5049 Trail Lake Drive
Fort Worth 76133
June 5, 2002, was the day Elizabeth Smart’s life changed forever.
She was awakened in the middle of the night to a voice that said, “I have a knife at your neck. Don’t make a sound. Get up and come with me,” Smart told the crowd of more than 600 people at Unbound’s 2019 Restoring Innocence Luncheon on Feb. 28.
It was the beginning of nine months of terror and abuse at the hands of Brian David Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee. Barzee was sentenced in 2009 to 15 years in prison but was released in September of 2018. Mitchell was sentenced to life in federal prison in 2011.
Unbound works with sex trafficking survivors one on one for as long as it takes. But it also trains school counselors, emergency responders, health care workers and others in how to recognize and help prospective victims avoid sex trafficking.
“Doing justice by these kids requires a paradigm shift,” said Unbound Executive Director Stephanie Byrd. “It means recognizing the victimization in kids – and adults, if we do not intercept them before their 18th birthday. Regardless of whether or not they can see or express their victimization.
“That’s what I love about our advocates. We meet kids wherever they are. We aren’t waiting for them to reach a certain stage of change where they are asking for help and wanting to rebuild their lives – because they may never get there on their own,” she said.
“And it means recognizing our role as a society in perpetuating a pimp culture – ads, movies, etc. that set our kids up for sexual exploitation.”
Smart said she was taught a lot of things in school – don’t cross the street without looking both ways; if you catch on fire, stop, drop and roll; don’t talk to strangers.
“But nobody ever told me what I should do if someone broke into my home in the middle of the night and held me at knife point and told me to go with them, so I did as I was told. I did exactly as I was told, because I was terrified and I didn’t know what else to do,” Smart said.
Things like that didn’t happen in her neighborhood in Salt Lake City, she said.
But it did.
She was 14.
She was taken into the mountains to a tent.
“I was forced to change my clothing, out of my pajamas, and a few minutes later, I was raped. He physically forced me on the ground and raped me,” she said. “And when he got up, it wasn’t — it was not a big deal to him. It was, well, maybe he enjoyed it. And he got up and he smiled and he turned around and walked out of the tent.”
It shattered her life.
“I came from a very conservative Christian community. No one had ever taught me the difference between rape and sex,” Smart said. “And I had wonderful Sunday School teachers, but they had often talked about how important abstinence was until marriage and how if you went out and had sex with other people before you got married, then nobody would want to marry you.
“And so all of a sudden, I mean, no matter how well-meaning those teachers were, that made me feel terrible. That made me feel worse than the actual rape, because now I felt like my worth as a human being was gone.”
Mitchell and Barzee took her to California but eventually returned to the Salt Lake City area, where within a couple of hours she was recognized and reported to police.
“I will never forget March 12th of 2003. I’ll never forget being picked up by the police and when they first approached me, I was scared. I was terrified,” Smart said. “For nine months I had been told that if I screamed, if I yelled, if I did anything that they didn’t want me to do that they’d kill me, and if they didn’t kill me, they’d kill my family. And that had been the one reason why I’d been able to survive was the hope that one day I would see my family again.”
Initially, she didn’t admit to authorities who she was, until a police officer took her aside and told her that her family had never stopped looking for her.
“I remember going home that evening and feeling like a princess. I mean, not only did I have my whole family around me, but there was carpet and running water and I had a bed and a closet full of clothes. And I remember just feeling such love and support. I just knew that no one ever again would be able to hurt me the way that these two people had hurt me the last nine months,” she said.
And that, Smart said, is what separates her story from other stories of kidnapping, of sexual trauma, of human trafficking, because otherwise they’re not all that different.
“When I was rescued, I had a safe place to return home to. I had a loving, supportive environment to go home to, and that’s ultimately why I go out and I share my story today, because so many don’t.”
All victims, whether it’s human trafficking, kidnapping or sexual violence, need support because that’s the only way that they’ll be able to move forward. That’s the only way that they’ll be able to be happy, to succeed in life, she said.
It would be wrong to think of her captor as unintelligent.
“It would be wrong to think that he lacked brain power because actually he was quite intelligent. He was extremely manipulative. He was extremely controlling. He had found that one of the best ways to control people around him was through religion,” Smart said.
