Suspect's Wife Is Said to Cite Polygamy Plan

New York Times/March 14, 2003
By Nick Madigan

Salt Lake City -- The wife of the man charged in the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart said today that the girl was taken to become the first of seven additional wives a divine vision told him to wed, according to a friend who visited the jailed woman.

Hours after the visit, the Salt Lake County sheriff said the man, Brian D. Mitchell, would be charged with attempted kidnapping in a burglary at the house of an 18-year-old cousin of Elizabeth. On July 24, seven weeks after Elizabeth was reported taken from her home, someone cut the screen to the bedroom window of the cousin, Jessica Wright, who is said to resemble Elizabeth. A screen at Elizabeth's home had also been cut.

Together, the jailhouse conversation and the new kidnapping charges may begin to answer why Elizabeth vanished and what happened to her in the nine months she wandered with Mr. Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, messianic homeless people whom the Mormon Church had excommunicated.

"God told them to take Elizabeth," said the friend, Vicki Cottrell, executive director of the Utah chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, who has known Ms. Barzee for 25 years. "They were doing what God asked them to do."

Ms. Cottrell said in an interview that Ms. Barzee, who was arrested on Wednesday with her husband as they walked along a road in Sandy, a suburb of Salt Lake City, with Elizabeth, spoke affectionately of the 15-year-old.

"'Wanda, thank you for taking good care of Elizabeth,'" Ms. Cottrell recalled telling Ms. Barzee. "She replied that she loved her and missed her very much."

Speaking on a telephone through a glass partition, Ms. Barzee told her friend that on Thanksgiving 2000 she and her husband received "a revelation that the celestial law of polygamy had returned and that he was to take seven wives," Ms. Cottrell said.

In a 27-page document that he wrote last year, Mr. Mitchell said he was in a line of Mormon prophets dating from the founding of the church by Joseph Smith Jr. The document, written in the style of The Book of Mormon and titled "The Book of Immanuel David Isaiah," Mr. Mitchell calls himself a prophet and a "ministering angel" sent to earth to restore the Mormon Church to its proper path.

"This promised land of the United States of America is the seat of untold depravity and idolatry and murder and secret combinations," Mr. Mitchell wrote. He described himself in the third person as the "righteous right hand" of God

Mormon officials have long disavowed polygamy, which church founders widely practiced in the 19th century, and the officials have excommunicated members who continued to practice it. But thousands of so-called fundamentalist Mormons in Utah continue to take multiple wives, citing the Book of Mormon as their inspiration.

In this avowedly religious city, where Mr. Mitchell has spent much of the last few years preaching and panhandling on the streets, the notion that he was assuming some sort of divine mantle did not impress many people.

"He's not a true believer," said Amy Moeck, 20, a sophomore at Brigham Young University who described herself as religious. "But there are people who do that kind of thing all the time."

With Elizabeth now safely at home, the authorities have focused on the activities of the homeless couple, who are now known to have taken Elizabeth to California and Nevada before returning to Salt Lake City hours before residents saw them and called the police.

Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Barzee, his second wife, are believed to have had a plan to snare another Smart girl. Investigators in the sheriff's office are working under the assumption that Mr. Mitchell cut a screen in July at the house on Virginia Hills Drive where Elizabeth's teenage cousins live, apparently without entering.

"The residence on Virginia Hills Drive had been cut in a similar fashion to what had been done at the Elizabeth Smart residence," said Sheriff Aaron D. Kennard, who added that he planned to file charges of attempted burglary and attempted kidnapping against the couple on Monday. "I believe that we have solid information and solid leads that can connect the two households and the perpetrator."

Sheriff Kennard's news conference was to have been one of two today by law enforcement officials. But one scheduled by the Police Department, which has jurisdiction over the Elizabeth Smart case, was canceled. The department has come under increasing criticism for its handling of the case, including statements from the Smart family that detectives played down information from the younger Smart girl, Mary Katherine, that pinpointed Mr. Mitchell as the possible kidnapper.

Residents also wondered why the police did not look into a possible connection between Mr. Mitchell and the kidnapping when they arrested him in September for shoplifting beer and other groceries from a store downtown.

A police officer's report noted that Mr. Mitchell had given Immenuel as his name, which was similar to Emmanuel, the name he gave the Smarts, for whom he briefly worked as a handyman.

In October, the family gave the police the name after Mary Katherine mentioned it. The police apparently did not tie the clues together.

Speaking on Thursday to reporters, Chief Charles F. Dinse acknowledged that his investigators focused on another suspect, Richard A. Ricci, 48, who had also worked in the Smarts' house and who died of a cerebral hemorrhage in prison while serving time on an unrelated charge. Mr. Ricci had said he was innocent.

In addition, Mary Katherine's description of the kidnapper more closely resembled Mr. Mitchell than Mr. Ricci.

Clearly on the defensive, the police seemed determined not to say too much. Asked why the news conference was canceled, Detective Dwayne Baird said, "because we have nothing to say." Detective Baird said the United States attorney's office had asked the police "to limit our comments to the media."

A spokeswoman for the office, Melody Rydalch, said, "We don't tell the Salt Lake City police what they can and cannot do."

In Liberty Park here this evening, several hundred people gathered to celebrate Elizabeth's return. Her parents, Ed and Lois Smart, stood under a white canopy surrounded by balloons.

But on the streets of Salt Lake City, the euphoria of Elizabeth's return dissipated today in a steady drizzle.

"They could have tried a lot harder to find this guy," said Brandon Fullmer, 21, referring to the effort to track down Mr. Mitchell and his wife. "They should have gone after anyone who worked in the house right from the beginning."

Mr. Fullmer, a cousin of Angela Ricci, Mr. Ricci's widow, said that after Mr. Ricci died, "the cops kind of gave up."

In the jail, Ms. Barzee made a point of telling Ms. Cottrell, her friend, that she would "would never let anything bad happen" to Elizabeth, but seemed not to recognize the pain her disappearance for nine months had caused the Smart family. Ms. Barzee said her actions and those of her husband were a result of revelations, dictated by God, including a trip to the West Coast and their return here this week.

Ms. Barzee, once an accomplished pianist and organist who acted with Mr. Mitchell in community theater here in happier times, recalled their trip to San Diego with Elizabeth in the winter. At one point, Mr. Mitchell vanished for days because, it turned out, he had been arrested for breaking into a church. Ms. Barzee told Ms. Cottrell that, concerned about the absence, she prayed at an altar that they had built some distance from their campsite in the San Diego hills, leaving Elizabeth alone for the night.

"She knew not to wander off," Ms. Cottrell said, quoting Ms. Barzee.

When the older woman returned to the camp, Elizabeth reportedly told her that she had been worried, too, and had thought about searching for her.

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