It’s been said there’s nothing more innocent than a sleeping child. And that’s exactly what Elizabeth Smart’s captor, Brian David Mitchell, saw when he put a knife to her throat as she slept next to her sister in the family’s Salt Lake City home June 5, 2002.
Smart, now 24, shared her inspiring story of survival and triumph over evil with more than 200 women Thursday (Oct. 18) at the Healthy Woman Series Dinner in Siloam Springs. The event was sponsored by Community Physicians Group with the help of Cherokee Casino, Simmons Foods and the Balloon Closet.
Though 14 at the time of abduction, Smart says she was naive and extremely modest for her age.
“I became embarrassed wearing a v-neck tee shirt as part of a choir uniform. When the spotlight shined upon me I thought I was showing so much décolletage.” she said. “The bubble of safety my parents had put around me up 'til then was not thick enough to protect me from the evil I would face.”
A confident and well-spoken Smart had the crowd in the palm of her hand as she walked them through the darkest days of her life.
“I heard this strange voice and he was speaking English, but the words made no sense as I roused from my sleep. He said get up and don’t make a sound. At first I thought it was a dream but then I felt the knife against my throat. I was scared for my sister sleeping next to me and I didn’t know if my parents were even alive at that point. So I got up and did exactly what he said.” Smart said.
She said as they fled the neighborhood a car approached and she heard Mitchell say “God please let this car pass” as they crouched in some bushes.
“I thought to myself maybe they are already looking for me, but when the car passed by I saw it was the police that obviously didn’t see us,” she added.
Smart told the group she was forced into a heavily wooded area where they seemed to walk for hours, away from her home.
“At one point I stopped and said, ‘if you're going to rape and kill me, just do it here so my family can find my remains and have some sense of closure, so they will know I didn’t run away,’” Smart recalled.
He said there were no plans to kill her and they kept on moving, according to Smart.
She was taken to a make-shift camp deep in the woods where she was met by Wanda Barzee, Mitchell’s accomplice.
That first night was the darkest moment of Smart’s young life and will likely never be matched. She said the captors made her disrobe and then Mitchell sealed her as his bride before God with the angels as his witness.
“That certainly wasn’t my vision of prince charming and I screamed ‘NO’ he told me then if I ever screamed again he would kill me and hurt my family. He threw me on the ground and he raped me. Then when he was finished he stood up and smiled a smirk and walked away,” Smart said.
“I felt filthy and worthless and wondered who could ever love me after that. All meaning had gone out of life. I was in pain and humiliated. I even thought the kids who were murdered were the lucky ones because they didn’t have to live with the humiliation,” she added.
Smart cried herself to sleep that night and awakened to find that she was being chained to a tree with just enough slack to reach a bucket outside the tent, she was to use as a latrine.
During that lonely night, Smart said she remembered her family back in Salt Lake City and knew they were worth living for.
“I made the decision that night to survive so I could try and see my family again. It was the best decision I could have made and I have never regretted it a single a day since,” Smart said.
WHY NOT RUN
A common question people ask Smart is why she didn’t scream or run during her nine months of captivity.
She answered that Wednesday night saying “I tried to escape a couple of times but in the end I wanted to survive."
Smart said they eventually moved to California and had been stopped several times and questioned by law enforcement. But each time Mitchell told a believable story and their oddness was overlooked.
While Smart said she had no training or experience in psychology, at 14 she could not have been more savvy with her next move. When Mitchell began talking about moving on to larger cities for his next of seven brides, he spoke of Chicago and Boston, which Smart said scared her to death.
“I knew my chance of being found would dramatically decrease if we went across country further away from Utah. So I began to try and figure out a way to convince him to return to Salt Lake,” she said.
It had been nearly nine months since she was taken from home and she knew there were a million reasons why he wouldn’t want to go back to Salt Lake but she would give it a shot anyway.
“I played upon his ego, and said that I had this crazy idea we should go back to Salt Lake but that he should ask God, because God would surely tell him – a trusted servant and prophet,” Smart said.
She remembers Mitchell telling her that God had spoken to him and they were going back to Salt Lake City.
“The hallelujah choirs were singing in my head, I couldn’t believe it,” Smart said.
The trio then hitch-hiked back to Utah, over the next few days. Smart said she was forced to wear a disguise but when they reached the Utah border she felt as though she had made it half way home.
On March 12, 2003, Mitchell, Barzee and Smart were walking up State Street around the one hundred and six block when Smart saw a number of police cars coming toward them.
“We had been stopped before and they never recognized me so I wasn’t sure what was happening this time. My captor told his story but they separated me and asked if I was Elizabeth Smart. It took a minute or two, but I finally said yes,” Smart said.
Two different calls from local citizens came into the police department within a couple of minutes which had prompted the search along State Street.
She was quickly reunited with her father and the rest of her family.
Smart says March 12, 2003 is the happiest day of her life, because it’s the day she got it back.
The best advice Smart says she got was from her mom the very next day.
“She said Elizabeth this man stole things from you that can never be returned. He took nine months of your life, don’t give him another minute. Don’t worry about a need for justice or punishment, if it’s not taken care of in this life, it will be in the next. Be happy and follow your dreams,” Smart shared.
She told The City Wire in a short interview that she had no regrets about the decisions she made.
“I found forgiveness and feel grateful to have a second chance at life,” Smart said.
Though she didn’t seek the celebrity status achieved by her incredible story, Smart said she’s using it as a platform to empower children and raise awareness of child abuse that is rampant in this country, as there is one predator lurking in every square mile.
“So many children can’t speak out, but I can be that voice and through my foundation it’s my hope to raise awareness and prevention of crimes against children. Nobody should ever blame a child for their actions when they are being threatened, bullied, forced and coerced into doing something unthinkable,” Smart said.
Her foundation has partnered with radKids, which is dedicated to providing children with a hands-on, activity-based, physical skill development program.
She said we spend a lot of time telling kids what not to do. But there's a big gap in training them on what to do if they are grabbed, or approached. The response needs to be immediate, instinctual and absolute. For more information on radKids visit their website.
“radKids would have made a difference for me.” Smart said.
In closing, she said her mother’s advice applies to anyone who is facing a troubling situation.
“Take control, chose to forgive and live,” she said.