Deseret, Mar. 13, 2003
By James Thalman and Elaine Jarvik, Deseret News staff writers
The street preacher known as Emmanuel was seen all over the place until people started looking for him.
Biblical-looking in his long robes and beard, he was a familiar downtown figure, carrying a staff as he preached and panhandled.
Now, Emmanuel, also known as Brian David Mitchell was booked for investigation of kidnapping. He was picked up by Sandy police Wednesday along a south Salt Lake County stretch of State Street with two other oddly dressed people, one of whom turned out to be 15-year-old Elizabeth Smart, who had been the subject of a nationwide search since her abduction June 5.
The 49-year-old self-appointed prophet preached — or tried to — at area homeless shelters to captive but generally uninterested audiences. He apparently considered himself a prophet assigned to serve the destitute.
“At least that’s what he claimed,” said Phil, one of a couple of dozen homeless men queuing up at The Road Home on west 200 South on Wednesday evening. “He was around here and he would try to talk to us. We just thought he was some kind of nut, and we’d chase him off.”
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Emmanuel was panhandling in downtown Salt Lake City more than a year ago when Elizabeth’s mother, Lois Smart, gave him $5 and hired him to help her husband work on the roof of their home. He worked for about five hours and the family didn’t see him again, Lois Smart said.
People at the Road Home and several at the Salvation Army said they couldn’t remember exactly the last time they saw him but figured it had been about a month.
Family members couldn’t track him down either. Mitchell’s two stepsons, Mark and Derrick Thompson, canvassed the downtown area after seeing his picture on “America’s Most Wanted” as a possible suspect in the Smart kidnapping, visiting their stepfather’s favorite haunts, such as the Greyhound Bus Depot, in an effort to find him.
Mark Thompson, who first met Mitchell when he was 16, said that his stepfather had been a jewelry maker at O.C. Tanner. Things were actually pretty normal, but the stepchildren were never close to him. “We didn’t like him, but Mom loved him, so we tried.”
Mark Thompson said he hadn’t seen Mitchell since last April at the funeral of his mother’s father. “We didn’t speak. He just yelled at us and called us a bunch of sinners.”
Mitchell’s mother lives in the Fort Union area. Her street was barricaded by patrol cars on Wednesday afternoon after Elizabeth’s reappearance.
“They were quite normal at first,” said Derrick Thompson about his stepfather and mother, Wanda Eileen Barzee, 57. The changes in his stepfather’s philosophies and behavior happened gradually, he said.
The Mitchells met at a group therapy session, according to Wanda’s mother, Dora Corbett. “They used to be temple workers (for the LDS Church). But something happened, and I don’t know what. They quit going to church.” A dozen years ago, Mitchell began having “revelations,” eventually changing his name to Emmanuel, Hebrew for “God is here.”
Derrick Thompson said his stepfather told him he had taken “10 hits of LSD and talked to God out in the desert” several years ago. “They said they weren’t on drugs, but we think that was a lie. We think that’s how he could communicate with God. That and listen to the Steve Miller Band.”
The Mitchells also got involved in “patriot” groups opposed to paying income taxes, and later became followers of survivalist guru Bo Gritz, according to Corbett. “Then all of a sudden they decided to buy a fifth-wheel trailer and they went up to Idaho where this Bo Gritz was.”
When they didn’t get along with Gritz and his other followers they left Idaho, sold the fifth-wheel, sold all their worldly possessions, “and went off across the United States” as vagrants.
“She sent me one card in two years,” Corbett said.
According to Derrick Thompson, their mother “disowned” them about five years ago. “He’s such a wack job,” said Thompson about his stepfather. “He obviously brainwashed my mom.” Now, he said, “she’s going to go down with him.”
Mitchell believed he was “above God,” Thompson said. “They were always talking about the Lord directing them,” Corbett said.
Eventually Emmanuel wrote his version of the Book of Mormon.
Utah County naturopath C. Samuel West, who says he has known Mitchell since the mid-1990s, “started going off the deep end. I was trying to get him back in church, and that’s when he left me.”
Derrick Thompson just happened to be watching “America’s Most Wantedshow he hadn’t turned on in a year, he said ? the night it showed the composite drawing released by the Smart family and named Brian David Mitchell. The Thompson brothers contacted the show and provided them with pictures of their stepfather, including one that showed him clean-shaven.
Mitchell, they said, liked to preach at the depot, and often traveled by bus.
Mark Thompson said he couldn’t speculate why Smart might have gone with his stepfather that night in June.
“But he was fully capable of putting a gun to her head. He was into guns, and we went shooting several times as kids.”
Last summer, a Deseret News staff member came upon him one afternoon trying to tear down the “Kidnapped!” poster of Elizabeth that was on display in the paper’s first-floor windows.
When the staffer told him to stop, Mitchell told her that “they found the guy.” The staffer said she ran from floor to floor trying to get her colleagues to come talk to the man, but no one was interested. At the time, Brian David Mitchell was dismissed as just another eccentric drifter.