YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Smart Case Figure: Delusional to Those Who Met Him

March 14, 2003|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

SALT LAKE CITY — There was a sadness about Wanda Barzee, a downcast look in her eye as she clutched her doll and wandered around Salt Lake City with a man who claimed he was God.

"She was subservient to him, and treated him like he was her master," said Pamela Adkisson, a homeless advocate who knew the couple for four years. "She was very quiet and would stand next to him looking at the ground."

The pair panhandled for change, made religious pronouncements and, according to police, kidnapped Elizabeth Smart nine months ago, taking her on a seemingly aimless odyssey that investigators are still trying to piece together. Now both are behind bars facing 15 years to life in prison in an aggravated kidnapping that traumatized this city.

Those who met the wild-haired Brian David Mitchell knew instantly he was delusional, and it was a delusion that grew worse with each passing month. He wore a white robe and carried a staff, proclaiming himself God or Jesus depending on his mood. He said he talked to angels and spirits who told him to sell everything he had and preach to the homeless.

Last October, he took things a step further, making his wife wear a sort of white burka, covering her face, body and head. He put Elizabeth in a robe, wig and veil, rendering the 15-year-old invisible in a community desperately trying to find her.

Mitchell, who went by the name Emmanuel, sometimes introduced himself as "God be with us" and his wife as "God adorn us." He was a well-known character in downtown Salt Lake, an aggressive panhandler whom locals called the "Jesus Guy."

"He would always walk up to you and just put out his hand, as if you were supposed to know that he wanted money," said Paul Murphy, a former television reporter who frequently saw Mitchell working the streets.

Ed Snoddy, an outreach worker with the Volunteers of America, said he had frequent bizarre conversations with Mitchell.

"I would say, 'Where are you going?' and he would say, 'Where God sends me,' and I would ask, 'Where have you been?' and he'd say, 'Where God has led me,' " Snoddy recalled.

He said the couple pushed around an ornate cart that they constructed, with all their belongings inside. The cart got away from them once and ran over Barzee, breaking her rib.

"He refused to go to the emergency room," Snoddy said. "He said God would heal her, and I guess he did."

Down at the William Weigand homeless shelter, Mitchell would refuse to part with his wooden staff -- which was 4 feet long and 6 inches in diameter -- even if it meant sleeping in the park.

"I have sent him out of here because I told him we don't allow weapons here and this looked like a weapon," said Ricardo Smith, who works at the shelter. "He wouldn't speak a word to us. When I told him to leave the staff outside, he gave me a dirty look and left."

Mitchell and Barzee are Salt Lake natives.

Mary Anne Hyde grew up with Barzee and said she was a quiet, compliant girl who could be easily led.

"She was a soft-spoken and sweet girl from a large family," Hyde said. "She used to have a big broad smile, but when I saw her on television she looked beaten down. I guess in retrospect I am not surprised she was led into this lifestyle."

Barzee got married right out of high school and had two children. She later divorced. Her daughter Louree Gayler left to live with her father, a move that Adkisson said may have driven Barzee to the brink.

"She suffered greatly not being with her daughter," she said. "Wanda was always carrying a doll. Some people think that's why they took Elizabeth, to be with her like a daughter."

Mitchell attended Skyline High School and was remembered as a kid with few friends who never fit in. He built model rockets and married when he was 19. He had two children before his divorce. He remarried and had two more children before divorcing again.

Mitchell moved to Idaho and got involved in the anti-tax movement. He had thousands of dollars of tax liens against him.

When Mitchell returned to Utah, he worked as a custodian, messenger and jewelry designer. Sometime in the 1990s, he began hearing voices and he developed a religious philosophy that he spelled out in a 27-page tract called "The Book of Emmanuel David Isaiah."

One of his sons told a Salt Lake television station Thursday that Mitchell once took 10 doses of LSD, went into the desert and claimed to have talked to God.

Whether Mitchell was violent remains unclear. After his son, Mark Thompson, saw an episode of "America's Most Wanted" where Mitchell was named as a suspect, he began combing Salt Lake's homeless shelters looking for his stepfather so he could turn him in. Mitchell's children say he had a bad temper and believed he was capable of kidnapping.

But others who knew him said he never seemed dangerous, certainly not capable of abducting a girl at knifepoint from her bedroom.

Salt Lake police said Mitchell has no criminal record for sexual abuse or violent crime.

Los Angeles Times Articles