- June 23, 2008
- Vol. 69
- No. 24
A Second Chance at Life
Kidnapped from Her Bedroom in 2002—and Rescued, Miraculously, Nine Months Later—Elizabeth Smart Breaks Her Silence About Her Ordeal to Help Other Abduction Survivors
Six years ago this June, just a few blocks from where she sits now, Smart's life changed forever, when a drifter named Brian David Mitchell allegedly broke into her parents' home in the middle of the night and, at knifepoint, kidnapped 14-year-old Elizabeth from her bedroom and held her captive for nine months. She was rescued on March 12, 2003, when several citizens called police after spotting her, Mitchell and Mitchell's wife, Wanda Barzee, walking down a street in Sandy, 15 miles outside Salt Lake. Smart has rarely spoken about her ordeal in the five years since she's been back, but she agreed to talk with PEOPLE about how she is doing because she feels her story can help other children who have survived abductions.
She was one of five young survivors who helped create a Department of Justice pamphlet, You're Not Alone: The Journey from Abduction to Empowerment, released in May, intended for children and teenagers who survive kidnappings by strangers (see box). "I felt this was a worthwhile thing to do," says Smart, now a junior at Brigham Young University majoring in music performance. "I feel so fortunate that I was able to come through this unscarred. I want to tell other people, 'Don't give up. Miracles do happen.'"
It's hard to believe Smart could be completely untouched by what she went through.
Her alleged abductors, in custody and still being evaluated for their mental fitness to stand trial (see box), kept her chained to a tree, constantly threatened her life and, according to prosecutors, assaulted her.
Still, by all accounts Smart is doing remarkably well in putting her ordeal behind her.
Since reuniting with her parents and five siblings, she has traveled with her family to Ireland, England, France and Italy ("The gelato! I couldn't get enough of it"), performed dozens of harp recitals for neighbors and people in her hometown (she's been playing since she was 5) and had a steady boyfriend for a while (she's not seeing anyone right now). She has a summer job as a bank teller and during the school year lives away from home in a noisy apartment with four roommates. "It's terrific how well she is doing," says her father, Ed Smart, a child-protection advocate who along with Elizabeth helped get the Adam Walsh bill, establishing a nationwide sexual-criminal registry, passed in 2006. "After going through such a nightmare, how do you deal with it? But she's been truly amazing. I think it's a second miracle."
Although her parents offered counseling, Smart has put her life back together without the help of a therapist, preferring instead to speak with her parents and grandparents when issues come up. "I don't feel the need to talk about what happened to me, but if I do, I know my family is there," she says. Ed Smart insists his daughter isn't just keeping everything bottled up inside. "We haven't gone through what happened to her blow-by-blow, but both Lois and I have heard different things from her," he says. "It's a part of her life she can never forget, but it's nothing she wants to dwell on. So we try not to dwell on it either."
According to Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a kidnapped child needn't be permanently scarred by the experience. "Kids are resilient," he says. "They do bounce back and can live normal lives." Still, he says, "Elizabeth Smart is extraordinary for her grace and resiliency."
Indeed, in early public appearances after her rescue, Smart sometimes appeared nervous and shy. But now she seems more relaxed and assured—more, in a way, herself. "Elizabeth is a lot further along than I was at that age," says Maggie Maloy, 29, who was abducted, shot and raped when she was 15 and who worked with Smart on the pamphlet. "I could tell from listening to each person talk where they were in their recovery. And Elizabeth is extremely levelheaded and very down-to-earth. I was impressed."
On June 5, 2002, Smart was sleeping soundly in the double bed she shared with her younger sister Mary Katherine, then 9, when Mitchell—a panhandler hired by Lois Smart to do work on their home weeks earlier—allegedly cut through a downstairs kitchen screen and slipped through an open window (the Smarts had their alarm system shut off).
According to prosecutors, Mitchell, then 48, made his way upstairs, woke Elizabeth and forced her to hike in her pajamas and tennis shoes to the remote mountain campsite he had set up with Barzee, then 56. "Who are you? Why are you taking me?" Smart kept asking him. His reply: "God has commanded me to do this." Frozen in fear, Mary Katherine pretended to be asleep, but later she recalled enough details about Mitchell to help investigators put together a profile that led to Elizabeth's rescue.
For the first three months, Smart was held captive in the dense woods 3 1/2 miles from her home. She heard police helicopters overhead and searchers yelling her name but was too terrified to cry out. More than once she tried cutting through the thick cable used to tie her to a tree with a small knife she was given to pare vegetables, "but how do you deal with metal?" she says. "Certainly there were times when I tried to escape, but he kept telling me that if I did, he'd kill my entire family."
Eventually, her abductors—who called her "Augustine"—made Smart wear a robe and veil and took her out in public. They spent five months camping near a river and living in an abandoned trailer in Lakeside, Calif. They treated Smart like their servant and didn't allow her to bathe or eat much more than bread. They also forced her to keep a diary and told her what to write, though Smart would add things like, "I love my parents and I hate [Mitchell]" in French. There were times, she says, when she felt despair, "but I always knew that no matter what, I'd still be part of my family. They could change my name, change the way I look, starve me to death. But they couldn't change that I am Ed and Lois Smart's daughter. That was a very powerful thing to me."
