With the jab of a knife blade in her neck, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart’s life changed forever.
A decade later, her message is simple: Educate kids, because kidnapping and sex crimes can happen to anyone.
Smart was the keynote speaker Friday during a two-day law enforcement conference on human trafficking at the Drury Broadview in Wichita.
With painstaking detail, she recounted how Brian David Mitchell, a handyman who had worked at her Salt Lake City home, kidnapped her in the early morning hours of June 5, 2002.
Never miss a local story.
She’d been arguing with her brother, Charles, over a trip to celebrate junior high school graduation with friends.
“The next voice I heard couldn’t have been more different,” Smart said. “ ‘I have a knife to your neck. Don’t make a sound. Get up and come with me.’
“I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. It wasn’t supposed to be me. I was an average normal girl.
“And your home is supposed to be the safest place on Earth. At least that’s what it was for me until that moment.”
The teenager was racked with fear. Her little sister, Mary Katherine, was in the bed next to her.
“I didn’t feel like I could say no,” she said. “I felt if I didn’t do exactly what he said he’d kill me. Not to mention my younger sister was in the bed next to me. So I did exactly what he said.”
Mitchell, a self-proclaimed biblical prophet, dragged the protesting, fighting girl into the mountains behind her home, where he and his wife, Wanda Barzee, had set up a makeshift camp for the kidnapping — close enough for her to hear the voices of family members searching for her yet too far away to be rescued.
She heard the voice of her Uncle Dave calling her name.
“ ‘If you scream for him, I’ll kill you,’ ” she remembered Mitchell threatening. “ ‘And if he makes it into the camp, I’ll kill him, too.’ ”
Smart said she was immediately haunted by the news accounts of other kidnapped children who had been killed.
“I remember thinking, ‘They are the lucky ones. They’re dead, and they don’t have to live with this. They are in a better place, and no one can hurt them again.’ ”
Mitchell ran through a bizarre ceremony, she recalled, to “marry” her and then told her it was time to “consummate the marriage,” the first of numerous rapes Smart suffered at Mitchell’s hands.
“I remember lying on the ground of that tent, feeling so worthless, so disgusting, so filthy,” she recalled. “Who could ever love me again? Would my parents look for me? Or would they just move on with their lives?”
‘I had to survive’
Then Smart thought about the love her parents and family had showered on her as a child. She realized how permanent that love is.
And so she resolved to survive.
“I found something worth living for,” she said. “If it was within my power, I would survive. I would go home and see my family and tell them I loved them. That decision saw me through a lot.”
There were many more sexual attacks, some involving alcohol Mitchell used to lessen her resistance.
“I was their servant,” Smart said. “I was the real wife’s (Barzee’s) hand maiden. I couldn’t talk about my family anymore. They weren’t my family. I came from a wicked, evil world and I was lucky God had commanded them to take me out of an evil world.”
The abuse continued, as did the failed escape attempts, as Mitchell and Barzee hitchhiked with Smart to California.
She developed a strategy to survive: Cooperate enough to keep Mitchell from acting on his frequent threats to kill her.
“I did what I had to, because I knew I had to survive,” Smart said.
She played along, observing her captors as they plotted a failed kidnapping to add to Mitchell’s collection of “wives.”
“They used religion to justify everything they did,” she said.
Never referring to Mitchell by name, Smart called her kidnapper a manipulator.
“He didn’t truly believe in it,” she said. “He just knew he could manipulate people to get what they wanted by telling them it was part of their religion.”
Mitchell and Barzee, thwarted by a failed California kidnapping, were making plans to try again on the East Coast. Smart thought her chances of being found would be diminished in Boston or Philadelphia, so she went to work on Mitchell’s ego.
“We really needed to get back to Utah, so I started thinking,” she said. “He used religion, so why couldn’t I use it one time on him and be successful?”
‘I was Elizabeth Smart’
She went to talk to Mitchell.
“I told him I felt like we’re supposed to back to Utah,” she said. “You’re close to God and I’m not. So ask God and he’ll answer you. He won’t answer me.”
Mitchell wandered off.
“Then he finally came back and said, ‘I think you’re right. I think we should go back to Salt Lake.’ ”
The trio hitchhiked back to Smart’s hometown, dressed in “robes right out of a Bible scene.”
They were walking down a major Salt Lake City street when a couple of passers-by recognized Smart and called police.
The police quickly surrounded the trio, and pulled Smart away from her captors for questioning.
“They asked me if I was Elizabeth Smart, and obviously, the majority of me wanted to scream yes,” she recalled.
“But I held back for a minute. I was so trained. If they didn’t get me, they were going to get my family. What perfect targets my family would be, suffering one tragedy already.
“So that held me back. What if the police didn’t believe me? What if they put me back with my captors?”
But as Smart wryly observed, “In America, the majority rules and in my case, it did. Yes, I was Elizabeth Smart.”
'Follow Your Dreams'
Today, she’s living a piece of advice she got from her mother on her first morning home after the ordeal.
“As I was walking out of the room, she told me, ‘Elizabeth, what this man has done to you is terrible. There are no words to describe how wicked and evil he is. He has stolen nine months of your life that you can never get back.
“ ‘The best punishment you can ever give him is to be happy, follow your dreams and do what you want. Feeling bad, living in the past and letting him haunt you is only allowing him more control over your life, more time stolen from you.’ ”
Smart married Matthew Gilmour in February. She studied harp performance at Brigham Young University, after spending almost two years in France on a Mormon mission.
She is pushing the cause of child-abuse victims through her Elizabeth Smart Foundation, the national Amber Alert program and Radkids, a program that teaches children how to protect themselves from sexual predators.
“It’s the second-most important decision of my life, to never give him another second of my life,” she said. “Never allow him to steal more time from me by feeling sorry, sinking into the past and allowing it to control me.
“That doesn’t mean I haven’t had my ups and downs. Of course I have. I am not perfect, as much as I’d like to be. We all have those days, we all have those trials, we all have those experiences.
“They don’t need to define who we are. It’s what we choose to do with our lives.”