Relatives Recall Kidnapping Suspects’ Downward Spiral

The New York Times, Mar. 1,3 2003

In their early years, Brian D. Mitchell had been a jewelry designer and Wanda Barzee an accomplished pianist who knew Tchaikovsky and Beethoven and once played the Mormon Tabernacle Choir organ. They met at their Mormon church. He was in drug rehabilitation for a heroin problem, two of Ms. Barzee’s sons said yesterday.

But later, as their lives and families began spinning apart, Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Barzee, who married, shared more meager lives in Salt Lake City, moving from apartment to apartment, scraping by on what they could earn from various odd jobs and other low-paying jobs.

Then Mr. Mitchell began hearing voices, his stepson Mark Thompson recalled in an interview yesterday. “He said prophets were starting to talk to him,” Mr. Thompson said. “They told him to sell all his worldly possessions, and he did.”

And so began, as Mr. Thompson and his brother, Derrick, described it, a downward spiral for the couple. Yesterday they were taken into custody after the police in Sandy, Utah, found them with Elizabeth Smart, the teenager who was abducted from her bedroom in Salt Lake City nine months ago.

The Smart family knew Mr. Mitchell as a handyman who called himself Emmanuel and once worked for them, raking leaves and fixing a roof. As Elizabeth was reunited with her family, the authorities said Mr. Mitchell, 49, and Ms. Barzee, 56, would be charged with kidnapping.

Mark Thompson, 32, said he was not surprised that investigators now believe that his stepfather was responsible for the kidnapping. He recalled a scene some years ago, when he and Derrick, 33, and their sister, Lou Ree, 27, were still living with their mother and Mr. Mitchell. Lou Ree, who was about 14 at the time, could bear it no longer, he said, and left to live with her father. Mr. Thompson said Lou Ree at 14 looked a lot like Elizabeth Smart, who was 14 when she was abducted.

“I was there the day Mom found out” Lou Ree was gone, Mr. Thompson said. “She started screaming, kicking things. She didn’t blame anybody, but she was angry and very unhappy. I figure, Brian just tried to get her another child. Who knows, he’s so out there.”

Once Lou Ree left, the family unit crumbled, the brothers said, with Mr. Mitchell sliding into a world of fundamentalist Mormonism, writing his own bible, launching into unsolicited sermons to anyone who might listen, locking the family television to stations only he wished to watch. After Lou Ree, Derrick and Mark moved to live with friends; three other siblings had also left.

“I’d come home and he’d be praying, every night for two hours,” Mark Thompson said. Derrick Thompson remembered the couple “doing seances around their bed and talking to God.”

After the instructions to sell everything they owned, Mark Thompson said, the couple began wandering downtown streets, panhandling, spending winter nights in shelters and summer nights in a tepee they pitched in the mountains.

“They shot animals, skinned them and ate them,” he said.

As the years went on, contact with their mother and stepfather grew less frequent. Once, Mark Thompson said, his mother called him at work, an optical laboratory. “I started crying,” he said. “She told me she wanted to let me know she was doing fine.”

“I told her not to forget about her family,” Mr. Thompson said. “But she slowly weeded us out of the family. We’ve had almost no contact with her at all since 1993 or 1994. We had no way to call her. There’s no way to contact the homeless. No way.”

Last month, a police composite sketch in the Smart case appeared on the television program “America’s Most Wanted.” Mark, Derrick and Lou Ree all saw it and recognized the face as their stepfather’s. They contacted the authorities.

The brothers began looking for Mr. Mitchell and their mother in homeless shelters around Salt Lake City, certain that Mr. Mitchell was involved in the kidnapping.

“We just knew it was him,” Mark Thompson said. “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.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday March 14, 2003.
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