On March 12, 2003, teenager Elizabeth Smart and her kidnapers, Brian David Mitchell and Ilene Wanda Barzee, were recognized on the streets of a town near Salt Lake City by passers-by from pictures that had appeared on the television show America's Most Wanted. Smart had been seized from her own bedroom the previous June in an abduction witnessed by her younger sister. Her whereabouts since then had been unknown. "When police officers arrived, the girl was trembling. Three times she told them her name was Augustine," wrote Jodie Morse in Time magazine. "'I know who you think I am. You guys think I'm that Elizabeth Smart girl who ran away,' she told the cops." She eventually admitted her identity and was brought home to her family. But Smart's attitude of deference toward her kidnapers and her unwillingness to admit her true identity raised questions in the national media about "brainwashing," fringe religious groups, and the abduction of children in general.
Smart's problems began early in the morning of June 5, 2002, when a stranger entered the bedroom she shared with her sister Mary Katharine and took her away at knifepoint. For the next two months she was held at a camping site within three miles of her home. Over the winter Mitchell, Barzee, and Smart stayed in southern California, but they returned to Utah early in March. "Astonishingly, even with posters of Elizabeth all around, the girl was often seen wandering in public with her captors," but never recognized, stated Newsweek's Dirk Johnson and Elise Christenson. "She wore various disguises, usually a veil, during their journey that stretched from Utah to San Diego and Nevada and back again."
Her kidnaper, Mitchell, was a drifter without any means of support who had been raised in the Mormon church but had been excommunicated for violations of church law. Mitchell had come to believe that he was a prophet (some sources indicate that he may in fact have believed that he was God). He developed the idea that he was supposed to collect seven sisters and marry them in a religious ceremony where he himself officiated. Attempts to kidnap other girls, however, met with failure. "In some ways, new religious movements are responses to some of the more noxious aspects of modern life," said Bill Tammeus in a column syndicated by the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. "But when they get sucked into the plague of our era—false certainty—they become menticidal and leave ruin in their wake. Mitchell's myopic attraction to polygamy—and, worse, his apparent willingness to kidnap children to marry so he could live out his vision—was an example."
The one factor in Elizabeth Smart's ordeal that outweighs all others was that the fifteen-year-old was found alive. Most children who are kidnaped are never found alive again. Many of them end up the victims of their kidnapers and are raped, tortured, and murdered. "Elizabeth Smart beat the odds," Morse reported. "Police say the longer a child is missing, the smaller the chance she'll be found alive." "Her mother, Lois Smart," reported Johnson and Christenson, "at one point began to lose hope of ever finding her daughter, said Sue Ann Adams, a family friend. 'Lois began to come to terms that Elizabeth wouldn't be coming back,' Adams said."
Media accounts of Smart's rescue emphasized the fact that the girl had not tried to escape during the nine months she was held captive and that she denied her identity when the police finally found her. "Why in the world," asked Jack Levin in the Boston Herald, "did the 15-year-old girl from Salt Lake City not attempt to flee her kidnappers when she had the opportunity to do so? What made her use biblical language and give a false name—Augustine Marshall—to the police who finally rescued her from her abductors? Is it possible that she went along voluntarily?" Comparisons were made between what Smart had suffered and the case of '70s heiress Patty Hearst, who first was seized by a renegade group called the Symbionese Liberation Army, and ended up joining them. "Los Angeles psychologist Robert Butterworth said young victims are often in awe of the power of their kidnappers," declared Johnson and Christenson. "'They try to strip away layer by layer her identity and her belief system,' Butterworth says. 'Emotional bondage can be stronger than chains.'"