“He played on that because he’d always turn to me and he’d say, ‘God commanded me to do this.’ … That’s how they would interact with the general public. Any time anyone questioned them about anything or approached them about anything, they’d always say, ‘This is part of my religion. I’m just trying to live my religion the best way I can.’ That would always shut down all inquiries,” Smart said.
She came from a loving family and had been raised to believe that God was a kind and loving father, that he was there for everyone, that all were his children.
“When they’d tell me that they were servants of God, I couldn’t believe that because they hurt me so much, and they hurt my family. It seemed like every life they touched, they destroyed,” Smart said.
“And after the initial shock and violence had subsided, I knew, I realized that my parents would still love me.
“I decided that that was worth surviving for. That was worth it to me. That’s what I held onto, and that’s how I survived the next nine months. Those next nine months, they were filled with starvation and dehydration and a lot, a lot, of sexual abuse,” she said.
After a while she decided it didn’t matter what they did to her if it meant that doing what they wanted meant that she’d survive.
“At the very least, I was much younger than them, so hopefully, I’d outlive them. That’s what I held on to. It was almost like I had grown this shell around the outside of me, and I had withdrawn inside so that nobody could really hurt me. They could hurt my shell, they could hurt my body as much as they wanted, but they couldn’t hurt me inside,” Smart said.
“That’s what I did. That’s how I survived. My story of survival is so similar to victims across the board. You almost stop caring what happens to your body because it’s too painful to stay emotionally connected to it. You do everything you have to simply to survive,” she said,
When she was finally rescued, she was afraid to talk to the police officers.
“Why would an officer believe me, a teenager, over two adults claiming to be ministers of Christ?” she said.
Smart said she was inspired by Unbound and the number of people attending the luncheon.
She did not begin sharing her story publicly until after her captor’s final trial and that was almost nine years after she was abducted. But she shares it because she wants people to understand something about the victims of sexual assault and trafficking.
“I want others to understand, not necessarily so much the nitty-gritty darkness of it, but I want them to understand what it’s like to be a victim and why victims don’t necessarily immediately speak up or why victims don’t always scream the second they see the police, why it might take years before anyone comes forward,” she said.
“Because it’s terrifying and they’ve been in survival mode for so long it’s incredibly difficult to crack that shell.”
Unbound’s director Byrd said some people ask why trafficked kids don’t ask for help or call 911 at their first chance.
“I’ve learned something over the last several years that has helped me understand what’s going on. While this is certainly not the case for all survivors, many of these kids have never known anything in their short lives but trauma,” she said.
It is a complex trauma, and it means there is no normal to go back to, mentally, emotionally or psychologically, Byrd said. “It would not be atypical for one of these kids being commercially sexually exploited to have known trauma – sexual/physical/emotional abuse or neglect – from the earliest days of their life, possibly even while still within their mother’s womb.”
A history of neglect or abuse sets a child up for trafficking and exploitation, she said.
“There are people out there who prey on these vulnerabilities. If a child needs a place to stay or a meal, they provide that; if they are desperate for affection, they offer ‘love,’ which turns out to be anything but. If they are looking for a sense of belonging, they offer ‘family.’ That’s why traffickers are called ‘Daddy.’ It’s an evil perversion of the love and affection these children deserve,” Byrd said.
“These kids are drawn in, then they are shamed to the depths of their beings. They pick up a criminal record and substance-abuse issues, and the last thing they are going to do is reach out for help. The awful irony is that while their exploiters – traffickers and buyers – generally get off scot free, these kids are owning all the shame and doing the time,” she said.
Byrd said Fort Worth is a loving community with a long history of embracing vulnerable people.
“I know we can come together to put an end to human trafficking and help restore the lives of those who have survived this awful form of exploitation,” she said.
Elizabeth Smart is “a voice of hope, and I hope that hearing her story will give us all vision for the restoration that is possible, even after unspeakable tragedy,” Byrd said.
Smart said she has met many survivors over the years.
“It’s even more inspiring to be able to come to a room like this and see it packed and overflowing, full of people who are dedicated to make a difference, who are dedicated to ending human trafficking, ending victimization, ending sexual exploitation,” she said.
“Every single one of you can make a difference. I’ll never ever lose my faith in the power of the individual because it was because of three different individuals, on March 12th of 2003, that called the police, I think within less than five minutes of each other, that led to my rescue,” Smart said.
Elizabeth Smart is the author of two books about her experience – My Story and Where There’s Hope: Healing, Moving Forward, and Never Giving Up (2018)