Elizabeth Smart is getting ready to walk into a granite courthouse in downtown Salt Lake City and, she expects, confront a monster. She will have to speak the unspeakable—to reveal some details of her 2002 abduction and her nine months of brutal captivity for the first time since her rescue in March 2003. Yet Smart, now 21, tall and graceful, does not seem nervous as she talks about testifying at an Oct. 1 evidentiary hearing for her alleged kidnapper, Brian David Mitchell, 56. “I’m ready; I feel okay about it,” she says. “It will be good to have everything wrapped up, because I want to move on. I came back home in 2003, and now it’s 2009. It’s been 6½ years. This seems to have dragged on quite a bit, doesn’t it?”
The next day, Smart took the stand and for nearly two hours recounted a shocking nightmare of physical and sexual abuse. Mitchell, it turned out, was not in the courtroom—he was brought to the hearing but ordered to a holding cell after he refused to stop singing a Mormon hymn, something he has done at other hearings. But Smart’s parents, Ed and Lois—who never pushed her for details and didn’t know some of what she was about to say—sat in the front row and listened, ashen, as their daughter spoke. “She wants justice to be served,” says Ed, 54, explaining why he supported her decision to testify. “She’s the one person who can show Mitchell knew exactly what he was doing. So many times, Elizabeth has told me, ‘Dad, it’s so obvious he did what he did.’ To watch him manipulate the courts for six years has been frustrating.”
Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, 63, have so far eluded a trial on charges of kidnapping and sexual assault. Barzee has been judged incompetent to stand trial, while prosecutors are still trying to prove that Mitchell—who pleaded not guilty—is competent (see box). That is why, for his third competency hearing, they brought out their star witness: Elizabeth Smart. Dressed in a black-and-cream cardigan and black slacks, Smart spoke clearly and calmly, but what she endured was far more horrific than most could imagine. “A man broke into my house and held me at knifepoint and kidnapped me,” she said when U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman began by asking her what happened on June 5, 2002. “He told me to get up quietly, and if I didn’t, then he would kill me and my family.”
Smart, who was just 14 when she was abducted, described how Mitchell marched her three miles to a makeshift mountain camp and “performed a ceremony, which was to marry me to him. After that he proceeded to rape me.” She explained how she was bolted to a cable strung between two trees and how Mitchell showed her pornography and gave her drugs and alcohol to lower her resistance. Smart said she was raped as many as four times a day and tried to resist, once even biting Mitchell. But the abuse continued. “He said he would kill anyone who came into the camp or kill me if I tried to escape,” she said.
What seemed clear was that Smart somehow avoided bonding with her captor. “[He’s] evil, wicked, manipulative, sneaky, slimy, selfish, greedy, not spiritual, not religious, not close to God,” she said when asked about him. Smart kept a diary during her captivity, writing positive entries about Mitchell in English in case he read them but scribbling beneath them, in French, phrases like, “I hate it here. I hate them. I want to go home to my family.” It was a way “for her to keep her independence,” says her father. “It helped her to keep hope that she would one day be returned to us.”
Indeed, it was Smart who shrewdly suggested to her captors that they move from California, where they spent five months, back to Salt Lake City. “Even if it took 20 years to find me, I felt the chances would be better in Salt Lake,” she testified. “I said to [Mitchell] I had a very strong feeling about going back.” On March 12, 2003, several people spotted Mitchell, Barzee and Smart on a street in Sandy, Utah, just outside Salt Lake City—the last time Smart saw Mitchell.
When Smart finished testifying, she left the courthouse with her parents, grandmother and siblings and began putting the case behind her, at least for now. A third-year music major at Brigham Young University, she works as a personal assistant for a family in her neighborhood. She has no boyfriend—”Who has time?” she says—and in November will start training to be a missionary, before embarking on an 18-month mission in Paris. “I feel like I’m getting a fresh start,” she says. “I’ll miss my family, but they’ll be able to write. They know it’s the right thing for me.”
It will be the first time Smart won’t be able to see her parents for a long stretch since she came home. But the blessing of her rescue, she believes, requires her to live life fully—advice she would share with other kidnapped victims like Jaycee Dugard. “When I heard about her I felt so terrible that such a huge chunk of her life has been taken away,” says Smart. “But I’m excited for what lies ahead for her. My advice to anyone who has been through this is to not give up on life.”
While she is away, prosecutors will keep trying to get Mitchell’s trial on the docket. For his competency hearing, set for Nov. 30, some 40 witnesses, including hospital workers and former cell mates, will testify about his state of mind. And if he is ruled competent, Smart knows she will likely wind up back on the stand, perhaps with Mitchell a few feet away, to talk about her ordeal. Her message then, as it was on Oct. 1, will be about courage, strength and survival. “God gave me a lot of peace and comfort when I needed it most, and now I want to bring others that same strength,” she says. “I want people to know that no matter what happens in their lives, there is nothing too difficult to get through.”