Elizabeth Smart In Wyoming To Tell A Story Of Miracles, 20 Years After Kidnapping That Riveted Nation

20 years after being rescued from a harrowing nine-month kidnapping, Elizabeth Smart has released a new book about overcoming trauma and spoke to hundreds of people about it in Cheyenne on Thursday night.

Renée Jean

April 08, 202314 min read

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The first true crime story 17-year-old Andie Prince ever heard was the 2002 abduction of Elizabeth Smart from her own home in the early morning hours of Wednesday, June 5.

“I was like really young when my grandma would tell me about this girl,” Prince said. “I just grew up hearing about it and, I don’t know, it’s like inspiring. She’s a strong woman.”

The story so impressed Prince that when she learned Smart would be coming to Cheyenne for the Dinneen Writer’s Series, there wasn’t a doubt in her mind that she had to be there to see it.

“I did everything I could to be here, so I’m here,” she said. 

Prince even convinced her younger brother, Bo, to come along as well, telling him just enough of the story to pique his interest.

“He was dying, because I wouldn’t tell him the whole story,” Prince said. “I was like, no, you have to wait. You have to wait and see.”

Bo and Andie took seats on the very front and center row of the Cheyenne Civic Center Thursday night to hear Smart recount in her own words not just how she had been stolen in the dead of night from her very own bedroom, but also how Smart has since overcome all the trauma caused by the terrible things her kidnappers did to her during the nine months she was their prisoner.

Kidnapping Riveted The Nation

Elizabeth Smart was just 14 when she was stolen at knifepoint from her very own bed — a bed she shared with her then 9-year-old sister Mary Katherine, who pretended to be asleep while her sister was abducted.

Mary Katherine had heard Mitchell say that he would kill Elizabeth and her whole family if she made a sound. In that moment, she was just as terrified as Elizabeth by this strange man dressed all in black, holding a serrated blade to Elizabeth’s throat.

Neither girl made a sound.

The man forced Smart to get shoes suitable for walking and, as he was taking her down the stairs that were central to the Smart home, he warned her again — with the knife still pressed against her and one hand gripping her tightly— that he would kill her and her family if she made a sound. 

"Their deaths will be your fault,” he told her.

Smart had no doubt in her mind that this man meant what he said. She hoped to escape — but she was as quiet as she could be as they crept oh-so-quietly through the sleeping household.

Smart knew the doors to her home were rigged with an alarm system. Her best chance to escape might be once Mitchell opened the door and triggered that alarm. 

Mary Katherine, too, was waiting to hear that alarm, so she would know it was safe to leave the bedroom and tell her parents what had happened.

But no alarm sounded. 

One of the magnets that made the alarm system work had fallen off, so when the doors opened, there was nothing to trigger it. 

Mitchell forced Smart further and further away from her home, while Mary Katherine waited an agonizing two hours for the sound of an alarm that never came, fearing the entire time that Mitchell must still be in their home. 

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Into The Night

Smart told her audience she’d lived a sheltered existence up to this point. 

The hungriest she’d ever been was an afternoon without snacks at school. The scariest thing in her world to now was going unprepared to a music lesson or encountering a spider in the dark. 

As her kidnapper forced her to climb through brush and rocky crevices that would eventually lead to the mountaintop hideout he’d prepared for Smart, her mind was racing.

“I remember just thinking he was going to rape me, and then he was going to kill me,” she said. “And then mountain lions were going to come and tear my body apart.”

That thought stopped her in her tracks, despite the knife at her back. She wanted her parents to at least know what had happened to her. To at least know that she hadn’t run away of her own accord. 

“I actually remember turning to my abductor and saying, if you are just gonna rape and kill me, could you please do it here?”

The man gave her a leering little smile. 

“I’m not going to rape and kill you yet,” he said. 

Smart stopped again as another thought occurred to her.

“You don’t realize what you’re doing,” she told him. “I mean, if you get caught, you will spend the rest of your life in prison, but I promise, I promise if you let me go, it will be like this never happened. Please let me go.”

But the man had no intention of letting her go.

“I know what I’m doing,” he said. “I know what the consequences are. The only difference is, well, I’m not going to get caught.”

