley's Market in town.

"Only the guy would talk, the girls would just would stand," says Arabo. "They would follow him the whole time they would never talk, they would never say anything, they would never reach for any items, he'd do everything."

Witnesses remember them living in a shack, part of an encampment of homeless people. That is where Elizabeth Smart probably spent Christmas 2002.

Back in Salt Lake City , the Smart family and police developed three composite sketches of Emmanuel based on the family's memories of the homeless preacher who worked on their house.

The Smarts wanted to release the third sketch to the public. The police objected, saying, "If we went out with a bad sketch, we ran the risk of generating hundreds of leads that could eat up valuable time."

But the Smarts disregarded that advice. On Feb. 3, they called a news conference to release the composite sketch, being careful not to overstate their suspicions about Emmanuel.

"We feel that if this person would come forward that he would, you know, be able to be cleared very easily," said Ed Smart at the time.

The sketch generated a key tip - a woman who claimed to be Emmanuel's sister called with his real name and sent photos of him. No one yet knew just how huge a break it was.

On Feb. 15, "America's Most Wanted" broadcast Emmanuel's real name, Brian David Mitchell. The report included the photos. It also included a plea from Ed Smart - and a barb for the police.

"This is the only person that Mary Katherine has come forward on," said Smart. "To diminish the importance of this is silly."

Host John Walsh says he'd known for some time that Emmanuel could be a significant lead.

"Early in December I get a call," says Walsh. "It's Ed. He said I had a guy that Lois brought to the house to do some work one day and she thinks that this is the guy. Can you get me a composite? Yeah, I can get you a composite. We'll do it. We'll do it on 'America's Most Wanted.'"

But where was Emmanuel? Here's an amazing irony: At the same moment he was being featured on "America's Most Wanted," he was sitting in a San Diego County jail cell accused of breaking into a church preschool. But he was released Feb. 18, three days after his real name and face were broadcast as one of "America's Most Wanted."

How could it happen? San Diego County sheriff's deputies say that there was no warrant or bulletin out for Emmanuel, despite his shoplifting arrest in Salt Lake City. So there was no reason to hold him on a misdemeanor charge.

His six days in jail offered Elizabeth another chance to escape. It would have been easier with only Wanda to watch over her. But, after eight months in captivity, experts say she may not have had the ability to leave.

"This is not a conscious choice," says Saltz. "This is something that happens in the mind, and the child really may have no power to do anything about it. And it's so important, because we don't want her to feel guilty that she didn't take any action."

The mind control apparently worked again a short time after Emmanuel was released from jail. Now on their way back to Utah, the three were stopped by police in Las Vegas who asked for ID. Elizabeth reportedly gave a false name, protecting her captors and forgoing a chance to save herself. Later, Emmanuel, Wanda and Elizabeth stopped at a restaurant, where they met a good Samaritan.

"I asked him what way he was going, he happened to be going in the direction I was, so I asked him if he needed a ride," says Ryan Johnson, who gave the three a ride to Provo, 40 miles south of Salt Lake City. "He said he had a revelation from God that he'd he would need to come to Utah and start this, I'm not sure if it's a religious cult or just get his word out."

Emmanuel had held Elizabeth for the better part of a year, but his luck was about to change. Thanks to the Smarts' efforts, his picture was all over the news in Salt Lake City, and he was walking right into the trap. So many people had overlooked Elizabeth last summer, but somebody finally saw her accused captor.

Operator: "911."

Caller: "Yes, um, could you tell me, is this where I call if I think I see that Emmanuel they are looking for?"

After nine months in captivity and thousands of miles on the road, Elizabeth Smart's ordeal would end just 15 miles from where it began.

The Veil is Lifted

Police identify Elizabeth Smart; she is returned to her family

They survived for months on handouts and dumb luck: Brian Mitchell, his wife and the young girl we now know was Elizabeth Smart. How he managed to elude police for so long is a question many people are still asking. But this week, with an unexpected phone call, his luck ran out. Now the remarkable, final moments of the search, as told by the two police officers who made the rescue and the arrests.

