'Incomprehensible': Elizabeth Smart Reacts to Her Kidnapper's Early Release from Prison

When Elizabeth Smart was 14, Wanda Barzee helped her ex-husband rape and abuse her for nine months. Now, after serving 15 years in jail, Barzee is set to be released next week.

by Sirin Kale
Sep 12 2018, 2:48pm

(L) The police mugshot of Wanda Barzee shortly after her arrest in 2002. (R) Elizabeth Smart photographed for Broadly by Kim Raff.

Wanda Barzee, who is one of the two people who abducted Utah teenager Elizabeth Smart, kept her in the woods, and subjected her to daily rape, will be freed from prison after spending 15 years in jail. Barzee, who is 72, is set to be released by the Utah Parole Board on September 19.

Barzee and her co-conspirator and former husband, Brian Mitchell, kidnapped Smart, who was 14 years old at the time of her abduction, from her home in 2002. They held Smart prisoner for nine months, before she was rescued after a stranger saw her with her captors and, recognizing them from an episode of America’s Most Wanted, called the police.

Barzee aided Mitchell in Smart's kidnapping and helped him hide her from authorities. While she was held captive, Smart was raped, starved, and abused by Mitchell as Barzee watched. And while Mitchell will remain behind bars, the Salt Lake Tribune reports that Barzee is set to be free next week, although she will remain under federal supervision for five years.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Smart described the parole board’s judgment as “incomprehensible.” “It is incomprehensible how someone who has not cooperated with her mental health evaluations or risk assessments and someone who did not show up to her own parole hearing can be released into our community,” Smart said in comments reported by the Washington Post.

After pleading guilty to kidnapping, Barzee apologized to Smart when being sentenced in 2010. “I hope you’ll find it in your heart to forgive me one day.” During her trial, Barzee painted Mitchell—who she’d met through the Mormon Church—as an abusive and controlling partner. Barzee was previously set to be released in 2024, but as she spent seven years in custody awaiting her trial, which took place in 2010, she accrued credit for time already served.

Since her rescue, Smart has become an outspoken critic of “purity culture,” an author, and a campaigner for sexual abuse victims. Speaking with Broadly in 2016, Smart reflected on how the Mormon Church’s emphasis on purity and chastity before marriage can be damaging for survivors of sexual violence.

“I did make that promise to myself that I was going to wait until marriage before I had sex... Well, then I was kidnapped and I was raped, and one of the first thoughts I had was, No one is ever going to want to marry me now: I'm worthless, I'm filthy, I'm dirty. I think every rape survivor feels those same feelings, but having that with the pressure of faith compounded on top—it was almost crippling," she said.

She now campaigns to change the way we talk about sexual abuse. "People need to realize there is nothing that can detract from your worth. When it comes to rape and sexual violence and abuse, that can never detract from who you are."

Smart was known to oppose Barzee's release, even before news broke of the parole board's ruling. In June, she warned probation authorities that Barzee remained a danger to the community because she still reportedly carried a book which contained revelations her ex-husband told her he'd received from God. "In this manuscript were the 'revelations' Mitchell 'received' from God to kidnap myself and six other young girls to be his wife," Smart told the parole board. "It also 'revealed' his other highly disturbing and dangerous ideas."

"This is proof to me that she hasn't changed," Smart added.