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Utahn of the Year

Utahn of the year: A profile in courage and faith
Teenager used accused kidnapper's own tactics to get herself home.
By Peg McEntee
Updated:12/27/2009 11:40:57 AM MST

Elizabeth Smart found her own way home.

In California in 2003, Elizabeth -- kidnapped at age 14 -- realized that no one would find her there, that her chances would be better back in the Salt Lake Valley.

In her testimony against Brian David Mitchell in October, she described how she borrowed his tactic of using religion to justify everything he did. She had a "strong feeling" about returning to Utah.

Mitchell would claim it was his revelation that brought them back. But Elizabeth's father, Ed Smart, as well as U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman, see it as her ability to understand and countermanipulate her tormentor.

On the stand, she described in unflinching detail what she had endured during her captivity. She had wanted to confront Mitchell with her eyes and words, but, predictably, he sang his hymns and was removed from the courtroom.

When it was over, Elizabeth Smart strode, tall and straight, into the rest of her life.

For so many of us, her astonishing homecoming restored hope when there seemed to be none, and the knowledge that even terrible times can end, and end well.

And she taught us this: Faith, whatever its source, can make amazing things happen.

For that lesson, and for her intelligence, resilience and grace, The Salt Lake Tribune has named Elizabeth Smart its 2009 Utahn of the Year.

Earlier this month, Ed and Lois Smart talked about their daughter, now 22 and at the LDS Church's Missionary Training Center preparing for a mission to Paris. It was important to them that all of us leave behind what their daughter endured for nine months. It's time to look forward, they said.
But there were reminiscences.

Even as a small child, her father said, "She's always been her own person," with a kindness underscored by a clear view of the people around her.
Elizabeth loved to hike and camp and ride horses with her grandfather. One day, they were riding in the mountains and her horse took off. A little panicked, she dismounted and knelt to ask God to "help her find her way home," her father said. "And she did.

"I believe she had a grounding faith that was really helpful to her, not only during the nine months but throughout her life."

That nine months, of course, was the time that Elizabeth was held captive, brutalized and taken from Utah to California and back. On March 11, 2003, passers-by in Sandy spotted her and Mitchell and Wanda Barzee.

That was the day Elizabeth came home to the big house in the hills above Salt Lake City. Ed Smart remembers many blessings bestowed upon her. One by the late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley holds a particularly sacred place in the family's heart.

Lois Smart remembers the day, a few months after Elizabeth came home, when she led her parents to the crude camp in the hills north of the city, where she had been tethered by a steel cable.

"She marched up; she showed us the way," Lois said. "We said, 'How do you feel?' And she said, 'I feel triumphant.' "

Elizabeth would go on to East High School and Brigham Young University, where she studied music. And every now and then, she and her sister, Mary Katherine, would play their harps so sweetly that their mother's eyes brim with tears.

"Having a harp in the home has been like having angels in the home," Lois said.

Once home, Elizabeth gave her mother a lesson on compassion. Long before Elizabeth was taken, Lois had given $5 and a few hours' work at her home to Mitchell, then a Main Street beggar in robes who called himself Immanuel.

After Elizabeth came home, she and her mother were driving and saw some panhandlers. Lois, plagued by her memory of once helping Mitchell, told her daughter she couldn't give anymore.

"But, Mom," her daughter replied, "when you get to know these people, they are wonderful people just down on their luck. There's doctors and lawyers, professional people, that because of mental illness or something else that has gone amok in their lives, they have been out on the street."
Lois paused. "I thought that she would side with me. Not at all. She teaches me."

Elizabeth also has taught a few things to Tolman, who prosecuted Mitchell and Barzee. They had worked together for two years on her testimony, but a few days before she took the stand, Elizabeth grew uneasy.

"I think she was feeling nervous, a normal feeling. I told her she was more important than the case, than me, than this office, than Ed. I let her know sincerely that I was prepared at that point to dismiss the case, to deal with him on the psychiatric level, and get rid of the case."
No, Elizabeth told Tolman. "I want to testify.'

"Elizabeth got control over what she wanted to share, and when, and to whom," Tolman said.

Lois Smart believes that Elizabeth belongs in a family pantheon of women whose forebears crossed the plains to come to Utah. "I don't know if it's genetic, but we have, on both sides, some very strong women."

Elizabeth and Mary Katherine, whose recognition of "Immanuel" ultimately led to those passers-by in Sandy to recognize him, inherited that strength, that will.
Today, Elizabeth owns her story and her future. The rest of us can remember her, smiling in the October sunlight, triumphant.

Peg McEntee is a Tribune columnist. Reach her at

Why we named Elizabeth Smart
     It was an amazing story back in 2003: Elizabeth Smart is found alive, nine months after vanishing from her home. Another remarkable chapter unfolded in October. Smart took the stand and, for the first time, publicly provided details of her ordeal. In those 100 minutes, she revealed an inner strength and presence of mind that inspires us all.