It's a peculiar sight: All three people were seen walking along the suburban shopping strip clad in dirty white robes, the women hidden behind veils.

The three had been traveling throughout the West for months, in effect hiding in plain sight, and no one had paid them much attention. But now, this passing motorist is convinced the people she's seen walking are the same ones she saw on "America's Most Wanted." The veil is about to be lifted.

Operator: "Does he have a robe on?"

Caller: "He has, like, quite a bit of something on. They are carrying sleeping bags, and he's got a big bushy beard."

The 911 operator relays the information to police officer Karen Jones, on patrol in suburban Sandy, Utah, just south of Salt Lake City.

"I didn't know who I was going to go talk to, but once I saw him, it clicked that this was big," says Jones. "This was somebody that I really needed to talk to."

Jones is convinced the strange man is Emmanuel, but he gives his name as Peter Marshal. And then there's the mystery of who the two veiled women are.

"I explained that I just needed to detain them for a couple minutes and find out who they were," says Jones. "They said they didn't have any worldly possessions. They've given up all earthly things, that they were messengers of the Lord Jesus Christ and they were going wherever the Lord led them."

Just Brian Mitchell was talking, says Jones. As for the women, "they just stood there quietly and just watched me."

Within seconds, three other squad cars are on the scene to find out just who these pilgrims are. Officer Troy Rasmussen says he thinks he recognizes one of them.

"I said, well, that girl looks like Elizabeth Smart, the missing teenager," says Rasmussen. "She was obviously in a disguise. She had on a gray wig. She had on sunglasses. She had a T-shirt on her head, kinda like a cap, folded back like a veil-type thing. Obviously in a disguise."

After nine months held in thrall to the man who snatched her out of her bed, Elizabeth Smart was once again within reach of safety. She could end the ordeal just by saying her name. But even now she hesitates.

"I turned to the youngest one and asked her name, and she gave me Augustine Marshall and her date of birth," says Jones.

Was it really Elizabeth? Rasmussen strongly suspects it is the girl, but he can't get through whatever wall it was that Emmanuel had built between the teenager and her former life.

"She was being evasive," says Rasmussen. "She told me she was 18 and had to rethink her date of birth to match that age. I could tell she was uncomfortable. I pulled her away from the other individual, out of earshot, and I had a few questions for her... I asked her to remove her sunglasses, and she said she wouldn't do that. and I asked why, and she said she had some eye surgery in San Diego .... I asked her why she was wearing a wig. She became angry. Told me that was personal, none of my business."

So she is not - by no means - grabbing the officers and asking for help.

"No sir," says Rasmussen.

"Not at all," says Jones.

"She is not telling us the truth," says Rasmussen.

The cops try every trick they know to break through to the girl they believe is the missing teenager, but the masquerade continues.

They asked the girl if the two adults with her were her parents.

"She said yes, they were," says Rasmussen. "I asked some questions about where she was born and so forth, where her mother was born. She said well that's my stepmother and that's my father."

And when they asked where her stepmother was born, she didn't have an answer, nor for her father.

"At that point, our suspicions were hitting home," says Rasmussen.

During the next 45 minutes, the police press their case with the girl, trying to draw her back to her old life.

"I just pulled her aside and said let's do some girl talk," says Jones. "She asked me about this girl, Elizabeth Smart. Never said she was Elizabeth, never came out and said I am Elizabeth Smart. She was asking me questions about who this girl was and why we thought she was this girl. I proceeded to tell her that she's been missing for a long time and we need to find her.... She referred to her as the girl who ran away."

Finally, she can't resist any longer.

"And I basically said, you know, Elizabeth, a lot of people have been looking for you. Your family is concerned," says Rasmussen. "If you are in danger, you are safe now. We are here to help. I looked down at her chest, and I could see her heart pounding, and I could tell she was upset, at which point I knew it was her. And I pulled her away and said we are here to help you. Just tell us, and this ordeal can be over. At that point, she put her head down, and I could see over the rim of her glasses, her eyes welled up with tears and I knew it was her."

As for the Mitchells' demeanor, it was starting to change.

