Utah Girl's Family Sees Polygamy as Possible Motive

New York Times/March 14, 2003
By Dean E. Murphy

Salt Lake City -- Relatives of Elizabeth Smart said today that the authorities had shared information with them indicating that the man held in her nine-month disappearance was a polygamist. The information has led some family members to conclude that Elizabeth may have been kidnapped to be a wife.

"There is no question this guy had an obsession on her, that he wanted her," Elizabeth's aunt, Angela Dumke, said of the man, Brian D. Mitchell, who was arrested on Wednesday with his wife, Wanda Ilene Barzee. "That has been our feeling."

Ms. Dumke said that when Mr. Mitchell abducted Elizabeth from her bedroom last June, he seemed fearless, moving slowly through the house. She said he was still in the upstairs hallway when Elizabeth's sister, Mary Katherine, went to alert her parents.

"He just walked like he was God," Ms. Dumke said. "This is someone who thought he was above it all."

Tom Smart, Elizabeth's uncle, said that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had shared documents with the family that pointed to Mr. Mitchell's polygamy. Ms. Dumke said she had also seen the materials, which she described as chilling and which included statements written by Mr. Mitchell.

"This guy is into polygamy and all of that," she said.

The disclosures about Mr. Mitchell's possible polygamy came as the family learned details about Elizabeth's captivity, including several near misses in tracking down her and her abductors. Among them was the revelation that the girl had heard one of her uncles shouting her name as volunteers combed the hills behind her home hours after the abduction.

The police also reported that Mr. Mitchell, who was using a different name, had been arrested last month in San Diego for breaking into a church but had been released. People who had seen Elizabeth in San Diego said she seemed to be under Mr. Mitchell's strict control.

Only 12 hours or so after the three returned to the Salt Lake area they were picked up by the police while walking on the side of the road.

The girl's father, Edward Smart, met Mr. Mitchell in 2001 when he helped out at the Smart home as a handyman. Mr. Smart said today that he was astonished at Mr. Mitchell's mastery of deception.

"When I was up there on the roof with him, I never could have guessed," Mr. Smart said. "He was so soft-spoken; he was so quiet. I never would have guessed that such an animal would have existed behind such a person."

In a television interview today, Edward Smart said Elizabeth had seen "bad things" during her captivity with Mr. Mitchell. Asked later to explain what "bad things" Elizabeth might have seen, Tom Smart said, "This man is evil. It's what you'd imagine."

Tom Smart also suggested another possible motive, that Elizabeth had been kidnapped because Mr. Mitchell's wife, Ms. Barzee, had wanted a daughter. "There is also evidence to say that she may have been considered a daughter to Wanda, we don't know what it is," he said. "It is one of those two, and maybe something we don't even know of."

In a news conference this afternoon, Police Chief Rick Dinse of Salt Lake City described Mr. Mitchell as a "self-proclaimed polygamist" but would not say whether Elizabeth had been abducted to be a wife.

"That is part of what we are investigating right now," the chief said.

Chief Dinse also would not say whether Elizabeth had been sexually assaulted. "That is something else we are not going to talk about, what physically happened to her," he said.

The focus on Mr. Mitchell and his possible motives in abducting Elizabeth came on a day that Elizabeth's grandmother, Dorotha Smart, declared as a "day of Thanksgiving in March." She and other family members said they were reluctant to dampen the celebration of Elizabeth's safe return on Wednesday by delving publicly into the sordid details of her abduction.

"We don't even want to go there," one of Elizabeth's uncles, Chris Smart, said, when asked if she had tried hard enough to escape. "We are just rejoicing."

Based on interviews with Elizabeth, the police provided new details of her abduction on June 5, 2002, and her return home on Wednesday.

On the night of the kidnapping, Chief Dinse said, Mr. Mitchell cut through a screen window, threatened Elizabeth with the knife - not a gun as the police had reported - and took her outside through a screen door. Then at knife point, he led her through the backyard into the canyons that reach into the foothills behind the Smart home, the chief said.

The police said Elizabeth was held at a remote campsite, about three and a half miles away, for several months before being taken on a bus to San Diego. Chief Dinse said Elizabeth, Mr. Mitchell and his wife returned to the Salt Lake area by way of Nevada on Wednesday morning, less than 12 hours before being recognized by residents in Sandy, a suburb about 15 miles south of here.

