It’s always a tough call for a teen: What to wear on the first day of school? Elizabeth Smart, who started the 10th grade on Aug. 26, spent days choosing an outfit. “She had been out of the mainstream so long, she wasn’t sure she had the right things,” says her mother, Lois, who called Elizabeth, now 16, on her cell phone that first day. “I said, ‘How were your clothes?’ And she said, ‘You know, Mom, I need some retail therapy.'”
The best therapy for Elizabeth, it seems, is getting back to normal. Taken from her bedroom June 5, 2002, she was chained to a tree, held captive for nine months and, according to prosecutors, sexually assaulted by her abductor. Seven months after she was reunited with her family, her parents hope their new book Bringing Elizabeth Home (Doubleday) will help put their daughter’s ordeal behind her. “We wanted to put the misinformation to bed,” says Lois, 46. “The only way to let the truth be known was to tell it ourselves.”
While her alleged captors Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee await a trial that is not expected to start until next year, Elizabeth “is picking up where she left off,” says her mother. She has been in counseling but rarely discusses her captivity with her parents. “When she wants to talk about it, she will,” says Lois. “It’s not something we pursue.” Elizabeth and sister Mary Katherine, 10, no longer share the bedroom from which she was taken; not long ago Elizabeth got her own room. “It was time,” says Ed. “Elizabeth’s on the phone, interested in boys, and Mary Katherine loves her dog Ollie.” The Smarts have a new alarm system in their Salt Lake City home and only allow Elizabeth to go out in a group. “She is never by herself,” says Lois. “It is hard to let her out of our sight.” Still, says Ed, “it’s getting easier. Elizabeth always says, ‘Don’t worry, Dad, I’m going to be here.’ ”
JUNE 5, 2002: 3:58 a.m.
ED: We awoke to the sound of a voice filled with fright—that of our nine-year-old daughter, Mary Katherine.
“She’s gone. Elizabeth is gone.”
Mary Katherine stood by Lois’s side of the bed, her head covered by her baby blanket. At first we were certain it had just been a bad dream. [But] she went on, “A man came and took her. He had a gun.” [We] ran from the room and down the stairs, flicking on every light switch. Lois’s eyes fell on the cut screen in the kitchen window, and she screamed in utter disbelief and shock. That’s when we both realized that Mary Katherine’s words had quickly become our worst nightmare. Our daughter Elizabeth was gone.
JUNE 2002: THE FIRST DAYS
ED: I remember feeling as if the police didn’t have control over the situation. In the early hours of the first day, I was bothered they weren’t out there looking for my daughter. The house was not immediately sealed as a crime scene, which was confusing and troubling. Looking back, this turned out to be a huge oversight on the part of the police.
When the investigators started looking at our family, the obvious thought was that I might be involved. The police were pushing me to the point of breaking—which was their goal. If they could break me, surely I’d confess. This was definitely one of the lowest points of my life.
I had been crying uncontrollably for three days—since the morning Elizabeth was taken. That night two FBI agents had to help me up the stairs to my bedroom. My mind was overwhelmed by the situation our family was facing. I was checked into the hospital, unable to stop myself from crying. By morning I had suffered what my doctors would later tell me was a mild nervous breakdown. They sedated me when I checked in, but I kept right on crying. I just couldn’t stop.
LOIS: A few weeks after Elizabeth was kidnapped, I was having a particularly bad Sunday. I got all of the children ready for church, but I simply couldn’t muster the strength to pull myself together. I was lying on my bed, looking up at the ceiling, feeling lost and distraught. I had been crying and crying. I kept praying for an answer to why this could be happening. And then I heard a voice in my head, clear as anything I have ever heard, say the words “Be of good cheer.” It was enough to get me out of bed that morning. I dressed and went to church.
THE COMMUNITY HELPS OUT
ED: Many times the phone would ring at the Elizabeth Smart Search Center and it would be someone offering whatever we needed free of charge: food, water, thousands of posters, flashlights, batteries. There were so many acts of such kindness.
LOIS: The mess left behind after investigators rummaged through our home was indescribable. [To dust for finger-prints], they covered the house in graphite, which is a dark gray—almost black—powderlike substance. How could we bring our children home and make the house look normal when there was graphite everywhere? Whom do you call to get graphite stains out? We called our regular carpet-cleaning service. They were so generous and kind—they came and cleaned the carpets free of charge.