Her abductors brought Smart back to Utah in the spring of 2003, right around the time the TV show America's Most Wanted aired photos of Mitchell (investigators had identified him as a suspect based on Mary Katherine's description). Two weeks later several passersby called police after noticing an odd trio walking down State Street in Sandy. An officer who caught up with them asked the young girl if she was Elizabeth Smart. At first Smart, wearing a red wig, denied she was "that girl who ran away." But after being asked a few more times if she was Elizabeth, she finally told the officer, "If thou sayeth." "I was scared," she says now. "I thought, 'My family's safety or my freedom?'" In fact the day police took her in and arrested Mitchell and Barzee "was the happiest day of my life," she says. "I don't think anything can ever match the joy I felt after returning."
Ed Smart, who says his family's ordeal has not caused him any lingering anxiety or depression, feels his daughter took control of her recovery the very night she was rescued, when she insisted on sleeping in the same bed she was taken from.
"She said, 'I want to sleep in my room tonight—don't worry, I'll be here in the morning,'" he recalls.
"To me that says mountains." Two weeks later she took her family into the foothills to show them where she had been held. Despite her parents' worries that it would be traumatic, "I felt triumphant," says Smart. "It wasn't a secret anymore. When I was held against my will, nobody in the world knew I was there. Now nobody could make me hide there anymore."
Slipping back into her routines—high school, horseback riding with cousins, harp recitals—wasn't always easy. Going back to school about five months after her rescue, for instance, was awkward at first "because a lot of people didn't know how to act around me," she says. "They tried to be sensitive to what I'd gone through, but that sometimes meant they didn't talk to me at all. But in time everybody felt more comfortable. My friends before were my friends after." Laurie Angell, 20, who has known Smart since preschool and attends BYU with her, says her friend still "has a fun personality. We go to lunch, go to movies and bake. We like to bake cookies. We're trying to work on our domestic skills."
Leaving for college 40 miles away in Provo was also difficult, for both Elizabeth and her parents. "It was a challenge for them to let me go out on my own," she says. Adds Ed Smart: "Oh yeah, that was hard. I'd say she helped us get through that one. We certainly will talk once or twice a day and stay in touch constantly." During the summer, when she lives with her parents, "I have to play by their rules," she says with a laugh. "Every night, if I've been out, I have to come in and tell them I'm home. Then I set the alarm if I'm the last person in. And we triple-check the doors and windows every night. I do that with my roommates too."
As she searched for a job after high school, her parents insisted she could only work a few blocks from home. And she couldn't work nights or Sundays. "I was like, 'I'm never going to find a job that fits that description.'" Then she realized there was a bank nearby. "Plus, they have a good alarm system," she says, "which is a bonus."
Putting in 30 to 40 hours a week, Smart has also learned to deal with her strange kind of fame, such as customers asking, "Do you know you look like Elizabeth Smart?" "I don't mind," she says. "Most people are respectful and don't ask nosy questions." Her time camping among homeless people, she says, helped broaden her perspective of the world. "Before, I was just your average Mormon girl. And since everything I've gone through, there's been a lot of learning and growing. I've learned to listen and not jump to conclusions. I'm not sorry this happened to me anymore, because it made me grow up."
The key to her quick readjustment, she says, was finding a way to forgive her abductors. She still believes Mitchell deserves a life sentence, because if he gets out, "he'd come back after me immediately. I think he knew exactly what he was doing. It's like my dad always says, 'He's crazy like a fox.'" But she says she has let go of her anger toward him. "It's just not worth holding on to that kind of hate. It can ruin your life. Nine months of my life had been taken from me, and I wasn't going to give them any more of my time."
In some ways Smart is like Kate Winslet's character in Titanic; given a second chance at life, she wants to live it as fully as she can. She's thrown herself into helping her father pursue child-protection legislation and volunteered to search for other children who have gone missing in Salt Lake City. She's no longer sure she wants to pursue a concert career as a harpist because "there are so many other things I want to do." Eventually she plans to get married and have children of her own.
But for now, spending time with her mother, her sister Mary Katherine, now 15 ("she's my hero"), and the rest of her family is just about the best adventure she could ask for. "The other day it was my mom's birthday, and to celebrate she said, 'I just want to work in the yard,'" says Smart. "So I went out with a couple of my brothers, and we hauled things around and helped on the garden, stuff like that. Then my mom says, 'What we really need are some sparkling lights to make this a fairyland.' So we got out the Christmas lights and put them in the trees for her." A simple, quiet afternoon, but in every way a gift. "I only have one life, and I'm not going to miss out on it," she says. "When I'm through, I want to be able to say, 'Wow, I lived a great life.'"