SALT LAKE CITY — Minutes after 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was snatched from her bedroom in the dead of night, a police cruiser idled by along a neighborhood street as she was forced to the ground at knifepoint. “Move and I will kill you!” her captor hissed.
It was one of several fleeting times Smart watched a rescue slip away during her nine-month ordeal, she recounts in “My Story,” a 308-page book being released by St. Martin’s Press on Monday.
She writes that she was so terrified of the street preacher who kidnapped her that when she was rescued by police in a Salt Lake City suburb in March 2003, she only reluctantly identified herself.
Between the heartbreak of missed chances, Smart writes, she was treated as a sex object by Brian David Mitchell and as a slave by his wife, Wanda Barzee. She says they denied her food and water for days at a time.
A U.S. attorney called it one of the kidnapping crimes of the century. Smart, a quiet, devout Mormon who played the harp and loved horses, vanished without a trace from her home high above Salt Lake City. Her case galvanized attention just months after Salt Lake City took the world stage with the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Smart, now 25, is married, living in Park City, finishing a music degree at Brigham Young University and traveling across the country giving speeches and doing advocacy work. She created the Elizabeth Smart Foundation to bring awareness to predatory crimes against children. For her, the book was another way to help bring nine months of brutality to a close.
“I want people to know that I’m happy in my life right now,” Smart told The Associated Press in an interview. “I also, even more so, want to reach out to people who might not be in a good situation. Maybe they’re in a situation that was similar to the one that I was in.”
Smart said she hopes the book, which The AP received in advance of its release from the publisher, will help other victims know that it’s possible to be happy and move forward with their lives and will shed some light on what was going through her head during what she called “nine months of hell.”
Her account was written with help from Chris Stewart, a congressman from Utah who has authored books with religious and patriotic themes.
Smart says she doesn’t care to understand Mitchell, yet her book opens a window on his personality. He was a downtown Salt Lake City fixture in a robe and sandals who first laid a crooked eye on Smart when her mother offered the man $5 and work at the family home.
At that moment, he resolved to take her as the second of a hoped-for five wives, he later told Smart.
Smart says Mitchell believed that anything in the world was his for the taking, and that he was a man who never cared for anyone even as he ranted about God. His mother had taken out a protective order against him. He felt entitled to any vice and often binged on alcohol. Smart calls him a “manipulative, antisocial and narcissistic pedophile.”
Against that backdrop, the book chronicles a series of near-rescues, notably by a homicide detective who questioned Mitchell at a library in downtown Salt Lake City. From under a table, Barzee clamped “iron” fingers into Smart’s thigh. Smart, disguised in a dirty robe and face veil, remained silent as she remembered the couple’s repeated threats to kill her family if she tried to save herself.
Her book reveals another near-rescue. Only days into the kidnapping, a helicopter hovered over the makeshift camp in the mountains just five miles from Smart’s home where she was kept tethered to trees by steel cables.
She was forced inside a tent as the wash of the helicopter’s rotors bent trees around them. After an eternal minute, she watched the helicopter slowly glide away, inching down a canyon. “They had to see our camp,” she thought. “They had to be looking for me!”
It never returned. The crew didn’t spot the tents, tarps, a dugout or scattered camping gear. Mitchell took it as another favorable sign from God.
“Why didn’t I cry out for help?” Smart reflects. The answer “comes down to fear. Fear for my life. Fear for my family.” Mitchell’s constant threats weighed on her. Part of her paralysis came from believing she had lost “everything worth having” – her innocence.
The young girl believed Mitchell invincible. Despite years of misdeeds, he had never served more than a few days in jail.
When he wasn’t feeling lazy, Mitchell tramped into town for what he called “plundering.” He would reappear hours later with bags of groceries and liquor from shoplifting, and he would force her to get drunk.
She writes that he was a manipulator who sneered after the library encounter about fooling the police officer, “He believed everything I told him. ... God has provided another miracle!”
After Smart’s rescue, Mitchell wheedled his way through state courts for more than six years, leaving them hopelessly bogged down in hearings over his mental competence. Federal prosecutors took over, and a judge ruled Mitchell was faking mental illness.
Mitchell is serving two life terms after he was sentenced in 2011. A year earlier, Barzee was given 15 years for her role in Smart’s kidnapping and sexual assault.
Mitchell managed to convince some psychiatrists he was insane. He shouted hymns and songs in court and ordered judges to “repent.” Smart described a moment in his federal trial when Mitchell feigned collapse, with paramedics rushing into court.
Between gasps and moans on a gurney, Mitchell locked eyes with Smart for the first time in years. He offered an “evil grin” to show he could still control others, she writes. “I returned his cold stare, never looking away.”
It was outside San Diego, where Mitchell took Barzee and Smart for winter at a homeless camp, that Smart devised a plan for freedom. She convinced Mitchell that God intended them to return to Salt Lake City.
On their arrival outside the city, police stopped the odd-looking trio, a middle-aged couple and young girl wearing filthy clothes, a gray wig and dark sunglasses, walking along a major metro street. Smart writes that before she identified herself, police seemed to know they had found her, asking, “Are you Elizabeth Smart?”