The Salt Lake Tribune, Mar. 30, 2003
By Brandon Griggs, The Salt Lake Tribune
A decade ago, Brian David Mitchell was a clean-cut husband and father, a Salt Lake Temple worker and a diecutter at O.C. Tanner. Today he is a bedraggled prisoner at the Salt Lake County Jail, charged with kidnapping Elizabeth Smart.
What happened to him? Doug Larsen believes he has a clue.
In the early 1990s, Larsen was perhaps Mitchell’s best friend. The two devout Mormons shared an office at O.C. Tanner, where they discovered a mutual interest in religious philosophy and scripture. Isolated somewhat from their co-workers, they talked for hours about their beliefs.
Mitchell left the jewelry company in late 1993. When Larsen next saw his friend, in April 1994, Mitchell and wife, Wanda Barzee, were hawking books by C. Samuel West, the Orem doctor known for preaching holistic health. Smiling like a hyena, Mitchell gave Larsen one of West’s books and asked for a $350 donation.
“He was different. He was a little too exuberant. It was a little too much,” says Larsen, who knew Mitchell had mental-health expenses. “I knew they had thrown away their medication. In light of subsequent events, he must have been medicated when he and I worked together. I don’t know how else to explain the change.”
A few months later, Mitchell quit working for West. Within a year he had sold his possessions, donned a robe, changed his name and left Utah to wander the country with Barzee, sleeping in the woods and preaching his peculiar gospel on the streets. Authorities say his misguided religious fervor and deteriorating mental state led Mitchell to snatch 14-year-old Elizabeth as the second of eight potential wives, sexually assault her and hide her under a veil for nine months.
The bearded Immanuel, as Mitchell has called himself in recent years, is familiar to many who saw him walking the streets of downtown Salt Lake City. But who is Brian David Mitchell? In the days after Elizabeth was found March 12, everyone from her father Ed Smart to District Attorney David Yocum to CNN’s Larry King had a short answer: Sexual predator. Homeless wacko. Jesus freak. Polygamist fanatic. Soft-spoken Svengali. A “monster.”
The long answer, as always, is more complex. Like all people, Mitchell is the product of many conflicting human, environmental and intellectual forces. Born Oct. 18, 1953, he grew up in a low-slung brick rambler on a winding street of 1950s-style homes just south of lower Parleys Canyon. Brian was the third of six children born to his mother, a schoolteacher, and father Shirl, a social worker.
Neighbors remember the Mitchells as Mormon, frugal and a little weird. All six children were born at home. The parents served only whole-wheat bread, steamed vegetables and other health foods, a stricture from which the children sometimes rebelled. Cousin Bill Christiansen recalls the Mitchell kids coming over to his house and gobbling down plates of beef. “They just seemed starved for meat.”
Relatives describe Mitchell’s mother as doting and conscientious. But by his own admission, Shirl Mitchell was not a model father. He once punished Brian by slapping him with a garden hose and tried to educate the 8-year-old boy about sex by showing him explicit pictures from a medical book. Another time he dropped off Brian, then about 12, in Salt Lake City’s Rose Park neighborhood and made him find his way home. Shirl Mitchell characterizes his son as a “maladjusted” misfit who coveted his parents’ love.
“There was a chronic, deep-seated craving for attention, for an identity,” says the elder Mitchell, who has penned a rambling, 900-page manifesto of his own unusual philosophical and religious beliefs. “Even negative attention was better than none, as far as he was concerned.”
Signs of Trouble
On the surface, Brian Mitchell had a prototypical American boyhood: He was a Cub Scout and played Little League. But his teenage years showed signs of trouble ahead. He was caught exposing himself to a neighborhood girl. He spent time in juvenile detention. He squabbled so much with his parents that at 16 they sent him to live with his grandmother, a full-time nurse who couldn’t supervise him. Mitchell turned to alcohol and drugs and dropped out of high school.
“He was just left to fend completely for himself,” says a sibling, who asked not to be identified. “And that’s when the problems started.”
At 19, Mitchell married his first wife, who now goes by Karen Minor, after getting her pregnant. They had a son, Travis, and a daughter, Angela, but the marriage lasted less than two years. Karen recently told TV’s “Inside Edition” that Mitchell hit her and forced himself on her two days after the birth of their second child. In divorce records, Mitchell said Karen’s alcohol abuse, infidelities and emotional problems made her an unfit mother. When Karen remarried soon afterward and was to be awarded custody of the children, Mitchell instead took them to New Hampshire for two years to “protect” them from her.
By 1980 Mitchell returned to Utah, kicked drugs and rededicated himself to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He found work as a janitor at the Beehive House near Temple Square and met his second wife, Debbie Mitchell, at a lecture on the Old Testament by LDS author W. Cleon Skousen. Debbie had three young daughters from a previous marriage when they wed in 1981.
