June 5, 2002: The Kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart


Well, this is one of the only true crime-related cases I've written about that has a happy ending. So, spoiler alert! Elizabeth Smart lives.

Elizabeth was 14 years old when, on June 5, 2002, Brian David Mitchel abducted her from her home in Salt Lake City, Utah. He and his wife, Wanda Barzee, held her captive for 9 months before she was discovered, alive, 18 miles away from her home.

Mitchell abducted her at knifepoint while her little sister, Mary Katherine, pretended to sleep. Mitchell claimed to be a religious preacher and held her in the woods with his wife, while he repeatedly raped her. He took her out in public multiple times, but nobody recognized her.

Elizabeth has gone on to become an advocate for missing persons and victims of sexual assault. Barzee was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2010, but was released early in 2018. There was some back and forth regarding Mitchell's competency to stand trial, but eventually, he was sentenced to life in prison in 2011.


Brian David Mitchell was born in Salt Lake City in 1953, the 3rd of 6 children. His parents' idea of sex education was showing him explicit photos in a medical journal. In order to teach him independence, they'd drop him off in unfamiliar parts of the city and make him find his way home. (Parents, this is not a great parenting strategy.)

Mitchell's first offense was exposing himself to a child when he was 16. When he was 19, he married a 16 year old and had 2 children with her. His wife, Karen Minor, got custody of the children when they divorced.

He moved to New Hampshire and joined a Hindu religious commune, but eventually left. He struggled with drugs and alcohol throughout his adult life, but strived for sobriety, inspired by his brother once he moved back to Salt Lake City.

He remarried, this time to a woman named Debbie, and he had 2 more children. Debbie said that he was abusive, and they divorced in 1984. She claimed after the divorce that he abused their 3-year-old son. One of Debbie's daughters from a previous marriage claimed that Mitchell sexually abused her for 4 years.

The day the divorce was finalized, Mitchell married his 3rd wife, Wanda Barzee, a 40-year-old divorcee with 6 kids. That seems like the least enticing woman imaginable. Anyway, her kids did not like her, referring to her as a monster. One of her daughters said that she fed her a pet rabbit for dinner.

The couple joined the Latter-Day Saints Church, and Mitchell began going by Immanuel and claimed to be a prophet of God, which got him excommunicated from the church. Barzee started going by "Hephzibah" and the terrible couple would panhandle and preach downtown. Mitchell pretended to be Jesus and dressed in white robes while growing a beard.

Long story short, trash humans.


Early in the morning of June 5, 2002, Mitchell broke into the Smart home where Edward and Lois Smart lived with their 6 children. He took 14-year-old Elizabeth from her bedroom that she shared with Mary Katherine who was awakened, but in her terror, pretended to be asleep.

Mary Katherine, 9 at the time, attempted to go to her parents' bedroom, but was almost caught by Mitchell, who hadn't left the house yet. She went back to bed and waited until she was sure they were gone before getting her parents. She woke them up at about 4 AM and told them what happened. They thought she had been dreaming, until they saw their screen window had been cut with a knife.

Mary Katherine provided the police with a lot of information. She said he was about the same height as her brother Charles, who was 5"8', white, and about 30 of 40. He was actually 48 and she got his clothing wrong, but she tried her best, okay?

She said he had dark hair and hair on his arms and hands, and he threatened Elizabeth with a knife, though she thought it was a gun. She remembers him telling Elizabeth to be quiet and he wouldn't hurt her, but didn't hear his answer when Elizabeth asked why he was doing it. He was polite, and she remembered his voice but couldn't pinpoint where.

Ed and Lois pleaded for the return of their daughter on June 6, 2002. A massive search effort was organized with about 2,000 volunteers each day. Flyers were made and people worked very hard to try and find the girl.

Unfortunately, Mary Katherine's information didn't help the police much, and he didn't leave any physical evidence. They interviewed hundreds of people, but to no avail. A previous handyman of the Smarts, Richard Ricci, was an early person of interest, but was cleared of suspicion.

Elizabeth was taken into the woods outside of Salt Lake City, where she met Barzee. She told her she needed to take her pajamas off or Mitchell would rip them off. He eventually came in and "performed a ceremony", which was supposed to be marriage, and then he raped her. Mitchell claimed he was an angel and Elizabeth was a virgin bride, one of many he planned to kidnap as he battled the Antichrist. Right.

She was shackled to a tree with a metal cable. She was forced to take on a new name, Esther, and she was repeatedly raped and forced to look at porn magazines. (The Mitchell parenting tactics at play?) She was forced to drink alcohol and use drugs to be less resistant. He starved her and when he fed her, it was garbage. Barzee often assisted in the abuse.

