Brian David Mitchell is not going to enjoy prison.
I was thinking about this at 35,000 feet on an oversold Southwest flight to San Diego last Saturday. My girlfriend and I were taking a much needed weekend getaway to Southern California to catch a Padres game and do some sightseeing. Pinched in the back of the flying cattle-car, I was drinking a hummingbird’s beak worth of ginger ale and eating a thimble-sized amount of honey roasted peanuts. I was painfully uncomfortable. Somehow SWA has made traveling more akin to a prison bus than a passenger plane. Jammed between two women shaped like linebackers, flipping through a Sky Mall and begging for this flight to be over, I remembered that Elizabeth Smart's kidnapper was being sentenced.
I have a small connection with the man known as Emmanuel. My mother’s family’s name is Mitchell and we’re from El Cajon CA—a small town on the eastern edge of San Diego. El Cajon is also the same town that Brian David Mitchell was arrested in February of 2003 for breaking into a church. He was released and eventually made his way back to Salt Lake City. The events following his departure from California eventually lead to Elizabeth recovery and his arrest.
Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped on June 5, 2002 making the following morning a surreal day in Salt Lake. The community was slowly coming off of the post-Olympics high that Utah experienced. I was still working at the Wyndham Hotel when she was reported as missing. They said that a 14 year old girl was taken from her bedroom at night and that volunteers were scouring the area looking for her. Ransom notes came in and the police had a strong witness with a milkman. The father was put through a polygraph. There was a military-effect force looking for her and they had no real leads and no trace of Elizabeth.
I was incredibly skeptical of her abduction. Rich, influential LDS family living in Federal Heights, thousands of volunteers organized to look for her, local and national media attention. The initial reports of her kidnapping smelled fishy. Why Elizabeth? How could a well-off family lose their daughter in the middle of the night? They had a security system and live in the upscale part of Salt Lake City. It felt as if there was something else afoot and her family did not help remove doubts of their involvement. The father, Ed Smart, looked like he was an actor playing the role of a grieving father. He had this I-just-rubbed-my-eyes-real-hard-before-I speak-to-the-media look all of the time. I didn’t believe him when he spoke and felt like he had a hand in her kidnapping.
During the summer of 2002, the Western United States was littered with thousands of fliers seeking information on Smart’s disappearance. I was in West Yellowstone in August and saw the fliers stapled to a telephone pole outside of my motel. Contextually, one could mistake her disappearance with the Lindbergh baby. She had obtained national prominence and her family was making all the rounds on the television asking for Elizabeth return. Unlike other missing persons, there was both a fervor and intensity for finding her. I have often wondered if it had been a 14-year old Tongan daughter living in Rose Park, would the community be so committed to finding her? Would their efforts have achieved the same level of attention? Probably not.
As summer faded, I was busy back at work pouring drinks for hotel guests and conventioneers. Customers at the bar would always bring up the Smart kidnapping and I would relay the known information at the time and gently tell them that there was no way she was going to be found. At the time, I believed that Smart was a part of a sad and tragic list of individuals snared from their lives never to be seen again. That’s what made the news on the 12 of March 2003 so absolutely jaw-dropping.
There are moments in your life that you never forget where and what you were doing when you heard the news and this was certainly one of them. I was in the kitchen at the Wyndham Hotel picking up a tray of food to take out to the bar when the news report came over the radio. I stopped dumbfounded, looked into the cheap clock radio that the cooks listened to and said, “You have got to be kidding me.” No way. There was absolutely no way that she was found. Even more so, there was no way that she was found alive almost nine months later in Sandy Utah. At that point in my life, I was convinced of three things: I was going to law school, I was moving out of Salt Lake and Elizabeth Smart was dead. See how well that worked out for me.
I spent the rest of my shift that day watching television and learning about Smart’s ordeal. When they put pictures of Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, on the screen, I immediately recognized him. Wearing a full length robe and an al-Qaeda beard, I had seen Mitchell multiple times loudly prophesying on Main Street in front of the Trax stop. Salt Lake has a lot of crazies but most of them have the decency to stay at home. Mitchell was dressed like Obi Wan Kenobi and smelt like Chewbacca. The fact that he was hiding in plain sight only added to the strangeness of the kidnapping.
I make it a habit to give the homeless a wide-breath on the streets. That is not to say that I don’t engage my fellow citizens when they speak to me. Like a dog with snarled teeth or a pair of missionaries walking down my street, I tend to stay clear of potentially hostile encounters. Mitchell looked and acted crazy and I wanted nothing to do with him. Prior to and after Elizabeth’s abduction, I had seen Mitchell no less than ten times on the streets, panhandling and preaching his edicts. He made a striking first impression simply because he was so aggressive on the streets.
