Kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart says she survived her nine-month ordeal and ultimately aided her own rescue by following her captors’ orders and manipulating them into bringing her closer to home.
“Things that I'd always told myself I'd never do, I would do them if it meant I would survive. If it meant that one day I would be able to go back home and be with my family again, I would do it,” she said during an exclusive interview with NBC News’ Meredith Vieira.
Smart was 14 years old when she was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City bedroom in the early morning hours of June 5, 2002. Her abductor, religious fanatic Brian David Mitchell, forced her to hike up the mountainside behind her home for hours until they reached a makeshift campsite.
In a Meredith Vieira Special that aired Friday, Smart and Vieira went to the scene where that campsite once stood.
In the interview, Smart recalls her first time at the site, where she was met by a strange woman in long linen robes ordering her to undress. It turned out to be Mitchell’s wife, Wanda Barzee. Mitchell then began performing some kind of marriage ceremony.
“I was begging and crying and just so scared,’’ Smart said. “I remember thinking, I know what comes after a wedding. And that cannot happen to me. That cannot happen.”
Only a few hours earlier, she had been at home in her bed. Now Mitchell had her trapped.
“I remember him forcing me onto the ground, (and) fighting the whole way,’’ she said. “And then when he was finished, he stood up, and I was left alone, feeling absolutely broken, absolutely shattered. I was broken beyond repair. I was going to be thrown away.”
Mitchell later chained her to a tree, and months of abuse followed.
"Over the next nine months, Brian David Mitchell would rape me every day, sometimes multiple times a day, he would torture and brutalize me in ways that are impossible to imagine, starve and manipulate me, like I was an animal," Smart wrote in her book.
Early on, if Smart resisted in any way, her captor only threatened her more. “He looked at me and he said, ‘If you ever scream out like that again, I will kill you. If it'll help you not scream out, I can duct tape your mouth shut,’” she recalled.
Smart came close to being rescued, once by her uncle.
“I remember hearing my name being called very distinctly,” she said. “And I remember thinking it sounded just like my uncle.”
But Smart could not respond.
Mitchell grabbed her, "I will kill you if you make a noise. I will kill whoever comes up here to find you. If they ever get into this camp I will kill them," he told her.
Knowing that her family had come so close to finding her left Smart isolated and hopeless.
“If I could've slept for nine months, I would've,” she recalled. “That's where I could go to almost and not feel the pain, not feel the despair, not feel everything that was happening to me.”
“There was a point that I stopped crying,’’ Smart said. “It’s not just because I didn’t feel pain any more, not because I didn’t feel sorrow. It was just to keep going. I mean, it just was to survive, to live.”
Robin Oelkers / NBC
In an exclusive interview with Meredith Vieira, Elizabeth Smart, pictured with her husband Matthew Gilmour, describes how she earned her captors' trust, which ultimately helped set her free.
Smart turned to thoughts of her family in order to cope, she said. “My family was still there. And because of that, because I had that and because I knew that, I was able to make the decision to do whatever it took.”
Her Mormon faith was also there for Smart. Severely dehydrated when the camp’s water supply ran out, Smart says she awoke one morning to an ice-cold cup of water. Smart says she never knew where the water came from but is convinced it was a sign from God.
“I could just feel the cold water running down inside of me and just how grateful I was for it. And just feeling like it was God telling me that I wasn't forgotten, that He still knew I was there. And that He wasn't abandoning me,” she said.
Smart went into survival mode, following her captors’ demands and trying not to upset them. As a result, Mitchell decided to unchain her and take her and Barzee—who he called his “wives”—to Salt Lake City in search of food and alcohol.
Afterwards, public outings became more regular, and the group even visited the public library to map out a route to California, where they moved for the winter.
It was at the library where Smart came close to being rescued once again. Smart was questioned by a police officer who had received a tip that she had been spotted, but she chose not to scream for help or try to run away—a decision she says people ask her about frequently.
“I was under threat of my life, I was under threat of my family's life. And those two threats right there are stronger than chains for me,” she said.
“It is wrong for any person to ever judge someone in any situation saying, ‘Well, why didn’t you try to run? Why didn’t you scream? Why didn’t you try to do something?” she said. “That is so wrong and, frankly, offensive to even ask that question.”
Once in California, 750 miles from home, Smart was convinced that she would be with Mitchell and Barzee until they died—that would be her only chance to escape. It wasn’t until Mitchell suggested that the group move from California to the East Coast that Smart saw her chance to use the trust she’d earned from Mitchell to outwit him.
“Nobody's going to find me,” she remembers thinking. “I have to find a way to get back to Utah. That is my only chance at being found.”
Smart told Mitchell that she had a feeling that God wanted them to go back to Utah. She knew that in order for Mitchell to go along with her plan to hitchhike back, he would have to think that he came up with the idea himself.
"You are His servant, you're His prophet. You're practically his best friend. Could you please ask Him?" she told him.
Mitchell prayed to God and ultimately agreed with Smart; he determined that they would hitchhike from California back to Utah—a public journey Smart hoped would allow someone to spot her.
“It was a means to an end. I mean I felt that that was my greatest chance I had at getting home at being rescued.”
Mitchell concealed Smart’s identity by dressing her in robes and a face-covering veil; however, Mitchell failed to cover his own face. He would in fact be recognized.
By that time, Smart’s sister, Mary Katherine the only witness to Smart’s kidnapping had also realized the identity of the man who took Elizabeth; she had notified her parents and the detectives, who released a sketch featured on America’s Most Wanted.
Upon returning to Utah, at least two different couples spotted Smart and her kidnappers and recognized Mitchell’s face from the sketch.
Police were notified that Smart and Mitchell had been spotted in Sandy, Utah and, shortly after, the trio was surrounded by police. Smart was questioned and taken to a nearby police station where she was reunited with her family.
Seven years later, Smart testified against her captors, confronting Mitchell in court. He is now serving a life sentence, while Barzee is serving 15 years.
Since her kidnapping, Smart has created the Elizabeth Smart Foundation to help prevent crimes against children and help other victims of sexual abuse. She’s also gotten married. And next week, Smart will publish a memoir about her abduction, “My Story.” These accomplishments she attributes to the support of her family.
It was her mother’s advice that paved the way for Smart’s healing, she says. "Elizabeth, what this man has done to you is terrible,” she says her mother told her. “He has stolen nine months of your life that you will never get back. But the best punishment you could ever give him is to be happy.”
On Monday, Smart will appear in an exclusive live interview on NBC’s TODAY.
Scott Stump contributed to this report.
First published October 5 2013, 12:21 AM