"A little bit of fear, like, 'oh, crap,'" says Rasmussen. "Like maybe we're in a little bit of trouble here now, we've told this story and we've gotten away with it and now it's not being believed."

There have been so many chances before, so many close encounters, so many false leads. This time the police want to be absolutely certain this isn't one final false lead after nine months of fruitless search.

"I was sure, but I wanted to be double sure," says Rasmussen.

He says the last thing he wanted to do at that moment is sound the alarm that they found her unless they were sure.

"I just didn't want to give false hope to the parents, to the family," says Rasmussen.

So police do one final test. They get out one of the flyers printed all those months before. They held up the missing-person flyer to her face.

"It was a match," says Rasmussen. "It was a match. Her nose and she was a little bit fuller, but there was no doubt. And she knew we knew. You could tell by her body language that she was saying, 'Thank God this is over.'"

Elizabeth is put into the squad car and taken to the police station. But first, police say, she has a question about her captors.

"The first question out of her mouth was, 'What's gonna happen to them? Are they going to be OK?'" says Jones. "Didn't want them in trouble, didn't want them to be hurt.... She started crying and cried all the way to the department."

Crying for them?

"Yes," says Jones.

Soon more tears would flow, from the man who never stopped looking for her.

"One of the detectives phoned Edward Smart and told him he needed to respond to the Sandy City police station right away," says Rasmussen. "He didn't tell them why, but he told him to respond to the station."

The Last Steps to Home

Wednesday morning starts for Ed Smart like so many of the other 281 days his daughter has been missing, with no news. But at around 11:30 a.m., he gets a phone call from one of the detectives working the case:

"He says, 'Ed, I want you to get out to the Sandy City police as quickly as you can. Don't stop anywhere. Come out here right now.' And I flew out there," says Ed Smart. "I had no idea. I thought that I would probably be trying to identify Brian David Mitchell."

Ed Smart tears into the holding room guarded by one of the officers who had stopped Brian Mitchell, a.k.a. Emmanuel, just that morning. The next scene is anything but what he expects.

"Elizabeth and I were sitting next to each other on the sofa, and we both look up and in walks Mr. Smart," says Jones. "And the detective said, 'Mr. Smart, is this your daughter?'"

"She was sitting there with her arms folded, and I just went up and grabbed her and held her and cried and cried and cried," says Ed Smart.

It would be the first of a seemingly endless series of hugs, tears and smiles for the Smarts and their daughter.

But for the next two days, the Smarts just try to ease back into their old life, avoiding the details of the terrible months apart, but knowing that someday they will have to face them.

"I think that what is going to come out is going to come out, and I don't have it in me to make this harder than it is for her," says Ed Smart.

Could Elizabeth have been emotionally or physically abused? Police aren't saying, but Emmanuel was married years ago, and his ex-wife says he's capable of it.

"He was very abusive mentally and physically," says Debra Mitchell. "I mean, like he flew off the handle at something, I would be hit ... many times." And Emmanuel's daughter says he mistreated her, too.

"He hurt me," says Rebecca Woodridge. "He'd hold me down. He'd - he touched me in ways that he should have touched a new wife. A new spouse. And it happened for many years."

Why did he kidnap Elizabeth? Police aren't saying, but there are reports from unnamed law enforcement sources that Emmanuel wanted to make her his wife in a polygamous relationship, and that the night he kidnapped her, Emmanuel did make her his wife in a ceremony in the woods above her house.

But this evening the family and this community are celebrating Elizabeth's safe return, knowing that while there may be dark days ahead for the Smarts as they try to put a sea of sadness behind them, now at least they will be doing it together.

As the Smarts comfort Elizabeth and let the healing begin, police try to get into the mind of Brian Mitchell. His answers to routine jailhouse questions were puzzling. Where do you reside? Heaven on earth, he reportedly replied. Shoe size? It doesn't matter in my earthly form. Emergency contact? God.

Friday, Mitchell and Wanda Barzee remain jailed on suspicion of aggravated kidnapping. They have not been charged or entered a plea. Mitchell has pleaded innocent to that unrelated charge of shoplifting.

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