She was taken into public on numerous occasions, but not noticed by anyone. Her face would be obscured by a headscarf or veil. Once, around 2 months after her kidnapping, a library patron noticed them due to their odd styles of dress and decided to call the police after looking in Elizabeth's eyes. But when a police officer came, Mitchell convinced them he was her father. They were all questioned, but she didn't speak. She said that Barzee was gripping her under the table so she wouldn't move. She regretted not saying anything.

Mitchell and Barzee moved Elizabeth to San Diego in September where she was held in an encampment in a dry creek bed, one of their many moves.

In October of 2002, Mary Katherine had a realization that the abductor's voice was that of a man named Immanuel who the family had hired to work for a day on the roof and to rake leaves. Police weren't so sure, after all, he had only worked there a day, but when they got his sketch and picture out there, they believed he could be the one.

On March 12, 2003, Mitchell was spotted with a woman and a girl by 2 separate couples who had seen his face on the news. They both called the police, and they rescued her and arrested Mitchell and Barzee.


If you paid close attention at the beginning, the abduction took place in 2002 but neither offender was sentenced until after 2010. Part of the wait was because they had to evaluate if Mitchell was competent to stand trial. Apparently, delusionally believing you are a prophet of God is cause for concern. He was found competent in 2004. Then, he was re-reviewed and found not competent in 2005. At that point, he went to Utah State hospital, where he stayed until 2008.

There were more competency hearings in 2009. While some testimony deemed him unfit due to his affinity for breaking out in hymns in church, Elizabeth, now 6 years removed from her kidnapping, described him as "smart, articulate, evil, wicked, manipulative, sneaky, slimy, selfish, greedy, not spiritual, not religious, not close to God." You tell them.

After a ton of back and forth and a 206-page report, including 210 sources and 57 personal interviews, he was officially deemed competent to stand trial on March 1, 2010, nearly 8 years after he kidnapped Elizabeth Smart. Barzee's journey to competency wasn't as up and down as Mitchell's, but in 2006 a judge approved forcible medication to her so she could stand trial, yet she still did not get sentenced until 2010.

Barzee plead guilty and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. She was released in 2018. Elizabeth protested her release.

Mitchell's trial began on November 8, 2010, and while the defense acknowledged her was responsible for the crimes, they claimed he was legally insane. Their defense was rejected on December 11, and the jury found him guilty of kidnapping and transporting a minor over state lines with intent to engage in sexual activity. He was sentenced to life without parole in a high security federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.


Elizabeth Smart has gone on to take the worst thing that ever happened to her and turn it into good. In 2006, she went before the US Congress to support sexual predator legislation and the AMBER alert system. She wrote entries in the US Department of Justice's book You Are Not Alone in 2008. (2)

Elizabeth founded the Elizabeth Smart Foundation in 2011 that aims to support the Internet Crimes Against Children task force, and to educate children about sexual crimes. She was awarded the Diane von Furstenberg Award in 2011, and she was announced as an ABC news commentator for missing persons in 2011. (2)

She delivers many speeches, focusing on self worth after sexual assault and seeing yourself as a survivor, not a victim. She testified before the Utah State House of Representatives in 2014 for a bill that would provide training in child sex abuse prevention. She was featured in a 2015 video about how her religion sustained her through her kidnapping, and has helped her get through it. (2)

In her personal life, Elizabeth is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints and has served in various mission trips in the name of her religion. During one of her trips, she met a Scotland native named Matthew Gilmour. (2)

Elizabeth and Matthew married on February 18, 2012 and had 3 children together, Chloe, born in 2015, James, born in 2017, and Olivia, born in 2018. (2)

In 2018, when Barzee was released as authorities did not feel she was a threat to the community, Elizabeth said she believed she was a threat, saying "I know the depth of her depravity." But, she said she refused to live in fear, as she spent the last 15 years moving forward, building her family, and pursuing her life and goals. (3)

In the now 18 years since Elizabeth was taken from her home, she has reunited with her family, testified in a federal trial against her abusers, poured herself into the service of others in the name of justice for missing people and her religion, married, started a family, saw one of her captors released from prison, and has built a beautiful life for herself in spite of her terrifying ordeal as a teen. And still, she is looking forward to the future.

Elizabeth said, "I truly believe life is meant to be happy and beautiful, and no matter what happens that will remain my goal for me and my family." (3)


1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kidnapping_of_Elizabeth_Smart

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Smart

3. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/elizabeth-smart-kidnapper-wanda-barzee-due-be-released-prison-wednesday-n910966

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