Six years ago, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was in the thoughts and prayers of people around the world who heard her story. Elizabeth was kidnapped at knifepoint from her bedroom in suburban Salt Lake City on June 5, 2002. Her younger sister Mary Katherine could only watch, paralyzed in fear.

For nine months, Elizabeth was held captive by her alleged kidnappers, a drifter and self-proclaimed prophet, Brian David Mitchell, and his wife, Wanda Barzee. Prosecutors say they kept Elizabeth tied to a tree just three and a half miles from her home.

Four months after her sister's disappearance, 10-year-old Mary Katherine miraculously remembered that a man once hired to work on the Smarts' house looked like the man who took Elizabeth. A sketch was released, and on March 12, 2003, Mitchell, Barzee and Elizabeth were spotted on the street in Salt Lake City. Elizabeth was rescued and returned home alive.

Mitchell and Barzee were charged with kidnapping and sexual assault but were found incompetent to stand trial. They are currently being held in a mental institution.

Elizabeth is now 20 years old and a music performance major preparing for her junior year at Brigham Young University. "I'm doing great," she says. "I don't see myself any different than anybody else."

She attributes her incredible ability to cope to her family. When she first returned home, Elizabeth says her mother gave her advice that helped her move on. "'They already took nine months of your life away. Don't give them anymore.' So I just didn't think about being sad, because I was so happy to be home, and when my mom said that to me, I thought about it and tried to carry that out the rest of my life because I think that really is true," Elizabeth says. "I think if a person dwells upon something for so long, it will control them and it's harder for someone to move on with that."

The first month she was home, Elizabeth says she was eased back into her normal routine. Her parents told her she didn't have to do anything she didn't want to, like her chores. "Well, I wish they'd tell me that now," Elizabeth jokes.

From the beginning, Elizabeth says it was natural to be home. "It just kind of felt like I slipped right back in where I left off," she says. Elizabeth's parents, Ed and Lois, say they were surprised to find that Elizabeth could sleep through her first night home. Unlike Elizabeth, they had trouble falling asleep. "We kept checking to see that this was real," Ed says.

At school, Elizabeth says her old friends were able to go on as if everything was back to normal. However, she sensed that some people were unsure how to treat her at first. "I think when people still meet me today, people are not quite sure how to act. But it wears off pretty quick."

Although Elizabeth was offered therapy, she says she knew her parents were always available when she needed to talk. "There was a psychiatrist where I'd sit and talk with my parents, and we talked a couple times. But my parents were always there for me, and if I wanted to talk to them, they were certainly willing to listen to me."

Elizabeth says she is no longer sorry about what happened to her. "Of course I would never wish it on myself or anybody else for that matter," she says. But Elizabeth says in a certain way her experience helped her understand that she had been living a sheltered life. "Having this experience, it really opened my eyes to the world around me to what really happens," she says.

Elizabeth's alleged kidnappers were found incompetent to stand trial, a verdict Elizabeth thinks should not take away from their accountability. "I believe they should be held 100 percent responsible for what they did. I think they know exactly what they did," she says. "I spent nine months with them, and so I was around them a lot, and I just really think that they should be punished. Pay the consequences for what they did."

Elizabeth says it is her family's love and her faith that got her through the nine months she was kidnapped. "I come from an incredible family. I have been extremely religious my whole life, and I believed God was there watching over me and the prayers of so many people across the nation, across the world."

Even when she feared for her life, Elizabeth says she felt a sense of peace. "I wasn't sure if I would ever see my family again. But I always knew that I was Ed and Lois Smart's daughter. That no matter what happened, they couldn't change that about me."

Elizabeth says her relationship with her family is still strong. "I am very close with both my parents. When I'm at school, I probably talk to them both once a day, if not twice a day," she says. Elizabeth says she is also close with her five siblings, especially Mary Katherine, who she has called her hero. "I'm very close with my sister Mary Katherine. I'd say maybe best friends. We have a lot of fun together."

After her safe return, Elizabeth's father, Ed, says he realized he needed to empower his children. "We try to train our kids to be respectful, to trust adults. And we live in a different society today," he says. Ed quit his job in real estate in order to work full time as a child safety advocate. "One thing that I feel very strongly about is that we have to prepare our kids. My motto is, 'Be prepared—not scared.'"

Ed now works with radKIDS.org (Resist Aggression Defensively), a child safety program that uses certified instructors to train children and their parents on how to protect themselves from harm. "I think one of the biggest issues that our children face is that line of respect and that line of saying no. It doesn't matter if it's a religious pastor or your scout master or your neighbor," he says. "Kids have got to be able to learn to say no. And that's why radKIDS has become such a huge issue with me, because it teaches them to say, 'Nobody has the right to do this to me.' We have to ingrain it in our kids."

Click here for more information on radKIDS along with other child protection programs Ed wants you to know about.  

Elizabeth has a message of hope to share with others who have suffered through traumatic experiences like she did. "I think I would tell people to make sure that they are open with their family, open with their children. Children, be open with your parents, and if you do go through some terrible ordeal, just to know that this world has so much more to offer...to not let it hold you back, to not let it pull you down," she says.

"Everybody has dreams and hopes before an experience, and don't give up on your dreams and hopes after."   JonBenet Ramsey's unsolved murder

A update with Shawn Hornbeck
FROM: Elizabeth Smart, John Ramsey: The Stories That Captured the Nation
Published on September 10, 2008


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