Searchers Were Within Earshot of Missing Girl

Times Staff Writer

For two months after being abducted from her bedroom last summer, Elizabeth Smart was held captive in the foothills just a few miles behind her family's million-dollar home, a place of densely knotted brush where she heard the voices of searchers yelling out her name during those first frantic days.

Family members said that after she was abducted in June, the teen was "brainwashed" and forced to live the life of a religious vagabond.

The couple accused of taking her, Brian David Mitchell, an itinerant street preacher and panhandler, and his wife, Wanda Barzee, took the girl to San Diego, where the trio lived in campsites and Mitchell was arrested and jailed for breaking into a schoolroom.

But they apparently spent at least some of the last nine months in the Salt Lake area, among residents and investigators desperately searching for Elizabeth, now 15.

On separate occasions, the three, dressed in distinctive biblical robes, with Elizabeth and Barzee wearing veils, were photographed or filmed attending a beer party nine blocks from the Smart family home and picnicking at a nearby city park. At one time last fall, they may have stayed in a basement room just around the corner from the Salt Lake City Police headquarters.

After leaving the Salt Lake area in October, the trio spent most of the winter traveling, returning here by bus Wednesday. Police confronted them that day and the three identified themselves as a family, the Marshalls, from Florida. Elizabeth, wearing a wig, veil and sunglasses, reportedly told officers her name was Augustine Marshall, and that she was a child of God.

One of the arresting officers said Elizabeth seemed tense: "We took her aside ... she kind of just blurted out, 'I know who you think I am. You guys think I'm that Elizabeth Smart girl who ran away," said Sandy Police Officer Troy Rasmussen.

"I could see her heart beating under her shirt" before she revealed her true name, Rasmussen said.

Police Chief Rick Dinse said it was clear that Elizabeth did not find it easy to escape from her captors, and that she was likely "psychologically affected" by her ordeal and by the couple's manipulations.

Dinse described Mitchell as a "self-proclaimed polygamist" but would not say whether Elizabeth had been abducted to become his wife, saying only that the matter is being investigated. The chief also would not say whether Elizabeth had been sexually assaulted. "That is something else we are not going talk about, what physically happened to her," he said.

Dinse and other law enforcement officials acknowledged that they did not move as efficiently as they could have in solving the case, perhaps spending too much time on wrong suspects such as Richard Albert Ricci, an itinerant laborer with a long criminal history. (Ricci died in February of a brain hemorrhage while in custody.)

Family members told police about Mitchell in October, but after the police refused to release three composite sketches of Mitchell, the Smart family in February went to the television show, "America's Most Wanted," for help.

Dinse said investigators were concerned the sketches would bring in false leads and bog down the case.

A spokesman for Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson said Thursday he is considering an investigation on the police's handling of the case.

Tensions between police and the Smart family seemed swept aside by the happy ending, with Smart family members saying that everyone makes mistakes -- police included.

Prosecutors, busily going through stacks of documents and tracing the trio's movements over the last nine months, say they expect indictments as early as today. The couple, among other things, would face charges of aggravated kidnapping.

"It's real. It's real," Edward Smart, the teen's father, told supporters and media gathered outside their church Thursday afternoon. The crowd rose and applauded, but minutes later were silenced by Smart's emotional account of his daughter's ordeal, saying that she had gone through "hell," that she had been "brainwashed" and that Mitchell was "an animal" who had no idea what nightmare he had brought upon the Smart family and the city of Salt Lake City.

Smart said Mitchell had stalked his daughter, "hiding in the bushes" behind the family home "and watching her" in the weeks before her June 5 abduction. Mitchell had done yard and roofing work for the family seven months earlier and was familiar with the premises.

Smith said that in June, Mitchell had crawled in through a window screen that he had cut open, and used a knife, not a gun as originally reported, to force Elizabeth out of the house. The two walked out through a back door and disappeared into the night. Search dogs at the time followed Smart's trail until it ended at a cul-de-sac abutting the foothills of the 1.2-million-acre Wasatch National Forest.

Smart was found and her abductors arrested Wednesday after two separate couples spotted the three walking down a busy street in the suburb of Sandy, about 15 miles south of Salt Lake City. The couples, recognizing Mitchell from police sketches, each called 911, and the trio was in custody within minutes. As Mitchell and Barzee sat in jail, first in Sandy and later in Salt Lake City, Elizabeth Smart was reunited with her parents and five brothers and sisters.

It was, according to various family members, an exhilarating, anxious, awkward reunion. One aunt, Heidi Smart, said one of Elizabeth's older brothers was nervous and didn't know what to say, but that Elizabeth chided him by saying, "Remember how mean you were to me that night!?" That broke the ice, the aunt said. Soon the kids, Elizabeth included, were "bouncing off the walls."