In reading about Mitchell, the most stunning part of his life is that he has fathered a baker's dozen worth of children. What is it with messianic-types and having a football team worth of kids? There is nothing scarier than hyper-religious, super-libidinous people on welfare with a taste for violence and molestation. Mitchell is a scary dude. The kind of trash a la David Kirsch and Charlie Manson. Locking him up for life is a good start for what he did to Elizabeth. I can't imagine acting as a prophet of God in jail is going to work to his advantage.
With this said, how did he make it into the Smart’s life? Ed Smart used homeless labor around his house. Does this mean that lending a helping hand to those downtrodden folks was the Smart’s downfall? No. But how many times can you expose your family to potentially dangerous people before something horrific happens? Most of us choose not to roll the dice. Ed Smart did and it came up craps. Let’s roll play a scenario and see if anyone besides a self-righteous, criminally-negligent father would say yes to:
“Hey Honey, remember how you wanted me to clean the leaves out of the gutters and weather-strip the windows?”
“Yes! Did you finally do it?”
“No, but I did the next best thing. I found this robed, filthy, messianic-figure in front of the library and he said he would be happy to lend a hand.”
“Don’t worry. He’s a quiet drifter so we won’t have to worry about him talking with the children.”
“Okay… What’s his name?”
“It’s Brian but he prefers to be referred to as Emmanuel.”
“Well, what is it? Brian or Emmanuel? What does he do?”
“He’s a street preacher for the homeless.”
“In that case, have him come right over. I’d sure like to get those leaves racked.”
Only a dominating maniacal father would put his family in jeopardy with a person like Mitchell. The fact that he defends his actions by assisting the needy is a cop-out. Bringing the wolves to the sheep proves that he was a bad shepherd. No fact can excuse Ed Smart’s role in his daughter’s abduction. At the bare minimum, Ed Smart should be dragged from his bed, hog-tied in the middle of the woods and forced to watch pornography while taking drugs. For the majority of us, this sounds like a welcome retreat from our daily lives. I doubt Eddie would feel the same way.
I honestly believe it was blind luck that found Elizabeth. The cops who discovered her on State Street thought they were bums loitering on the sidewalk. Mitchell had successfully evaded capture for nine months and only got caught because of an accidental encounter with the cops. He had been arrested two times since kidnapping Smart and was slick enough to get out of jail each time. I would have loved to be that police officer who found them. The luck pulling that needle out of that proverbial haystack earns you a weekend at the Rainbow in Wendover.
Outside of the midnight abduction, forced marriage and sodomy, the most upsetting part of the Elizabeth Smart case is the fact that, once again, Utah is being exposed to the national media as being a hotbed of crackpots. Between the polygamy, Jason Chaffetz’s TSA implosion, 3.2% beer and people who actually return $45,000 to complete strangers, Utahns seem to blaze a path of absurdity and the ridiculous. For every Winter Olympics, there is a La Verkin Utah threatening to pull out of the United Nations. For every Coach Jerry Sloan, there is Warren Jeffs. Utah is a lifetime of extremities. And Smart’s kidnapping is just another one of a long list of whack-o people and events that happen here making Utah out to be the craziest state in the Union.
To this day, I still have a lot of questions. Why Elizabeth? Is it a coincidence that she was found NINE months later? What role did Ed Smart play in the abduction? Why would anybody put their children at risk by having a derelict loner do chores? What kind of family makes a child learn the harp? How that Mitchell is was able to afford a summer trip to San Diego when I work two jobs and can only get away for 48 hours? I doubt we'll ever get to the bottom of this. Mitchell sentencing is only one more stop on a deranged and dangerous road. Until all of the facts of this case are brought to light, I refuse to discount any of the evidence of the events revolving around Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping.
In the end, I guess we’ll have to be satisfied with the results off the last week. Smart is home and Mitchell will spend the balance of his days in a jail cell that is better than the jail he subjected Elizabeth to. Today, Smart looks composed. She faced down her attacker with a bravado reserved only for the heroine of a movie. Her adjustment to the world proves that she is an exceptional person. I would imagine that most people who experienced the horror that she faced would fall into a dark hole that they could never climb out of. Regardless of my distrust of her father and the scenario surrounding her kidnapping, I will have to be satisfied that justice prevailed. However, I wouldn’t be surprised as more information comes to the surface in the future that some absolutely hair pulling madness will cause all of Utah to collectively drop their jaw and question how easily we were duped by this week’s decision.
I hear that prison inmates are very compassionate and understanding to child rapists. Brain David Mitchell is not going to enjoy prison.