true crime

Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her bed at 14. This is what she wants parents to know.

Elizabeth Smart lay in her bed, fast asleep, on an unremarkable Tuesday night in June, 2002.

Earlier that evening, Smart had attended the Bryant Middle School awards night with her parents, Edward and Lois Smart, and received a number of academic awards.

They arrived home later than usual for a school night, and the six Smart children were quickly rushed to bed – lest they would be tired on Wednesday morning.

But, by Wednesday morning, Elizabeth Smart would no longer be in her single bed, in the affluent suburb of Federal Heights, Utah.

After midnight, a man named Brian David Mitchell broke into the Smart home, which Edward had carefully locked before going to sleep. He had made the decision, however, not to put the alarm on, because, “If the children got up and moved, it would set the alarm off. And so we just said we’re not going to bother with it,” Lois would later explain.

Elizabeth was awoken to footsteps, and a cold sensation on her cheek.

Mitchell was wearing all black, had dark hair and was aged 49. He threatened Elizabeth with a knife, and ushered her out of the bedroom, where she stubbed her toe on a chair. She whimpered in pain, and Mitchell said, “You better be quiet, and I won’t hurt you”.

We know what happened, because in the room was Elizabeth was her 9-year-old sister Mary Katherine, who was wide awake.  At the time, Mary Katherine had a strange sense that she had heard the man’s voice before, but could not remember where.

Paralysed with fear, it took her hours to relay what she had seen to her parents.

Elizabeth Smart before she was abducted. Image public.

At first, they were convinced that what Mary Katherine had seen was a bad dream. They rolled out of bed, and discovered Elizabeth was not in her bed. It wasn't until Lois saw that the downstairs screen window had been cut with a knife, that she realised Mary Katherine's story was not a nightmare.

Elizabeth spent the early hours of Wednesday morning being marched through a forest by Mitchell, where they eventually reached a camp. Mitchell's wife, Wanda Barzee, was waiting.

Mitchell believed he was a prophet and went by the name 'Immanuel'. He orchestrated a wedding ceremony with Elizabeth and raped her.

For nine months, Elizabeth was routinely raped and drugged. Her captors forced her to drink a great deal of alcohol, and would tether her to a tree. Sometimes, she would go days without any food.

The pair attempted to indoctrinate Elizabeth into their religious beliefs, reminding her every day that he was a prophet.

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Months passed, as the search efforts swept the country. Thousands of volunteers searched the area around the Smart's home, and found nothing. The family spoke on national television, and shared photographs and home videos of their missing daughter.

And then one day, months after Elizabeth's disappearance, Mary Katherine realised something.

The man who had been in her room that night looked like Immanuel, a man who had worked as a handyman in the Smart's home. Quickly, the police discovered that his real name was Brian David Mitchell, and in February 2003, his photograph was aired on an episode of America's Most Wanted.  

One month later, the man was recognised walking down the street, with a young girl wearing a wig and sunglasses. The passerby reported him to police, and less than 24 hours later, Elizabeth Smart was found.

Today, 30-year-old Elizabeth Smart participated in a Reddit forum titled Ask Me Anythingwhere people from all over the world post questions and receive responses in real time. President Barrack Obama, Jerry Seinfeld and Amy Poehler are among those who have used the platform.

One of the top rated questions read, "In your opinion as a children's advocate, what are some practical, commonsense steps parents can take to help their children avoid abuse? (And I guess I mean abuse in a general way, anything from extreme bullying to abduction.)"

Image via Getty.

Elizabeth replied with three, clear points:

  1. Make sure your child knows that they are loved unconditionally, and make sure your child knows what unconditionally means.
  2. Make sure that your child understands that no one has the right to hurt them or scare them in any way. It doesn’t matter what that person may be: family, friend, religious leader, community leader, it doesn’t matter.
  3. Should anyone hurt your child or threaten them in anyway, they need to tell you.

She later added, "Practice screaming, encourage your kids to fight back, there is a place and a time when it’s not only acceptable it’s encouraged. An organization that I work closely with is Rad Kids it’s all about prevention education and you can learn more about them at www.radkids.org."

Elizabeth is now married with a son, and wrote that she finds herself faced with a constant struggle between being overprotective and wanting her him to experience life so he is ready for the future.

Another commenter asked; "Is there anything you noticed in your captor, whether it be a certain look or manner of speech that would serve as a red flag for you if seen/ heard from another person?"

She simply replied, "There are things that make me wary, one of them being when someone uses religion excessively to justify what they’ve done or are going to do."

Finally, Elizabeth has a piece of advice for anyone who has experienced serious trauma.

"What has happened is terrible," she wrote. "But the best punishment you could give them is to be happy. By feeling sorry for yourself and reliving it... you're only allowed them to steal more of your life away from you. I don’t think this means you’ll never have a bad day again, or never struggle or feel frustration or anger. I think it just means have your end goal always be happiness."

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