The Salt Lake Tribune, Mar. 13, 2003
BY PEGGY FLETCHER STACK, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
The small-framed, big-bearded man called himself Emmanuel and wandered the streets of Salt Lake City in white robes and linen cap, sandals and a walking staff.
Emmanuel, now suspected of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart when she was 14, looked and spoke like a modern-day prophet, panhandling and preaching to the homeless as if he were a messenger from God.
“Sometimes he was a little incoherent,” said Pamela Atkinson, a long-time homeless advocate in Salt Lake City who had many conversations with Emmanuel. “He was more of a talker than a listener.”
The eccentric man didn’t cause trouble, said Andrew Larsen, a salesman at Edinburgh Castle Scottish Imports on Main Street. “I just thought he was trying to dress up like Jesus to appeal to the emotions of people.”
Emmanuel is a Hebrew name for Jesus; the would-be messiah began life as Brian David Mitchell in a suburban Salt Lake City neighborhood.
Mitchell, 49, attended Skyline High School in the 1970s, was a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, married and fathered four children.
Then things fell apart.
He and his wife divorced, and in the late 1980s, Mitchell married Wanda Ilene Barzee, who had several children of her own. Barzee’s daughter, Louree Gayler, was 12 at the time, and her new stepfather made her uncomfortable.
“He was kissing and holding me the wrong way,” Gayler said Wednesday. “But he never molested me because he wanted to see his other kids.”
Gayler says she endured the situation for three years, then went to live with her father.
Mitchell may have kidnapped Elizabeth to “give my mom back something she lost,” Gayler said. “Elizabeth resembles me at 15.”
Gayler’s brother, Mark Thompson, a 32-year-old construction worker in Salt Lake City, agrees.
His mom “freaked out” when Gayler left home, Thompson told The New York Times. “I remember her saying, ‘How dare my baby leave me?’ Maybe she felt like she needed to replace a child.”
Thompson said his mother for years carried around dolls, pretending they were alive. He said she had also been forcibly removed from a local hospital — as recently as last year — “for touching other people’s kids.”
After “America’s Most Wanted” aired a segment about Mitchell as a possible suspect in Elizabeth’s disappearance, Thompson contacted police and helped look for his stepfather.
“We just knew it was him,” he told The Times. “I’ve never liked the guy and felt he’s always had something to do with this. I’m having a hard time breathing right now.”
Long before, Mitchell had lost touch with his Mormon faith. LDS Church records indicate that he and Wanda were excommunicated, said spokesman Michael Otterson.
C. Samuel West, a self-described medical researcher in Orem, allowed the couple to live with him on and off for several months in the late 1990s. During their stay, West says he tried to convince them to return to the LDS Church.
“When I started talking to him about the church, he took off,” West said Wednesday.
But some months later Mitchell and his wife returned. This time he was wearing his robes and telling tales of a hand-made cart he pulled across the Golden Gate Bridge. The two called themselves “David” [pronouncing it "Daw-veed"] and “Eliza [pronounced "Ell-is-a"].
West dubbed Mitchell and his wife “my little Israelites,” and marveled as they meticulously built a covered wagon on the back porch.
“He felt he was playing the role of Jesus,” West said. Mitchell told him that “giving anything to him was like giving it to Jesus.”
After several months the Wests could no longer afford to support the Mitchells, and the couple went on their way. That left Mitchell without work, so he turned to panhandling and handyman services.
In August 2001, a kind homemaker employed him for a day — Elizabeth’s mother, Lois Smart.
Tribune reporters Bob Mims, Karyn Hsiao and news editor Peg McEntee contributed to this report.