“I remember feeling I was the luckiest woman alive to marry a man who loved my girls,” Debbie Mitchell says. The couple quickly had two more children of their own. Perhaps seven children in one small house was more than they could handle, because in 1983 Brian Mitchell placed Travis and Angela, then 10 and 8, in a foster home. Angela says her father was following orders from Debbie, who threatened to divorce him if he did not find another home for his kids.
“It’s not a decision I would make, but I can understand why he did it,” says Angela, 28, who declined to give her last name for privacy reasons. “He was trying to save his marriage.”
Debbie Mitchell denies giving her husband any such ultimatum. But their marriage was already in deep trouble. The gentle man she married, she says, had become strange, controlling and cruel. Once he brought home a stack of books about Satan “because he wanted to know what he was fighting against.” Mitchell told her what to eat, forbade her from wearing bright colors and put dead mice in her stove to scare her. And sometimes, she said, he beat her.
“I used to go to church with black eyes,” says the Salt Lake City woman, now 52. “I remember just literally cringing because he was so mean to me. And people in the ward thought he was such a wonderful man.”
Mitchell, who filed for divorce from Debbie in 1984, told a different story. In divorce papers, he said he yelled at Debbie and broke things in anger but never hit her. Debbie was cruel to Travis and Angela, flew into violent rages and vowed repeatedly “to discredit him in the eyes of the children,” he wrote.
Claims of Abuse
Those who view Brian Mitchell as a pedophile look to this second marriage for proof. Ten months after he and Debbie separated, she accused him of molesting their son, then 3. Debbie said she became concerned when the boy began acting in a sexual manner toward his little sister, and, when questioned, said he learned such behavior from his father.
Police were summoned and the case was referred to the state Division of Child and Family Services. A caseworker interviewed the boy twice and found no direct evidence that he had been sexually abused by his father. However, she determined the boy was more sexually interested than average and recommended that Mitchell’s weekend visits with his son be supervised. Debbie Mitchell has had custody of the kids ever since.
Around the same time, one of Debbie’s daughters came forward to say Mitchell had molested her for almost four years, starting when she was 8. Rebecca Woodridge, who since Mitchell’s arrest has gone public with her story, said her stepfather repeatedly snuck into her bedroom, fondled her and made her touch him. Ashamed and scared, Woodridge told no one.
“I can still see him coming down the stairs towards me,” says Woodridge, now 29, who has told her story on NBC and “Larry King Live.” “He would tell me not to say anything because nobody would believe me. And he was right.”
Debbie Mitchell says she reported the abuse in 1985 to LDS Church officials who doubted the girl’s accusations and discouraged her from pressing charges. The case was never prosecuted.
“They could have stopped this,” Debbie Mitchell says. “But we’re talking 18 years ago when nobody in the church thought this kind of thing happened.”
Dale Bills, a spokesman for the LDS Church, could not comment specifically on Mitchell’s case. But he says the church abhors child abuse and has established several programs to help its local leaders prevent sexual abuse and protect and treat victims. Today, bishops and other church leaders have access to a 24-hour help line staffed by professional counselors.
Brian Mitchell’s attorney, David C. Biggs, did not return calls seeking comment on the sexual abuse allegations. But Mitchell’s relatives doubt the abuse occurred.
“He told me that wasn’t true, and I believe him,” says daughter Angela, who recalls Mitchell as a caring father who bought her a necklace with her birthstone. “He was never abusive to my brother or me, physically or sexually. And someone who’s abusive usually has a history of that.”
Woodridge, however, stands by her story. She cannot help but wonder how things might be different now had her stepfather been prosecuted 18 years ago.
“Every time I see [Elizabeth Smart], I think, ‘That was me,’ ” she says. “There’s a part of me that feels sorry for him. He needed help. And if people had believed me, he might have gotten help and none of this would have happened.”
Seeing a Change
On Nov. 29, 1985, the day his divorce to Debbie became final, Mitchell married Wanda Barzee. He was 32; she was 40 and, like him, a single parent recovering from a nasty divorce. He proposed by giving her a potted plant with an engagement ring in it. Her family thought Mitchell was polite but eccentric. One of the couple’s first homes in Salt Lake City had a street address of 666, so Brian held an exorcism to rid the house of the devil.
To outsiders, Mitchell appeared the model husband, father and churchgoer. He took Travis fishing and attended Angela’s swim meets. But some saw cracks in the veneer.
“He wore the white shirt and the tie and always looked the part. But there was something uncomfortable about him,” says Lee Willis, who knew the couple through their LDS Church ward. “He was a little too zealous for me. He was always doing a schmooze job on you, like a salesman.”