ED: We realized Mary Katherine wasn’t talking about Elizabeth at all—not even the good times they shared. She was afraid that people wanted to talk to her about the kidnapping all the time, and it frightened her. With a little encouragement, Mary Katherine slowly started bringing Elizabeth’s name into conversations.
She also collected things she thought Elizabeth would like during the nine months. She’d go to birthday parties and save her goodie bags. She and Elizabeth used to keep scrapbooks together, and she pressed on with that hobby by keeping scrapbooks of letters she received and letters she wrote to Elizabeth. She never—not once—took something of Elizabeth’s and said, “This is mine now.” She asked to borrow something of Elizabeth’s as if her big sister were away for the weekend.
OCTOBER 2002: MARY KATHERINE REMEMBERS
“I think it might be Immanuel.”
It was unbelievable to hear Mary Katherine utter those words. None of our children had seen the man she named [Brian David Mitchell, who had worked for a day around the Smarts’ home in early 2002] for more than a few minutes. We are certain that Mary Katherine received divine inspiration. How on earth could she have come up with his name on her own?
As the only eyewitness to the crime, Mary Katherine had been unknowingly traumatized more than we can ever imagine. The police questioned her over and over again, but she never wavered from her story. She had held the secret of who took Elizabeth for a long time, but finally the missing piece had surfaced.
ED: Christmas was the hardest holiday. Going to the department stores and selecting games and toys didn’t feel right. This year, we got back to the true meaning and spirit of the holiday—the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Instead of gifts, we decided to give each of the children Christmas Boxes. The idea came from a story Lois read when she was a child. It was the story of an empty box. When the child in the story opens the box, he wonders why it is empty. He is told that the box isn’t empty. It is filled with a gift he can’t see or taste but he can feel—it is love. We filled the boxes with items we thought were meaningful. Photos of each child as a baby, of them growing up, of the entire family, and of Elizabeth. As hard as it was for the children to not celebrate Christmas as we always had, they loved receiving their boxes.
As a way of honoring their missing sister, each of the children wrote a short note to her as a Christmas wish.
I miss you so much. I wish you were here to celebrate your birthday with us. Elizabeth, you’re the best sister I could ever have in the whole world. I love you so much. I don’t want you to get hurt at all. Elizabeth, I miss you playing games with me, the harp, reading to me, and sleeping with me.
SPRING 2003: TRYING TO MOVE ON
LOIS: As hard as it was for me to accept, the realization that Elizabeth might be dead continued to set in. I missed her. I desperately wanted her home. But every night, her bed remained empty. It was time.
Losing Elizabeth had brought us to our knees. The time had come to get back up. I turned around, took a good look at the panorama of the mountains that surrounded me, took a deep breath, and began to cry. As difficult as it was to allow my mind to go there, it was time to accept the possibility that Elizabeth was dead.
MARCH 12, 2003: A SIGHTING
Witnesses began to call 911 after recognizing Brian David Mitchell from the most recent airing of America’s Most Wanted. The first call came from Anita and Alvin Dickerson, who had spotted a bearded man and two women walking on the street near a Kinko’s in Sandy, Utah. Sandy police officer Karen Jones was nearby when the 911 call came in. She approached the trio and separated Brian David Mitchell for questioning. She asked his name and for some identification. Mitchell responded with a pseudonym, “Peter Marshall.” He said his wife’s name was Juliette and their daughter was Augustine.
Officers repeatedly asked the young girl in the veil her name. “Augustine,” she said three times. “I know you think I’m that Elizabeth Smart girl who ran away, but I’m not.” Officer Troy Rasmussen said he could see her heart beating through her shirt.
ELIZABETH IS FOUND
ED: I was sitting in my office, working, when the phone rang. It was Detective Parks. He told me to drop everything I was doing, don’t call anyone, and to go straight to the Sandy police station. As we approached a closed-off room, the officer said to me, “We think we found a homeless girl that might be Elizabeth.” The door was opened, and I was stunned. There, sitting on a sofa, very quiet and subdued, was a girl with her arms folded. She looked like a homeless girl. She was taller, bigger, more mature-looking than Elizabeth. She was unkempt. Her face was round, swollen from being outdoors in the sun. I wasn’t certain at first that it was her. I went over and put my arms around her and just started bawling. I held her back, looked her in the eyes, and said, “Is it really you, Elizabeth?”