His faith was so unshakeable, Smart felt even more terrified than she already was. 

Then he reminded her — as he would do often in the next nine months — what would happen to her and her family if she didn’t keep moving.

The terrifying climb into darkness continued.

The Search For Smart Begins

After a two-hour wait that felt like an eternity, Mary Katherine decided she had to chance leaving the bedroom, alarm or not, to tell her parents what had happened.

At first, they didn’t believe Elizabeth was gone.

They reminded Mary Katherine that her sister was often found sleeping in a different room.

“I love my sister so much, she’s an incredible person,” Smart told the audience in Cheyenne. “I hate sleeping next to her though. She’s just like, she gets really hot when she sleeps, but she’ll cuddle right up next to you. It’s just like sleeping next to a furnace.”

Because of that, Elizabeth would go sleep on the sofa, or on the toddler bed in her baby brother’s room, since he was too young to use that bed yet.

But, as Smart’s father was searching all the likely sleeping spots, her mother saw the cut screen in the living room and screamed. She knew immediately that what Mary Katherine had told them was true. Someone had come into their home and taken Elizabeth.

They called the police immediately, and then they called neighbors and friends to come and help them search.

But the police, when they arrived, had to consider all possibilities, including that her parents could have had something to do with Elizabeth’s disappearance. Mary Katherine’s account, meanwhile, proved to be somewhat jumbled.

She thought the man, who she never looked at directly, was dressed all in white, while in fact everything he’d worn had been black. And he was not carrying a gun, as Mary Katherine remembered it. It was a knife.

She told police she thought she remembered the man, but she could not remember where.

Forced Marriage

Brian David Mitchell, the man who kidnapped Elizabeth from her home, called himself Immanuel and claimed to be a prophet of the Lord. 

Once they had arrived at his mountaintop hideaway, Smart would learn that the Lord had commanded Mitchell to take a second wife, and he had decided the beautiful blond-haired, blue-eyed Smart was the one. 

Mitchell’s first wife, Wanda Barzee, meanwhile, was the Mother of Zion, and Smart was to become her handmaiden — a fancy word for household servant.

None of this made any real sense to Smart. 

“I’m 14 years old,” she told Mitchell. “I can’t say yes to being married. I’m a kid.”

She gave him as many reasons why the marriage couldn’t happen as her 14-year-old mind could think of, including that she hadn’t even had a period yet. 

His response, which also made no sense to Smart, was that it was now time for her to “concentrate on marriage.” 

Mitchell’s wife willingly bathed Smart’s feet and forced the girl to trade her favorite red, silk pajamas — a gift that matched a pair her mother also wore — for a dingy white shift made from an old, discarded sheet. 

Once Smart had been thus “cleansed,” Michell came into the tent, forced Smart to the ground, and raped her.

Every Day A New Horror

When Smart awoke, it was to Mitchell placing a cable around her ankles, which was tethered to another cable looped around a tree. Smart would not be freed from the cable until Mitchell and Barzee were certain she would not try to escape.

The cable was just long enough for Smart to reach a small bucket outside the tent, where she was allowed to sit when she wasn’t being raped, and a trench that was used as a makeshift bathroom.

Mitchell would not only rape Smart repeatedly, often multiple times in one day, she was also forced to watch him with Barzee. Mitchell told Smart this would inform her of other things that were now her “wifely” duties.

Any time she resisted, she was reminded that her family could still be killed. Mitchell could kidnap other members of her family, too, like her sister, or her cousin.

With this threat hanging over her every day, Mitchell forced her to do whatever he wished. He made her walk around the camp naked one day. Another time, he’d found a pornographic magazine. He forced her not only to look at the magazine, but to perform what she’d seen for him. 

Every day Smart thought that things could not get worse than they already were. 

And every day, she was proven wrong.

The Greatest Of These Is Love

Growing up in the Mormon Church, chastity, virtue, and purity were stressed often to Smart as a young girl. 

“No one ever took the time to explain to me that there is a difference between, you know, enthusiastic, whole-hearted, consensual sex versus, really, sexual violence,” Smart said. “So, in my mind, it was all the same thing.”

