San Diego deputies spoke with Mitchell

Deseret News/March 15, 2003
By Michelle Morgante

El Cajon, Calif. -- San Diego County sheriff's deputies repeatedly spoke with Brian David Mitchell in recent months, but the veiled young woman who silently followed him never gave any indication she was in trouble.

Law enforcement authorities now know the quiet girl was Elizabeth Smart, the Utah teenager who was abducted last June and reunited with her family this week.

Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, spent several months with Elizabeth in a rural town east of San Diego, where they were conspicuous in their off-white robes and veils but gave authorities no reason to think there was anything seriously amiss, Sheriff's Capt. Glenn Revell said Friday.

"Most of us would agree, being dressed unusually or behaving somewhat unusually doesn't necessarily equate to criminal behavior," he said. "And we all treasure the freedom to live as each of us wishes to live."

The attitude of independence is especially strong in Lakeside, an unincorporated town about 25 miles east of central San Diego that holds onto its Old West styles and traditions.

Dozens of homeless people live in the town at any given time. Many who remember seeing Mitchell and the women in recent months said Lakeside is more welcoming to the homeless than nearby cities.

Sheriff's deputies said they first spoke with Mitchell, a 49-year-old drifter who went by the name Emmanuel, in late October after residents complained he was panhandling and preaching on street corners.

A deputy warned Mitchell that panhandling was illegal and tried to make eye contact with Barzee and Elizabeth, who stood quietly behind him, Revell said.

The deputy was trying to see "if there was any indication that they wanted to talk with him privately and there was no such indication," he said.

Mitchell gave his name as David Shirlson. The officer checked the name and found no outstanding warrants.

"And since Mr. Mitchell was compliant, he was allowed to go on his way," Revell said.

The only serious offense Mitchell committed was breaking into a Presbyterian church on Feb. 12. Revell said he used a rock to break a sliding glass door; a passer-by saw him and called deputies.

Mitchell was handcuffed, jailed and charged with vandalism. During a Feb. 18 court session in Superior Court in El Cajon, he pleaded guilty and was fined $150 and ordered to pay $100 restitution. He was released on probation but never had to pay the fine or restitution. The court said the amounts were satisfied by his time served in jail.

Mitchell, who identified himself then as Michael Jensen, said he, his wife and the girl, who he called his daughter, had no firm address.

"We're staying with some friends in the Lord Jesus Christ," he said in the videotaped proceeding. "I'm a minister for the Lord."

Mitchell apologized and said the break-in came after a night of drinking.

"The whole night was just a nightmare," he told the judge. "This week in jail has been like Jonah getting swallowed by the whale. It's turned me right around and I know I need to do what the Lord wants me to do with my life."

Revell said it is unclear where Barzee and Elizabeth were that night or during the time Mitchell was jailed. Federal investigators believe the trio stayed in an empty trailer and at campsites often used by the homeless.

When Mitchell was arrested under the name Jensen, a fingerprint check turned up the name Mitchell, but there was no warrant issued against him, the sheriff's department said. Salt Lake City authorities had not yet named Mitchell as a suspect in the abduction.

Revell said that even if they had known, it might not have been to Elizabeth's advantage: The capture of Mitchell while he was away from Barzee and the teenager might have complicated the search effort or even "(placed) her in additional risk," he said.

But, he said, "if we knew then what we know now, authorities from here to Salt Lake would have done things differently."

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