"The sky's just a little bit brighter in Utah today, I'd say," said Chip Burris of the F.B.I., who joined Chief Dinse at the news conference. "We had two goals. The first one was to bring her back safely. And the second was to locate the people who did this. On both of those objectives we think we've accomplished that."

Edward Smart held a news conference this morning at which he shared details of the family's first night together. He said Elizabeth and her sister, Mary Katherine, had fallen asleep in their bedroom holdings hands. Elizabeth watched her favorite movie, "The Trouble with Angels." At the urging of her family, she also struggled through a few songs on the harp, complaining that she was out of practice after nine months away.

"Elizabeth is happy; she's well," Edward Smart said. "And we are so happy to have her back in our arms. I hate even leaving her. I am just always sitting there hugging her the whole time. Is this real?"

But Mr. Smart's expression grew pained when he was asked to speak about her ordeal. He said he had no doubt that Elizabeth had been brainwashed and that she had lived through hell. He began to weep as he gestured toward the parched foothills just beyond his home.

"She said that she had spent months right up here in the mountains, through August," Mr. Smart said, his hand reaching as if they were close enough to touch. "I can't believe it."

Mr. Smart also made an oblique reference to the questions that have been raised about Salt Lake City police's handling of the investigation. Many of the questions have centered on the department's delay in focusing on Mr. Mitchell as the main suspect despite the conviction of Elizabeth's younger sister, Mary Katherine, that he was the man she had seen in their bedroom on June 5.

Though the Smarts were reluctant to openly criticize the police, Edward Smart declared Mary Katherine "my hero" and said that the girl, who was 9 when the abduction occurred, played a more significant role than the authorities in bringing Elizabeth home alive.

Mr. Smart said a key lesson of the last nine months was that the authorities should take witness accounts seriously. When an witness names a suspect, he said, that person "is not just one of 250, that person goes to the top of the list."

At the news conference, Chief Dinse expressed regret that the department had not followed the family's advice to distribute an artist's sketch of Mr. Mitchell last fall, when Mary Katherine said she was certain the kidnapper was the handyman the family knew as Emmanuel.

The chief said that although the family believed the sketch was accurate, the investigators were not sure it was the best of three that had been drawn of him. When the family released the sketch last month, the police received a tip the same day that pointed to Mr. Mitchell.

"Let me tell you that in hindsight it's 20/20 vision," Chief Dinse said. "If we had to go back over it again, that decision by the investigators, I think every and each one of them would say, `I wish we had gone public with that photograph sooner.' "

Accounts of Elizabeth's behavior suggest that she may have had opportunities to escape or to ask others for help, and yet did not try.

When the police stopped her with Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Barzee on the street in Sandy, Elizabeth did not immediately reveal who she was. The Sandy police said that at first she said her name was Augustine and that when pressed to admit her identity, she finally responded with the words, "Thou sayest." She then broke into tears.

Psychologists interviewed today said fear could explain such behavior in anyone who was abducted.

"This young lady was kidnapped as a 14-year-old," said Dr. James S. Kahn, a child and adolescent psychologist at the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute. "We don't know what occurred. The threat of harm, the threat to harm the family, could be a very strong variable. We know her sister was threatened with regard to her own well being and the family's well being."

In San Diego, where Elizabeth is believed to have spent most of the winter, Lt. Doug Clements, a watch commander for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, said the Salt Lake City police informed him today that Mr. Mitchell had been arrested for burglarizing a church in San Diego County last month, and gave an alias, Michael Jenson.

Roy Miranda, who lived in a trailer nearby, said he had watched the three walk by almost every morning and evening. "She wasn't restrained," he said of Elizabeth. "Oh heck yeah, she could've gotten away especially at night."

A clerk at the nearby Wrigley's Supermarket, Widad Dermody, said she saw them on Monday. She said that they visited her shop once or twice a week, always to buy snacks, and that Mr. Mitchell exerted absolute control over the two women.

"The control was the look he gave them, you could see sparks in his eyes," she said. "He would just look at them and they would look down."

At a news conference in Salt Lake City, David Francom, one of Elizabeth's uncles, said the family had no plans for her to make a public appearance. He said she would not attend a citywide celebration planned for Friday night at a park. "We want her to have privacy," Mr. Francom said. "I think we owe her the time and the distance."

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