Because of that, the rapes were not only physically painful, but Smart also felt ruined. Like she would never be good enough for anyone to love ever again.

“I remember just wondering how was I going to survive this? Was it even worth trying to survive? I just couldn’t imagine coming out of it and being OK,” Smart said. 

But as she clung to the memories of her father and mother in these moments of great pain and humiliation, she remembered something her mother had once told her. 

“God loves you,” her mother had said. “He always will. He’ll never shut you out.”

And, “I am your mother, and I will always love you. I may not agree with you. I may not love all of your decisions. But I will always love you no matter what.”

It was that love which saved Smart in those moments. Faith and hope are powerful forces. But love is the greatest of them all. 

From that moment on, Smart was determined to do whatever she had to do to survive, to see her family again. 

Escaping Alive

With winter coming on, Mitchell and Barzee had decided they needed to leave Utah, and head for someplace warmer. There had also been a few close calls on trips into town, and they were worried about someone recognizing Elizabeth. After someone nearly stumbled into the camp, Mitchell decided it was a sign from God that they needed to find a new home.  

Mitchell went into town many times after that, panhandling — or ministering as he called it — to get not only food, but the money he would need to buy three bus tickets to California. 

Mitchell had thought she’d known hunger in the mountaintop camp, but in California, she learned how mistaken she was. 

Food was even harder for Mitchell to obtain in California. They were reduced to eating prickly pears that grew wild near their new camp, and occasional scraps of stale bread put out by a church mission. 

Eventually, after that camp was compromised, Smart was able to use Mitchell and Barzee’s strange religious beliefs to convince them that they should all just hitchhike back to Utah.

Smart had always been taught it was a sin to manipulate others — but she realized her best chance of escaping her captors was if she was closer to home. 

By now, Mary Katherine had remembered who Smart’s kidnapper had been. Her parents had once hired Mitchell to do some odd jobs around their home, trying to help the homeless man out. 

Her family had recently distributed a sketch of Mitchell, raising awareness of him in their community. When Mitchell reappeared, he was recognized, leading to Smart’s rescue.

A Hero For The Modern World

One of the things that makes Smart’s story so compelling is not just her unlikely survival.

“If you’re reported missing, it’s either 24 or 48 hours after you’re missing, and if you’re not found by then, you’re likely dead,” Prince said. “They’re not going to find you.”

That Smart was found at all was a miracle that captured the imagination of the world when she was found 20 years ago in 2003.

But a larger and perhaps greater miracle happened after that, and it was that which drew hundreds of people in Cheyenne to hear Smart speak on Thursday night. 

That miracle is what she has done with her life since then.

Smart is now married with three children of her own, along with a cat and a dog. Her foundation, meanwhile, is doing important work, advocating for survivors, trying to prevent human trafficking, and teaching young girls self-defense skills that can help them escape an attacker. 

Smart has also written books about her experience, and helped make movies about it. 

She is aware that the abduction has changed the life she would have lived, but she is determined to make of it something good. 

People are unique, she told the audience. 

“Whoever you are, whatever your story is, you have something that nobody else can offer,” she said. 

Trials and tragedies happen to everyone, Smart added, and it’s easy to feel worthless after that.

“Know that you’ve never lost your worth,” she said. “No one can take that away from you. No matter what your story is, no matter what you’ve been through, it doesn’t define who you are. You get to define who you are, and that’s pretty amazing.”

That resilience has earned Smart many fans, young and old, in Wyoming and the world.

“I learned about Elizabeth’s story when I was about 13, and I’m 16 now,” Brooklyn Ispas told Cowboy State Daily as she waited in line to have Smart sign her book for Ispas. “And I just really find it all inspiring. I look up to her, and I love her as a person.”

Ispas, like Prince, learned about Smart from her grandmother.

“I always listen to an audiobook at night,” Angelia Holland said. “So, if (Ispas) was there, she listened whether she liked it or not.”

Ispas not only liked the book, but it became one of her favorites.

“I’ve listened to her story so many times,” Ispas said. “Tonight, I definitely learned more about who she is, and what she does, and it was a great experience. I totally recommend going to see her. She’s an amazing person.”

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Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter