Profile of Elizabeth Smart Kidnapper Brian David Mitchell

She was found nine months after her abduction

Elizabeth Smart attends the sentencing of Brian David Mitchell
George Frey / Getty Images

Brian David Mitchell is a self-proclaimed angel from heaven who said he was sent to Earth to serve the destitute and correct the Mormon Church by restoring its fundamental values. He is also the man who, along with his wife, Wanda Barzee, was convicted of kidnapping 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart from her Salt Lake City, Utah, bedroom in 2002, holding her captive for nine months and repeatedly raping her.

Mitchell's Childhood

Brian Mitchell was born Oct. 18, 1953, in Salt Lake City, the third of six children born at home to Mormon parents Irene and Shirl Mitchell. Irene, a schoolteacher, and Shirl, a social worker, were vegetarians who raised their children on a diet of whole wheat bread and steamed vegetables. The family was described by neighbors as odd but decent.

Brian seemed to be a normal child and was involved in Cub Scouts and Little League. Irene was a caring mother, but Shirl had a questionable perspective on healthy child-rearing. When Brian was 8, Shirl attempted to teach him about sex by showing him sexually explicit pictures in a medical journal. Other sexually oriented books were brought into the home and left within reach of the latchkey kid.

Shirl once attempted to teach his son a life lesson by dropping off the 12-year-old in an unfamiliar area of town and instructing him to find his way home. As Brian got older, he became more argumentative with his parents and retreated into a world of isolation.

Around age 16, Brian was found guilty of exposing himself to a child and was sent to a juvenile delinquents' hall. The stigma of his crime alienated Brian from his peers. Arguments between Brian and his mother were constant. The decision was made to send Brian to live with his grandmother. Soon after the move, Brian dropped out of school and began using drugs and alcohol.

First Marriage

Brian left Utah at 19 and married 16-year-old Karen Minor after she discovered she was pregnant. They had two children in the two years they stayed together. When their stormy relationship ended, Mitchell gained custody of the children because of Karen's alleged infidelities and drug abuse.

Karen remarried and regained custody, but Mitchell temporarily took the children to New Hampshire to prevent them from returning to their mother.

Second Marriage

In 1980, Mitchell's life changed after his brother returned from a religious mission and the two talked. Brian discontinued his drug and alcohol use and became active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). By 1981, he was married to his second wife, Debbie Mitchell, who had three daughters from a previous marriage. In addition to Debbie's three children and Brian's two, the Mitchells had two more children soon after their wedding.

The marriage soon showed signs of strain. Mitchell's two children were sent to foster homes. Debbie claimed that Mitchell turned from gentle to controlling and abusive, dictating what she could wear and eat and trying to frighten her. His interest in Satan disturbed her, although Mitchell claimed he was learning about his enemy. Mitchell filed for divorce in 1984, claiming that Debbie was violent and cruel to his children and was turning them against him.

A year after their separation, Debbie called authorities to report her fear that Mitchell had sexually abused their 3-year-old son. A caseworker for the Division of Child and Family Services couldn't link Mitchell to sexual abuse but recommended that his future visits with the boy be supervised. Within the year, Debbie's daughter accused Mitchell of sexually abusing her for four years. Debbie reported the abuse to LDS leaders but was advised to drop it.

Third Marriage

On the day that Mitchell and Debbie divorced, Mitchell married Wanda Barzee, a 40-year-old divorcee with six children whom she had left with her ex-husband when she moved out. Barzee's family accepted Mitchell, although they found him to be strange. Some of Barzee's children moved in with them but found the home to be increasingly odd and dangerous because of Mitchell's eccentric behavior.

Outsiders viewed the couple as normal, hard-working Mormons. Mitchell worked as a die cutter and was active with the church, but close family and friends were aware of his tendency toward rage, often unleashed on Barzee. He was becoming increasingly extreme in his religious views and his interaction with fellow LDS members. His portrayal of Satan during temple rituals had become too extreme; he was asked by the elders to tone it down.

One night the Mitchells woke one of Barzee's sons and told him they had just spoken to angels. The home soon changed so drastically that Barzee's children, unable to take the constant proselytizing, moved away. By the 1990s, Mitchell had changed his name to Emmanuel, discontinued his association with the church, and presented himself as a prophet of God whose beliefs were etched by his prophetic visions.

When the couple returned to Salt Lake City, Mitchell had taken on a Jesus-like look with a long beard and white robe. Barzee, now calling herself "God Adorneth," stayed by his side like a doting disciple, and the two were fixtures along downtown streets. Relatives of the couple had little to do with them, and old friends who happened upon them were treated as strangers.

Elizabeth Smart Kidnapping Trial
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Elizabeth Smart Kidnapped

Early on June 5, 2002, Mitchell kidnapped 14-year-old Elizabeth from her bedroom. Her 9-year-old sister Mary Katherine witnessed the abduction. Smart's family went on television and worked with the Laura Recovery Center, gathering 2,000 search volunteers to find Elizabeth but were unable to locate her.

A few months later, Elizabeth's sister identified Mitchell's voice as that of the kidnapper, "Emmanuel," who had done odd jobs for the Smart family, but the police didn't find the lead to be valid. The Smart family hired a sketch artist to draw his face and released it on "Larry King Live" and other media resources. Mitchell, Barzee, and Elizabeth were eventually found nine months after the kidnapping when a couple who recognized Mitchell from an airing of "America’s Most Wanted" spotted him walking with two women down a street in Sandy, Utah.

After several trials, Mitchell's insanity defense fell apart on Dec. 11, 2010. Elizabeth testified that she was repeatedly raped and forced to watch sexual films and consume alcohol during her confinement. The jury found Mitchell guilty of kidnapping with the intention of engaging her in ​sexual activity and sentenced him to life in prison in Arizona. Barzee also was convicted in the kidnapping and was released in September 2018.