"She's well, she's healthy, she's happy," Ed Smart said. When asked whether he knew details of his daughter's experience over the last nine months, he said: "I haven't gone there yet. I can't bear to go there yet. I don't want to traumatize her more than she's already been."

With the riddle of Elizabeth's disappearance solved, the mystery of the last nine months now looms heavy for both family and investigators.

Rumors abound about the suspected couple's motive, everything from sexual slavery to an informal, benevolent "adoption" of a fantasy daughter for Barzee. The emerging picture, cobbled from bits and pieces of conversation from family members and witnesses, is that Mitchell, who called himself Emmanuel and fancied himself a prophet, held a Svengali-like power over Wanda, his third wife, and the teenage Elizabeth. He led them in a vagabond lifestyle, camping in the hills, staying in strangers' homes and traveling the countryside preaching the gospel, as he knew it, often to people who wouldn't listen.

All three wore light-colored robes, which witnesses said were often filthy, and the women wore head coverings and surgical masks to cover their faces. Mitchell, a familiar panhandler in the city's downtown and university area, wore a long beard and carried a staff, which earned him the street moniker, "the Holy Moses."

Ed Smart and his brother Chris, in separate interviews, said Mitchell, Barzee and Elizabeth stayed in the Wasatch National Forest, in a place called Dry Creek Canyon, for at least two months after the abduction. "Through August," Ed Smart said. It's not clear whether they lived in a tepee, which Mitchell has reportedly done in the past, or in a makeshift tent. The canyon is eerily close to the multi-story Smart home.

"See that big "U" over there?" Chris Smart said, pointing to a giant white U imprinted on a hillside above the Federal Heights neighborhood. The "U" stands for the nearby University of Utah. They were only two or three miles behind that "U."

Police are investigating an abandoned campsite in the area.

But so rugged is the terrain, and so thick the brush, that "you could be standing 20 feet away and not be seen," said Wes Garlick, a member of Smart's church who joined the thousands of volunteers searching the hills for Elizabeth.

Elizabeth told family members that during one of the early searches, she heard her uncle David Francom's voice calling out her name.

In September, Mitchell, Barzee and Elizabeth were photographed at a party near the Smart home. The photographer didn't know the trio but was intrigued by their long robes and masks.

Amber Meriwether, 26, was at that party and recalled standing next to the three for half an hour in the kitchen. Meriwether said she was angered by the way Mitchell was talking to the women, "saying things like, you have to try this, drink this alcohol and see how these people live so you don't live this way." He was domineering and intimidating, she said.

Meriwether said neither Barzee nor Elizabeth said anything, and anytime Elizabeth was spoken to, she would turn to Mitchell, as if to ask permission.

"They were just blank, like they were hypnotized," Meriwether said of Barzee and Elizabeth. Mitchell was eventually kicked out of the party after he got belligerent with his preaching of the gospel.

Also in September, the three were captured on videotape while they were eating at a picnic table at Liberty Park, in the center of town.

In October, the three apparently stayed in a basement bedroom of a house located a block from the police department. The man who lived there, Daniel Trotta, told reporters that he had invited Mitchell to stay after he had met and made friends with him at the place he used to work, a health food store called Wild Oats. Mitchell arrived at the home with his wife "and stepdaughter," and stayed for about a week.

The rest of the story is even spottier.

Utah police said the three traveled to the San Diego area in October. While authorities were scouring the country for Elizabeth, she was camping in San Diego for close to five months. FBI investigators searched a campsite in Santee on Thursday where the trio was believed to have stayed.

Mitchell spent six days in a San Diego County jail after being charged with vandalism. Sheriff's department officials said Mitchell broke into a preschool classroom at Lakeside Community Presbyterian Church. He was alone, authorities said, and gave his name as Michael Jenson.

Mitchell pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge Feb. 18 and was released.

He was sentenced to three years' probation and fined $150, prosecutors said.

Residents in the San Diego suburb of Lakeside recall seeing Mitchell, Barzee and Elizabeth frequently from October to February.

The group bought snacks at a local grocery store and were notable for their unkempt appearance and lack of hygiene. Widad Dermody, a clerk at Wrigley's market, said he used air freshener after the three left the store.

At the nearby Burger King, employee Farrah Grant said the three used the restaurant's restrooms and bought some food. "He looked like he was in charge," she said. "The women acted like slaves."

It's unclear when the trio left San Diego, but police said they apparently traveled through California, Nevada and Utah, before arriving in Salt Lake City this week.

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