Within a few months of their wedding, Barzee confided to family and friends that her new husband was not quite what he seemed. Mitchell yelled at her and threw things, she said. And at home, his behavior became increasingly spiteful and bizarre. Her children say he killed their pet rabbit and served it to them for dinner. But Barzee, weak-willed and smitten, stuck by him.
In the early years of their marriage, the couple attended church regularly. Mitchell told Larsen, his O.C. Tanner buddy, that he abhorred those who claimed to be religious but did not act on their beliefs. For three years Mitchell even worked at the Salt Lake Temple, where he portrayed Satan in staged temple rituals. So effective was he in the part that Mitchell made church officials uneasy.
“They told me I was the best Lucifer they had ever seen,” Mitchell told his co-worker Larsen, “and could I please tone it down a bit?”
As Mitchell’s religious views grew more radical, he and Barzee attended church less and less. Mitchell spoke strange prophecies, balked at paying his tithing and refused to pay income taxes. He railed against materialism and hypocrisy, renounced mainstream Mormonism and viewed himself as a messenger from God. In 1995 he and Barzee sold their car and belongings — including a $2,000 piano — and began traveling the country, panhandling to support themselves.
By the late 1990s, Mitchell had grown a long beard and become a Jesus-like fixture on downtown Salt Lake City streets, extending his hand to passers-by with a plaintive, “Please help.” When old friends recognized him and stopped to chat, he often acted as if he did not know them. Larsen discovered this one August day in 1998, when he encountered Mitchell on Main Street. Overjoyed, Larsen made repeated attempts to talk to his old friend. Mitchell rebuffed him.
“His eyes were tired and devoid of humor,” said Larsen, who finally pressed a $5 bill into Mitchell’s hand and left. “He was no longer the Brian I knew.”
By this time Mitchell and Barzee were near-strangers to their families, who viewed their vagabond lifestyle with a mix of concern, sympathy and disgust. Mitchell’s relatives believe his wandering-prophet persona, with Barzee as his adoring disciple, fed his desire to shape a world with him at its center.
“Brian’s problem is that he can’t function under other people,” says Barzee’s sister, Janice DeYoung. “He has to take control.”
In November 2001, Lois Smart hired Mitchell for five hours to help with some roofing work at the Smart home. Seven months later, the LDS Church excommunicated Mitchell and Barzee for their extreme views. That same week, Elizabeth Smart disappeared.
Choosing a Different Path
Like many people, Vicki Cottrell believes Mitchell is sick. Cottrell, executive director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Utah, says people such as Mitchell who suffer from mental problems often cannot differentiate between divine revelations and delusions.
“Mental illness is like any other illness,” said Cottrell, who also is a longtime friend of Barzee’s. “If it’s untreated, it gets worse.”
If that is the case, then Mitchell has gone untreated for almost 10 years. To many outsiders, his life trajectory might look like a downward spiral. But ditching the trappings of society — and the burden of family expectations — to serve Jesus as a self-styled prophet was liberating for him, relatives say.
“Anyone who pursues the path less traveled is always going to look crazy,” says Mitchell’s son, Travis Mandeville, who saw his father and Barzee in Montana several years ago. “He might have been a little radical. But I didn’t see anything wrong with their lifestyle. They seemed really happy.”
Fanaticism often brings a certain euphoria, a strength of purpose born from the certitudes of one’s beliefs.
“My dad viewed his whole life as a mission,” says Angela. “He would preach for hours if you let him. It was a little strange when he changed his name. But I kind of admired him for his devotion.”
Cousin Bill Christiansen believes Mitchell shares something with every respectable adult who is ever tempted to chuck his conventional life for a more unorthodox journey.
“A lot of times we may go up to the precipice and look over,” Christiansen says. “Most of us pull back and say, ‘That’s a little too radical for me.’ Brian went up and he looked over the edge and he jumped off.”
It’s one thing to be eccentric; it’s another to be criminal. Even Mitchell’s family and supporters condemn his involvement with Elizabeth Smart. As bizarre as Mitchell’s behavior may have been in recent years, none of them saw this coming. And they are as curious as anyone to find out why.
“Nobody has really asked the ‘Why?’ question with the intent of finding out,” says Larsen, who doesn’t think the Brian Mitchell he knew could hurt anyone. “I’ve had a hard time believing he is guilty of anything more than being delusional. To me, it’s a miracle that Brian is now in a place where he can finally get some help.”
Those who have visited Mitchell in jail since his arrest say he seems calm and accepting of his fate. He has asked for little beyond a Bible, a Book of Mormon and some medicine for constipation. Mitchell believes his arrest and imprisonment are part of a divine plan and that he, like Jesus, is destined to suffer for his beliefs.
“He looked good to me. He didn’t have much strain on his face,” says Shirl Mitchell, who saw his son at the jail Friday. “He says he’s willing to die in prison if necessary.”
Tribune reporter Joe Baird contributed to this story.