I grabbed Elizabeth and held her close to me. I never wanted to let go.
LOIS: When we arrived at the station, I was stunned when I saw her for the first time. It was not Elizabeth—at least not my Elizabeth. Her hair was in two French braids—a way she had never worn her hair before she was taken. Her shoulders had developed from carrying a heavy back-pack. This Elizabeth didn’t look anything like the little girl in the missing posters. It was very hard to see her like that. I grabbed Elizabeth and hugged her as tightly as I could. She held on to me, digging her fingers into my back.
A few minutes after our reunion, the police took Elizabeth away, explaining that they needed to get her statement while her memory was still fresh and untainted. Ed flew into an absolute rage—behavior that is not typical for my husband. He was pounding his fists on the table and demanding to stop the interview. He couldn’t bear the thought of Elizabeth being put through that kind of interrogation. The police stood firm. They didn’t want her recollection to be corrupted by media or other outside influences. I was allowed to witness [the questioning] from a room that had a small television monitor. Listening to Elizabeth tell of the nightmare she had suffered through for nine months was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I felt like dying as I listened to my daughter painstakingly detail the abuse and assault she endured. I will never forget the sinking feeling I had watching my daughter tell of her living hell.
LOIS: Finally, at approximately ten o’clock in the evening, we were able to head home. The first thing Elizabeth wanted to do was take a bath. I drew the biggest bubble bath I had ever made in my large Jacuzzi tub. The dirt, grime, and soot that sat at the bottom of the tub when she finished her bath was thick and muddy.
Around midnight, we all piled on my bed and Elizabeth asked if we could watch the tape of one of her favorite movies, The Trouble with Angels. I was certain that Elizabeth would be sleeping in our room that first night home. I couldn’t imagine her wanting to go back to the bed from which she had been taken. However, when the movie ended, Elizabeth got up as if nothing had ever happened, and said she was tired and ready for bed. “Mom, don’t worry. I’m going to be safe. I’m going to be here in the morning.”
I will never forget those words.
The next morning, when Mary Katherine awoke, she said she had had the best night of sleep ever. For the first time in nine months, she didn’t need her night-light.
APRIL 2003: RETURNING TO THE CAMPSITE
LOIS: “I feel triumphant!”
Those were the words Elizabeth spoke the day she took us to see the campsite where she had been held captive. It was amazing to be there with her and witness her feeling she had conquered Mitchell and Barzee. We thought that maybe, someday, she’d want to take us there, but we never expected to have Elizabeth, just a couple of weeks after coming home, want to show us where she was held. Elizabeth marched up that hill as if she were headed to battle. We arrived, and she showed us everything: “This is the place we hid our shoes. This is where we got water. This is where I lived.” We were stunned at the calm and secure way that Elizabeth spoke. When we stood at the site, Elizabeth was free—free to do and say whatever she wanted. It was liberating and cathartic. More crucial to her was to prove that Brian and Wanda did not own her. There were no tears—she certainly didn’t show any anguish. It was like a cleansing for her. It is part of the healing. It was a continuation of the rebirth of Elizabeth Ann Smart.
ED: Today, Elizabeth is trying to get back to normal. She is so looking forward to getting her driver’s license. She is now sixteen. It has been a year and a half since she was kidnapped. Life has changed for all of us. But Elizabeth is reconnecting with her friends—trying to catch up on the year she missed out on in their lives. She was not allowed to date until sixteen, which means by the time you read this, our daughter will most likely be driving and dating—yikes! She’s right on target, doing the things she ought to be doing. She goes out with her friends, which is sometimes hard for us, but we want life to be sweet for her.
IN HER OWN WORDS
I am so happy and thankful to be home with the people I love. I’m doing great. I owe a lot to my family and to the great friends that I have. I want to thank them for not giving up on me.
Through my experience, I have learned not to take anything for granted—not my life, my family, my safety, my health, my friends, or even my enemies. You have to live life every day knowing how precious God’s gifts are.
If today were your last day on earth, would you have told the people you love that you love them? Would you have any regrets? Would you be able to die peacefully and without a grudge? I have learned that living in the moment means taking the time to do the things that are meaningful and important. Every day is a blessing. I feel so blessed to be back home, with my family and friends. I truly am the luckiest girl in the world!