Finding Elizabeth

The lost angel has come home. In a handsome house in the Utah foothills, Elizabeth Smart snuggled with her little brother on her lap. She watched her favorite movie, "The Trouble With Angels"--about rebellious Roman Catholic schoolgirls, one of whom becomes a nun. She even played her harp, at the coaxing of her family. She struggled through it, apologizing that she hasn't had a chance to practice in a very long time. On her first night home, she slept in her own bed--little sister Mary Katherine crawled in beside her. In the coming days, old friends and young cousins would come to celebrate, squeeze her tight and give thanks.

"I came up to the door and she came running down the stairs and gave me a big hug," said Elizabeth Calder, a friend since the girls were 4 or 5. There were boxes and boxes of presents to open, sent by well-wishers from around the nation: 55 bouquets of flowers, ice cream from Ohio, a gift from Katie Couric. Someone even sent salami. "I'm getting all these things," Elizabeth Smart marveled, "and I don't know anybody, but everybody knows me."

She is safe now. But Elizabeth can scarcely be whole. It is uncertain precisely what horrors she might have endured at the hands of her demented captor, Brian David Mitchell, a self-styled prophet who called himself Emmanuel and authored a polygamist manifesto detailing his desire to "take seven sisters." On Saturday, Elizabeth swept over the mountains in a police helicopter, trying to locate the nearby campsite where she had been held. Her father, Edward Smart, said the girl had witnessed "bad things" during her captivity. Family members say she had been brainwashed. The Mormon family's ward bishop, Dave Hamblin, puts it plainly: "She has changed. She was with a very bad man." Growing up in an affluent, strongly religious family, Elizabeth had always been a sheltered child, he said: "She was 14 going on 11--she wasn't into the Internet and she hadn't developed an interest in boys. Now she's more like a young woman instead of a girl." Elizabeth is "having to relearn and reconnect with her family emotionally," Hamblin adds. "The process is just beginning."

The kidnapping on June 5 had transfixed the nation: a sweet and innocent girl with butterscotch hair snatched at knife-point from her bed in the middle of the night. Virtual armies of searchers--some --on horseback, some in helicopters--had combed the Utah foothills in a futile search for the girl. At the time, they did not know that Elizabeth was just a few miles from home at a campsite in Dry Creek Canyon with Mitchell and his wife, Ilene Wanda Barzee. "She heard people calling out for her," her father said. As the horrifying abduction stretched to nine months, her mother, Lois Smart, at one point began to lose hope of ever finding her daughter, said Sue Ann Adams, a family friend. "Lois began to come to terms that Elizabeth wouldn't be coming back," Adams said. "She knew that she should focus on raising the remaining five children. But Ed never gave up."

Astonishingly, even with posters of Elizabeth all around, the girl was often seen wandering in public with her captors. She wore various disguises, usually a veil, during their journey that stretched from Utah to San Diego and Nevada and back again. The trio was familiar to workers at a Souper Salad restaurant in suburban Midvale. In their dirty robes, they stood out at a big garden party in Salt Lake City. They stayed for four days in the apartment of Mitchell's acquaintance, Daniel Trotta. "I asked her what her name was," he said, "and Brian interrupted her, 'Don't tell'." He said neither Elizabeth nor Barzee spoke during their stay. People thought them odd, but nobody put the pieces together.

Ultimately, the case hinged on the recollection of Elizabeth's little sister, Mary Katherine--a tip that initially was virtually ignored by police. One October evening, the girl looked up suddenly from her reading--the Guinness Book of World Records--and told her parents, "I think I might know who did this." She said the abductor looked like the family's onetime handyman, Emmanuel. Police seemed to sit on the tip until the family decided to go public with a sketch of Mitchell in February. After seeing the drawing on "America's Most Wanted," a couple coming out of a Kinko's in suburban Sandy last Wednesday spotted Mitchell and the two females walking down the street, and called the police. Officers say Elizabeth was wearing a wig and sunglasses and gave her name as Augustine Marshall. "I know you think I'm that Elizabeth Smart girl who ran away," she told them. "But I'm not." She was so scared, said Officer Troy Rasmussen, "that you could see her heart beating through her clothes." Even as the police took her in a car, she denied her identity, and expressed concerns about Mitchell and Barzee. (The two are being held pending charges, police said.)

At some point, it seems clear, Elizabeth formed a bond with her suspected kidnappers, a phenomenon sometimes known as Stockholm syndrome. She conceivably --had chances to escape, but did not. She was out of Mitchell's clutches for six days in February, while he was jailed in San Diego for breaking into a church. Mitchell also left the girl, at least for a brief period, when he tried to break into the house of Elizabeth's cousin, 18-year-old Jessica Wright, in what police believe was a kidnapping plot. Los Angeles psychologist Robert Butterworth said young victims are often in awe of the power of their kidnappers. "They try to strip away layer by layer her identity and her belief system," Butterworth says. "Emotional bondage can be stronger than chains."

It is not known what kind of pressures the captors might have used on the girl, physically or psychologically. Mitchell's former wife, Debbie Mitchell, said he had beaten her and molested her daughter from the time the girl was 8 years old until she was 12. Mitchell's stepson, Mark Thompson, said the man was twisted. "He shot our dog in front of us," he said. "He killed our bunny and made us eat it."

The Mormon church has publicly disavowed Mitchell and Barzee, releasing a statement last week that the pair had long ago been "excommunicated for activity promoting bizarre teachings and lifestyle far afield from the principles and doctrines of the church." Michael Otterson, a spokesman for the church, would not elaborate on the specifics. But the church considers practicing polygamy--officially forbidden since 1890--ground for excommunication.

The arrest of the pair cleared another handyman, Richard Ricci, who had been the focus of the police in the case. Ricci died last summer of a brain aneurysm. Law-enforcement officials acknowledged that they should have listened more closely to the tip about Mitchell--a hesitance that had caused deep resentments among the Smart family. Salt Lake Police Chief Rick Dinse said simply, "I wish we'd gone public" with the sketch of Mitchell sooner--suggesting they were never sure they had the right image.

With the advantage of hindsight, callers to radio shows have raised questions about Elizabeth's mother hiring Mitchell, a drifter, to work on the house for a day as a handyman. But members of the church say such outreach to the needy is a central tenet of the faith. Neighbors may think twice next time. "I felt safe enough to leave my window open at night," says Adams. "But now everything's changed. It's not the same place it was nine months ago."

The person most in need of reassurance and understanding, Bishop Hamblin said, was Elizabeth. He said he'd like to remind her--despite all the horrors--that she remains an innocent child. "It's not your responsibility and the church does not hold you accountable for anything that happened," Hamblin said he'd tell her. "The Lord," he said, looks upon Elizabeth as blameless, "as if it never happened."

The people who care about Elizabeth--and there are a lot of them--can only wish that it hadn't.

Finding Elizabeth | News