Elizabeth Smart on Thursday cautioned the public against rushing to judgment in the case of a woman who was allegedly kidnapped at 15 years old and waited 10 years to come forward.
“It’s so easy for us to be curious and think, ‘Why didn’t you escape? Why didn’t you run away?’” Smart said on the “Today” show on Thursday. “All the survivor hears is, ‘Well, you should’ve done something, it’s your fault you were gone so long.’ And that’s what they do not need to be hearing right now.”
Smart, who was kidnapped from her Utah home when she was 14 in 2002 and held captive for nine months, said she was “overjoyed” when she learned the Bell Gardens woman went to police.
“She had the courage to make that attempt to be saved,” Smart said. “I feel very, very almost protective of these survivors. So much is going on at once, it’s overwhelming.”
The man accused of kidnapping the woman, now 25, was charged Thursday with one felony count of forcible rape, three felony counts of lewd acts on a minor, and one felony count of kidnapping to commit a sexual offense, according to a news release from the Orange County district attorney's office.
Police say the woman was kidnapped by 42-year-old Isidro Garcia from a Santa Ana park in 2004 after she left her mother's apartment.
On Monday, she took her 2-year-old child to the Bell Gardens Police Department and accused Garcia of domestic violence.
It wasn't until they began questioning her that she revealed a harrowing story of how she had been kidnapped and kept under control for years through physical and mental abuse, police said. She also said Garcia forced her to work beside him cleaning office buildings and told her she would be deported if she left.
Police said Garcia made the woman marry him in 2007 and that the couple had a child two years ago.
Garcia's arraignment was postponed Thursday until June 9, but his attorney, Charles Frisco, said the woman, now 25, was never held against her will.
"Practically everybody connected to the family ... finds these allegations unbelievable," Frisco said. "She had her own car, her own job. It's mind-boggling why she would wait this long. ... Why is she coming forward now?"
Some neighbors at Garcia’s apartment complex in Bell Gardens also expressed disbelief Wednesday when they heard he had been arrested.
Ricardo Ledesma, 43, who has lived in the apartment building for six years, said the pair appeared to be a model family.
“He was a hard-working man, he worked two jobs,” Ledesma said. “He would do anything for her and their daughter.”
Santa Ana police on Thursday pushed back against public statements from neighbors who said the pair appeared to be a loving couple.
Santa Ana police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna said those witnesses were not seeing the whole picture, especially in the years when she was a minor.
“People are giving the impression that she was an adult,” he said. “She was a minor in a foreign country. That’s a very important part of this.”
During a brief interview with KABC-TV, the woman said she was too scared to seek help during the last 10 years.
"I was 15. I couldn't do anything," she said. "I was very afraid about everything, because I was alone."