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Abduction May Be Rooted in Polygamy

Authorities say the suspect may have tried to kidnap Elizabeth Smart's cousin as well.

March 15, 2003|Tomas Alex Tizon and David Kelly | Times Staff Writers

SALT LAKE CITY — The abduction of Elizabeth Smart may have been part of a delusional plan to collect seven wives for Brian David Mitchell, a self-proclaimed prophet and polygamist who also may have tried to kidnap Elizabeth's 18-year-old cousin, authorities said Friday.

Salt Lake City police would not say whether Elizabeth, 15, was sexually abused. But more information has emerged regarding Mitchell's deep religious belief in polygamy as expressed in a 27-page manifesto police said he penned.

The practice of polygamy has haunted the state of Utah since its 19th-century founding by Mormon settlers. If polygamy turns out to be the motive in the Smart case, it would be the latest in a series of recent high-profile cases of illegal and abusive multiple marriages involving young girls.

Salt Lake City Sheriff Aaron Kennard said Friday he also had evidence suggesting Mitchell -- arrested Wednesday with his wife, Wanda Barzee, in the Smart kidnapping -- tried to pry open the bedroom window of Elizabeth's cousin Jessica Wright in July.

The attempt failed when the noise of the screen being cut woke the girl and the family called police. A chair was found beneath the window, which had been partially pried open, a method nearly identical to that used to gain entry into Smart's house, according to Kennard.

The attempted kidnapping was apparently aimed at Wright, said to be Elizabeth's favorite cousin, police said. Kennard said he will present the evidence next week to the Salt Lake City District Attorney's Office and expects prosecutors to file attempted kidnapping charges. The couple already face aggravated kidnapping charges.

"The evidence we have developed has led us to believe that the perpetrators of the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping had something to do with this incident," Kennard said. "If I wasn't confident I wouldn't let my people take it to this level."

The incident happened seven weeks after Elizabeth's abduction. On July 24, at about 3:30 a.m., Wright heard a noise that sounded like breaking wood outside her window. The family let their dog out and called 911. Detectives scoured the area but didn't find anything. They listed the incident as an attempted burglary.

A friend who visited Barzee, 57, in jail Friday said Mitchell's revelations began around Thanksgiving of 2000 and compelled him to collect women as wives. Mitchell claimed to be God and called himself Emmanuel.

In his manifesto, which he titled "The Book of Emmanuel David Isaiah," Mitchell, 49, calls polygamy -- the practice of having multiple spouses at the same time -- a lost "blessing." He refers to himself as a "just and merciful God" who can restore lost blessings to those who do not sin.

One passage, in which he appears to address his wife by a biblical name, says: "Thou wilt take into thy heart and home seven sisters, and thou wilt recognize them through the spirit as thy dearest and choicest friends from all eternity."

In another verse he writes, "And they shall take into their heart and home seven times seven sisters to love and care for forty-nine precious jewels in their crown."

The tract, written in February and March 2002, was recovered by authorities who served a search warrant on one of Mitchell's relatives in Montana.

Mitchell's adult children have labeled him potentially dangerous, with an explosive temper. In downtown Salt Lake, he wore white robes, carried a staff and was known as an aggressive panhandler.

Mitchell was once a devout Mormon but was excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for "activity promoting bizarre teachings and lifestyle far afield from the principles and doctrines of the church."

Vicki Cottrell, a local mental-health advocate who has known Barzee for 28 years, visited her in jail. Contrell said Barzee "loved" Elizabeth and took good care of her during the ordeal.

Barzee said the girl became loyal to the couple and did not try to leave even though she had many opportunities, Cottrell said in an interview.

"It horrified me," Cottrell said of her conversation with Barzee. Cottrell is executive director of the Utah chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. She spent about a half-hour in a visiting room, talking by phone with Barzee while they were separated by a thick pane of glass.

The practice of polygamy certainly isn't new to this region. Utah was largely settled by Mormons whose early religious beliefs included polygamy. Pressure from the federal government led church leaders to ban the practice in 1890.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints condemns polygamy and excommunicates members who violate that policy. Still, there are an estimated 50,000 polygamists in Utah, many of them living in polygamous rural communities that make up an entire underground subculture. They refer to polygamy as simply "the principle" or "the work."

Police say they have no indication that Mitchell was part of a established polygamist group.

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