- Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped at 14, wants to protect her kids while giving them freedom.
- “If I can’t see or hear my children, the panic creeps in,” Smart told Insider.
- She said people should stay alert to help find missing children and adults.
Last month, Elizabeth Smart felt her heart racing as she rushed through a terminal at the Atlanta airport, the busiest airport in the world. She was trying to catch up with her 5-year-old son, James, who’d bolted ahead.
“It caused a lot of anxiety because there were people everywhere,” Smart told Insider, adding, “All it would have taken was for him to get far enough ahead of me and I would have lost him.”
Smart said her husband, Matthew Gilmour, was traveling on a later flight. She described her efforts to keep sight of James as “herculean” — she said she managed to grab him while clutching his sisters, Chloe, 7, and Olivia, 3, and carrying the luggage.
“I’ve taught him or tried to teach him his whole life about staying close to me,” Smart, of Salt Lake City, said. “But it happened because he could barely contain himself with excitement at all the airplanes.”
Smart said it was a “daily struggle” not to worry about the safety of her kids. “If I can’t see or hear my children, the panic creeps in,” she said, adding that she sometimes gets jumpy when the family is at home.
“I was asleep at home in my bed when I was taken,” she said. “I thought I was in the safest place in the world.”
Smart says she’s grateful for the interest in her missing-person case because it played a big part in her rescue
Smart was 14 when she was abducted in June 2002 by Brian David Mitchell. He cut through the screen of her bedroom window and dragged her from her bedroom at knifepoint. Mitchell, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2011, and his wife, Wanda Ileen Barzee, held the girl for nine months in a remote encampment and a filthy apartment.
Barzee was sentenced in 2010 to 15 years in prison for her part in the abduction. She was released in 2018 after a judge took into consideration the time she’d served before her plea deal.
Mitchell repeatedly raped Smart. The teen was tied to a tree by a metal cable and made to consume drugs and alcohol. Mitchell, who claimed he was placed on Earth to kill the antichrist, and Barzee forced her to wear long robes, watch pornography, and eat garbage. They told her that if she tried to escape, Mitchell would kill her and her family.
Smart was rescued in March 2003 in the town of Sandy, Utah, 18 miles from where she’d been snatched. Three people recognized Mitchell and Barzee as they walked along the street. They called the police, saying they’d seen photos of Smart and the kidnappers on “America’s Most Wanted.”
Smart told Insider that she was glad that the media had shown an ongoing interest in her case. “I feel incredibly fortunate and blessed that my story received the amount of attention that it did,” Smart said.
She added, “If my story had just been one or two little clips on the news for only one week, I don’t know if I would have been found.”
She said her saviors were “just out doing their normal day-by-day routines” when they spotted her and her captors. “Someone was putting groceries in the back of their car, someone was driving down the street, and the other person was eating lunch in a restaurant across the street,” Smart said.
Smart, who became a safety activist after her rescue, said the trio helped save her because they knew about her case. “They kept their eyes and ears open,” she added.
“No matter how many bad things seem to be going on in the world, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to lose my faith in humanity,” Smart said. “I have been the recipient of so much good from complete strangers.”
She’s teamed up with Guardian, an app designed to quickly help find missing children and adults. Paying subscribers can issue an alert to other subscribers and volunteers (who can join for free) in the area about a loved one thought to be missing.
Smart said she wants to keep her kids safe without limiting their freedom
“There’s so much we can do if regular citizens stay informed and aware,” Smart said. “People can look at a photo of the child or adult and call the police if they see something suspicious.”
She added that “the worst thing that can happen is that you’re right — that someone is being hurt or held against their will or being forced to do things that they don’t want to do.”
“The best thing that can happen,” she went on, “is that you’re wrong.”
As for her own family, Smart said she hopes to strike a balance between protecting and overprotecting her children.
“The most important thing I can do as a mother is to educate them and teach them safe habits — while giving them the freedom to grow,” she said.