Publish date:
Updated on
Year
2003

Police recover Elizabeth Smart and arrest her abductors

On this day in 2003, 15-year-old Elizabeth Smart is finally found in Sandy, Utah, nine months after being abducted from her family’s home. Her alleged kidnappers, Brian David Mitchell, a drifter who the Smarts had briefly employed at their house, and his wife, Wanda Barzee, were charged with the kidnapping, as well as burglary and sexual assault.

In the middle of the night on June 5, 2002, Elizabeth Smart, then 14 years old, was taken at knifepoint from her bedroom in her parents’ house in the upscale Federal Heights neighborhood of Salt Lake City. Her captor slid into the house undetected after cutting open the screen of an open window. Elizabeth’s younger sister, Mary Katherine, with whom she shared her bedroom, was the only witness to the kidnapping. Mary Katherine did not inform her parents until two hours after the incident, frightened that the man might return for her if she called out to alert them. She was initially unable to identify her sister’s attacker.

Elizabeth was taken to a crude campsite in the woods just three miles from her family’s home–close enough that she could actually hear the voices of searchers calling for her in the days following her abduction. There, it is alleged that Mitchell, who calls himself Emmanuel and professes to be a prophet with his own Mormon sect, sexually assaulted her.

After two months, Smart, who was forced to wear a wig and dress in a robe and veil, was taken to Salt Lake City and appeared in public, but was not recognized. From there, Mitchell and Barzee took Smart to San Diego, where they lived in a series of campsites and under bridges. Finally, the group returned to the Salt Lake City area and, just a couple of hours later, several people recognized Elizabeth. They reported their sightings to police, who immediately followed up on the lead and pulled over a car carrying Mitchell, Barzee and Smart.

Most of the early police investigation into Elizabeth’s disappearance had focused on another suspect, Richard Ricci, who had also once worked as a handyman in the Smart home. Serving time in prison for a parole violation during the investigation, Ricci denied having any involvement in the kidnapping. The trail grew cold after Ricci died in prison of a brain hemorrhage on August 30. Finally in early February 2003, Mary Katherine Smart told her parents she believed another former worker at the Smart home, who called himself Emmanuel, might be Elizabeth’s captor and the Smarts relayed the information to authorities. On February 3, believing that the police were not taking Mary Katherine’s tip seriously, the Smart family called their own press conference to release a sketch of Emmanuel. Several days later, a man contacted police to inform them that Emmanuel was his disturbed stepfather, Brian David Mitchell, and that he believed him to indeed be capable of kidnapping. In the days before finding Elizabeth, the Smarts continued to criticize police for failing to devote enough energy to following up on the lead.

When found, Smart, who called herself Augustine, most likely at the behest of Mitchell, initially denied to police that she was in fact Elizabeth Smart. Undeterred, police took her and her captors in separate cars to the Salt Lake City Police Department, where she was reunited with her family. On March 18, 2003, after Mitchell and Barzee were formally charged, Mitchell’s attorney announced that his client considered taking Elizabeth a call from God. It has since been reported that Mitchell believed Smart was his wife and that the young girl may have suffered from Stockholm syndrome during the nine-month ordeal, answering questions as to why she did not try to escape even though it seemed she had been presented with several opportunities.

Police later discovered that Mitchell had also attempted to kidnap Smart’s cousin several weeks after taking Elizabeth and added that crime to the list of charges against him. Mitchell was declared mentally unfit to stand trial in July 2005 and December 2006; Barzee, who filed for divorce from Mitchell in December 2004, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for her role in the kidnapping in November 2009. On May 25, 2011, after being ruled competent to stand trial in March 2010 and convicted that December, Mitchell was sentenced to life in federal prison.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us!

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Germany annexes Austria

On March 12, 1938, German troops march into Austria to annex the German-speaking nation for the Third Reich. In early 1938, Austrian Nazis conspired for the second time in four years to seize the Austrian government by force and unite their nation with Nazi Germany. Austrian ...read more

FDR broadcasts first fireside chat

On this day in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt holds the first of his radio-broadcast fireside chats. FDR used the informal radio addresses to explain his policies to the American public. In an era before television, cell phones and iPods, FDR used the most immediate and ...read more

The Dixie Chicks backlash begins

In response to the critical comments made about him by Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush offered this response: “The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say.” Of the ...read more

Truman Doctrine is announced

In a dramatic speech to a joint session of Congress, President Harry S Truman asks for U.S. assistance for Greece and Turkey to forestall communist domination of the two nations. Historians have often cited Truman’s address, which came to be known as the Truman Doctrine, as the ...read more

Red River Campaign begins

On this day in 1864, one of the biggest military fiascos of the Civil War begins as a combined Union force of infantry and riverboats starts moving up the Red River in Louisiana. The month-long campaign was poorly managed and achieved none of the objectives set forth by Union ...read more