Teen was `brainwashed' by captors, family says

Elizabeth Smart was kept in hiking area close to home for first two months

March 14, 2003|By Tomas Alex Tizon | Tomas Alex Tizon,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SALT LAKE CITY - For two months after being abducted from her bedroom last summer, Elizabeth Smart was held captive in the foothills just a few miles behind her family's million-dollar home, a place of densely knotted brush where she heard the voices of searchers yelling out her name during those first frantic days.

She was "brainwashed," family members say, and forced to live the life of a religious vagabond. The couple accused of kidnapping her - Brian David Mitchell, an itinerant street preacher and panhandler, and his wife, Wanda Barzee - took the girl to San Diego, where the trio lived in various campsites and Mitchell was arrested and jailed for breaking into a schoolroom, police say.

But they apparently spent at least some of the past nine months in the Salt Lake area, right under the noses of community residents and investigators.

On separate occasions, the three, dressed in distinctive biblical robes, with Elizabeth and Barzee wearing veils, were photographed or filmed attending a beer party nine blocks from the Smart family home and picnicking at a nearby city park. At one time last fall they may have stayed in a basement room a few dozen feet from Salt Lake City police headquarters.

After leaving the Salt Lake area in October, the trio spent most of the winter traveling in California, Nevada and Utah, returning here by bus Wednesday. They had only been back in the area a few hours when police confronted them. The three identified themselves as a family, the Marshalls, from Miami, Fla. Mitchell said his name was Peter Marshall, and Elizabeth, wearing a wig, veil and sunglasses, reportedly told officers her name was Augustine Marshall, and that she was a child of God.

One of the arresting officers said Elizabeth seemed tense: "We took her aside ... she kind of just blurted out, `I know who you think I am. You guys think I'm that Elizabeth Smart girl who ran away,'" said Officer Bill O'Neal.

Police Chief Rick Dinse said it was clear that Elizabeth did not find it easy to escape from her captors, and that she was likely "psychologically affected" by her ordeal and by the couple's manipulations.

Dinse and other law enforcement officials also acknowledged that they did not move as efficiently as they could have in solving the case, perhaps spending too much time on wrong suspects such as Richard Ricci, an itinerant laborer with a long criminal history. Ricci died last month of a brain hemorrhage while in custody.

Tensions between police and the Smart family seemed swept aside by the happy ending, with Smart family members making public comments all day yesterday that everyone makes mistakes, police included.

"It's real. It's real!" Edward Smart, the teen's father, told a crowd of supporters and media crews gathered outside their church yesterday afternoon. The crowd rose up and applauded, but minutes later were silenced by Smart's emotional account of his daughter's ordeal.

Smart said Mitchell had stalked his daughter, "hiding in the bushes" behind the family home "and watching her" in the weeks before her June 5 abduction. He said Mitchell had crawled in through a window screen that he had cut open, and used a knife, not a gun as originally reported, to force Elizabeth out of the house. The two walked out through a back door and disappeared into the night. Search dogs at the time followed Elizabeth's trail until it ended at a cul-de-sac abutting the foothills of the 1.2 million-acre Wasatch National Forest.

Elizabeth was found and Mitchell and Barzee were arrested Wednesday after two couples spotted the three walking down a busy street in a suburb called Sandy, about 15 miles south of Salt Lake City. The couples, recognizing Mitchell from police sketches, each called 911, and the trio was in custody within minutes. As Mitchell and Barzee sat in jail, Elizabeth Smart was reunited with her parents and five brothers and sisters.

"She's well, she's healthy, she's happy," Ed Smart said. When asked whether he knew details of his daughter's experience over the past nine months, he said: "I haven't gone there yet. I can't bear to go there yet."

Tomas Alex Tizon is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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