The early days of Elizabeth Smart’s captivity were spent in familiar places.
The abduction itself had taken place in her bedroom in her parents’ home in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her captors led her down a mountain trail she’d hiked several times with her father, and later by a thicket of trees through which she could hear a search party calling her name.
The 31-year-old woman spoke Friday before a crowd gathered at Sage YMCA’s Community Breakfast and Holiday Inspirational Celebration in Crystal Lake.
Smart’s message was one of hope and overcoming adversity – lessons that easily struck the nerves of audience members facing their own struggles.
“Her message that she shared about looking back on life and thinking, ‘Oh, it’s just not fair,’ and even how her mother spoke to her about that, that really stood out to me,” Crystal Lake resident Nicole Perry said.
David Brian Mitchell abducted Smart on June 5, 2002. It was the night before the then-14-year-old’s junior high graduation when Mitchell snuck into the teen’s bedroom and put a knife to her throat.
“I was supposed to be [at school] with my friends and talking about our summer plans and what we were going to do,” Smart said. “I wasn’t supposed to be kidnapped. I wasn’t supposed to be held captive and chained up on the mountainside.”
Smart shared a bedroom with her younger sister, who witnessed the abduction and later would be the one to identify the kidnapper to police.
Mitchell and a second captor, Wanda Barzee, controlled Smart by threatening to kill her and her family if she tried to escape. They also concealed her identity by dressing her in long robes, covering her face, and assigning her new names. After nine months of captivity between Utah and California, Smart convinced her abductors to hitchhike back to Salt Lake City, where she was reunited with her family on March 12, 2003.
Mitchell is serving a life sentence in prison. Barzee, 72, was was released on parole in September.
The experience prompted Smart to become an advocate for change.
In the years since her return, Smart has created the Elizabeth Smart Foundation and helped promote the National AMBER Alert, the Adam Walsh Child Protection & Safety Act and other safety legislation to help prevent abductions.
Although she stood before the audience with a calm confidence Friday, Smart grew up a painfully shy, easily embarrassed girl, she said. The mortification she felt after accidentally tucking her dress into her tights or changing in front of her classmates in the girls’ locker room soon paled in comparison to the near-hopelessness Smart encountered under Mitchell and Barzee’s thumb.
“I don’t think I’d ever prayed so hard in my life for an opportunity to escape,” she said.
Her return didn’t happen like it does in the movies. Her father, ecstatic to hold his daughter after nearly a year of grief and uncertainty, was met by an alarmed girl, who assumed the police who rescued her had actually meant to put her in prison.
“Prison. OK,” she said. “That’s got to be a step up from where I’ve been the last nine months.”
After months of grasping onto her parents’ love as a means to her survival, however, her father’s embrace reassured Smart that she was home, and most importantly that she was safe.
“I remember just having this feeling that it was going to be OK. I didn’t know what tomorrow was going to bring. I didn’t know if I was in trouble, if I wasn’t,” Smart said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen next, but I knew it was going to be OK.”
Proceeds from the breakfast and purchases of Smart’s new book “My Story” were donated to the YMCA’s scholarship program, Membership Experience Director Lesley Franklin said.