Elizabeth Smart was found alive in 2003 after she was abducted from her bedroom, and she’s telling her young children about it.
The kidnapping and rape survivor has found a new purpose since her high-profile rescue nearly 21 years ago.
The child safety activist and author is a special guest on Monday’s episode of “America’s Most Wanted,” which has returned to FOX with longtime host John Walsh.
The series, which features cases from across the country, offers a tip line at the end of each episode where viewers can provide leads in hopes of bringing justice to victims.
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The 36-year-old admitted to Fox News Digital that warning her children about physical and online dangers has been “one of the most stressful parts of my life right now.” Smart and husband Matthew Gilmour share three children: Chloe, 8, James, 5, and Olivia, 4.
“When my oldest was 3 years old, she started asking me questions,” Smart explained. “’What happened to you? How did you get hurt?’ They were questions that I was not prepared to answer. I thought I still had years to talk about it. It did force me to have some pretty hard conversations.
“Now, I feel like I talk about it so much with my kids that they just roll their eyes at me,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Do you understand why we’re talking about this?’ And they respond, ‘Yes, you don’t want us to get hurt. Yes, you don’t want this bad thing to happen to us. Yes, we know.’ But it’s so important.”
“Hopefully, everyone talks to their kids enough that their kids also go, ‘I know, I’ve heard this a thousand times,’” Smart shared. “I think it does take a thousand times for things to penetrate.”
Smart stressed she’s not “a parenting expert” but is determined to help young children feel empowered when faced with danger. The Elizabeth Smart Foundation offers self-defense training for women and young girls.
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“One of the first things that we have our class attendees do is yell because that’s one of the most powerful tools you have – to just scream,” she explained. “Very rarely do we have someone just scream at the top of their lungs and not feel embarrassed.
“Usually, there’s some embarrassed laughter or embarrassed smiles at first, and maybe the loudest person is screaming at 50% volume. And if we can’t really scream in a safe environment without feeling silly or embarrassed, we’re probably not going to be able to call on that when we actually need it.
“So, don’t be afraid to practice screaming.”
On the night of June 5, 2002, Smart was taken at knifepoint from her home in the upscale Federal Heights neighborhood. Her captor slid into the house undetected after cutting the screen of an open window, History.com reported. According to the outlet, Smart’s younger sister Mary Katherine, with whom she shared her bedroom, was the only witness to the kidnapping. The child, frightened that the captor would return for her, didn’t inform her parents until two hours later.
Smart was taken to a campsite three miles from her home. It was close enough that she could hear searchers calling out for her. Smart testified in 2009 that she was drugged, starved, tied to a tree and raped as often as four times a day.
In March 2003, a couple recognized Smart’s captor, Brian David Mitchell, from an episode of “America’s Most Wanted.” The street preacher was accompanied by Smart, who was forced to wear a veil in public and answer to a new name, “Augustine.” Smart revealed her identity to an officer who questioned them, ending her nine-month ordeal.
“I got cornered in a bathroom shortly after I was rescued, and this woman started asking me questions like, ‘You ran away, didn’t you? You loved Brian Mitchell, didn’t you? How do you feel about sending an innocent man to prison when it’s really your fault?’” Smart recalled.
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“I was so shocked that anyone could do that after everything that I had been through,” she said. “I just froze. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t say anything. But thinking back to that moment, that would’ve been an appropriate time to scream. But because I was in a bathroom — a bathroom at church — everything in me was like, ‘I don’t scream at church. I don’t scream in the bathroom.’ The thought didn’t even cross my mind.
“But looking back as an adult and someone who’s been in this space for a long time now? That would’ve been a completely appropriate moment to scream,” Smart added.
It was later revealed Mitchell first encountered the Smart family in 2001. At the time, he was clean-shaven and panhandling in downtown Salt Lake City when Smart’s mother, Lois, handed him $5, Biography.com reported. According to the outlet, Mitchell, who went by “Immanuel,” accepted a day job from the family in hopes of earning more money.
Mitchell, 70, is serving a life sentence on several charges related to the kidnapping, People magazine reported. His wife and accomplice, Wanda Barzee, was released from prison in 2018. Under the terms of her release, the 78-year-old, who pleaded guilty to her role and testified against Mitchell, must undergo mental health treatment. She also cannot contact Smart and her family.
After her rescue, Smart admitted she felt “very alone.”
“I didn’t know of anyone who had been through something similar … like kidnapping,” she explained. “Sexual assault and exploitation — they were not commonly spoken about, at least I don’t remember them being commonly spoken about. So, initially, I wanted to just hide everything from everyone.
“I didn’t want them to know what I had been through. I didn’t want to talk about it with other people. Even though I knew it wasn’t my fault, I still felt a degree of shame and embarrassment over what had happened. … But as I moved on with my life, I began to meet more and more survivors. And they began to share their stories of what had happened. I began to realize that what happened to me was not so one in a million.”
Smart said she didn’t want memories of her past to haunt her. She didn’t want the idea of sleeping in her bed to continue terrifying her. She said it was her family’s love and support that kept her going and inspired her to speak out.
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“For better or for worse, my case was everywhere for a long time,” she said. “So many people approached me while grocery shopping, in airports, just in random places. … I was never drawn to the spotlight. I was more of a wallflower. So, coming home and dealing with that kind of attention was a major adjustment … but I had my safe place.”
And when Smart looks back at her kidnapping, there was one thing that gave her hope.
“I only ever heard about how important it was to not have sex before marriage … so I felt an immense amount of shame,” Smart explained. “I felt like I’d lost my worth as … a human being. But, ultimately, I remembered how much my parents loved me. … It did take me time to realize that it didn’t matter that I had been kidnapped.
“It didn’t matter that I’d been raped. It didn’t matter that I’d been chained up. My parents would still want me back, no matter what. And that knowledge, those feelings of love, are ultimately what gave me hope and the belief to keep going. … You can’t forget the power of love.
“My dad, my grandpa and so many adults in my family have always stressed the importance of service and trying to leave the world a better place than what we found it,” Smart reflected. “And since then, I’ve just felt this is what I was meant to do – to share my story. This is where I can make a difference in the world. And so, here I am.”
“Episode 2″ of “America’s Most Wanted” airs Jan. 29 at 8 p.m. The Associated Press contributed to this report.