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The One Mighty and Strong

To put God’s house in order, Brian David Mitchell needed to kidnap a virgin bride.


Temple Square attracts religious wackos like moths to a flame. They stand outside the wall yelling condemnations, calling for repentance, quoting from the Bible. Or they pose quietly in costumes, such as the young man with his face painted silver and dressed as Little Bo Peep. Or Worm, who sat naked below the Brigham Young statue with the letters W-O-R-M tattooed across his forehead. Or Brian David Mitchell, the man who dressed like Jesus Christ and stole 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart from her bed in the middle of the night. We knew him as a temple moth and thought he was crazy but harmless. This is why we didn’t suspect him, even when he walked around downtown with Elizabeth in tow, her face covered by a veil. It’s about the strangest thing that’s ever happened in Salt Lake City, and it could only have happened here, in this place and time, perhaps caused by the aura emanating from the temple itself.

“Hearken! Oh ye inhabitants of the earth. Listen together and open your ears, for it is I, the Lord God of all the earth, the creator of all things that speaketh unto you …”

So opens the 27-page prophecy of Immanuel David Isaiah, the name Mitchell adopted once he realized he was the messenger of God, the new prophet on Earth.

“... I have raised up my servant Immanuel David Isaiah, ever my righteous right hand, to be a light and a covenant to my people—to all those who will repent and come unto me, for in my servant, Immanuel is the fullness of my gospel...”

In the prophecy, God proclaims Immanuel to be “the one mighty and strong” called to set his house in order before the apocalypse, a task requiring the aid of seven times seven virgin wives, plus one. His legal wife at the time, Wanda Barzee, carefully transcribed the prophecy in longhand and made copies to circulate among family and friends.

Then, on June 5, 2002, they abducted their first virgin, Elizabeth Smart, and took her, on foot, up into the hills above her home in Federal Heights, where they had a camp in some scrub oak. There, that first night, Mitchell performed a sacred wedding ceremony, and then he raped her.

She was gone for nine months.

It happened in my neighborhood. I didn’t know her, but my son went to grade school with her, and we had a photo of the two of them together at a birthday party—she was a princess, and he was a cowboy. She was taken from her bedroom in the middle of the night, and everyone was terrorized. If this could happen to the Smart family, then no one was safe. Their upscale home represented the core values of Mormon traditions. Their extended family reached back to the original pioneers and into the present-day church hierarchy. It was like 9/11, only the news spread by telephone instead of TV—women calling women, and the men saying “What? What happened?”

A man took Elizabeth from her bed.

It was the beginning of summer and unusually hot, the air above the valley standing still, loud crickets in the backyard that would not shut up. A valley of hearts cracked open.

Thousands of volunteers combed the neighborhood, looking in window wells, going through stacks of wood. They covered the foothills in broad lines, calling her name. I didn’t volunteer because I didn’t think I could handle that part, hearing her name called out.

The police arrested a suspect, Richard Ricci, but the poor man died while in custody from a ruptured artery in his brain. He didn’t take Elizabeth; no one but the police thought he was the guy.

Through the summer, Elizabeth’s photo hung in every window of every shop and on every lamppost. Her father and her family appeared regularly on local, national and international news programs, begging and weeping for her safe return. It seemed she was hidden somewhere far away, somewhere just beyond the broadcasting spectrum, or like in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy’s family calls to her through the crystal ball.

Then, when she was found nine months later, on March 12, 2003, we realized she’d actually been right here in front of us, walking around downtown, reading in the library, eating in fast-food restaurants and going to parties with Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee. From June until August, they hid out in their camp in the scrub oak up in the foothills, avoiding the search parties. Then they began coming down into the city by day, passing within a quarter-mile of Elizabeth’s home. They walked the streets dressed as religious pilgrims from the New Testament. Mitchell had a long beard and a walking stick. Elizabeth and Wanda covered everything but their eyes. And no one figured it out.

In late September, they got on a bus and went to San Diego, where they spent the winter, also camping out. In March 2002, they came back to Salt Lake City, and this is when Elizabeth was discovered walking down State Street, wearing a gray wig and sunglasses. The first thing she said to the police was, “I know who you think I am. You guys think I’m that Elizabeth Smart girl who ran away.”

The razor’s edge of Mormonism
Mitchell was arrested and procedures began to determine whether he was competent to stand trial—basically, whether he was sane enough to understand what was happening. After six years of trying, unsuccessfully, to determine this question in state court, the federal court stepped in and took over in the fall of 2008, ordering new psychological evaluations. This whole delay was very annoying. It seemed crazy we couldn’t determine whether Mitchell was crazy, and there were other questions—important questions—that no one was asking. Like, “Why didn’t she run away or cry out for help?” And, “Why didn’t we recognize her—how was she able to stand right in front of us and become invisible?”

You’d think it wouldn’t be so hard to answer these questions, but for us it’s like groping about in a dark room—we know the answers are here, but we just can’t find them. Or, actually, it’s that we don’t even want to ask the questions, because we know the answers don’t make sense, at least not to the rational mind. Yes, we’re uncomfortable with the questions and the answers because they don’t make sense in a court of law. They only make sense in and around the temple. To understand how this works, we need to go back in time, back to the beginning of the Mormon Church.

When Joseph Smith was a boy, circa 1820, his family moved from New Hampshire to the “burned-over district” of western New York. The area earned this name because it was so full of Christian evangelists preaching revivalism as to have no fuel (people) left to burn (convert). Joseph, age 14, went to the woods, knelt down, and began to pray to God, asking Him which religion is true. God appeared to Joseph as a light brighter than the sun and told him all religions had become corrupted, and that he, Joseph, had been chosen to be the new prophet and restore the true gospel. Ten years later, in 1830, Joseph published the Book of Mormon, establishing a new church and a new people, the Latter Day Saints, or Mormons.

In the early days of the church, Joseph Smith taught his followers that there was only a thin veil separating this temporal plane from the celestial realm, and that by praying in the proper manner and performing certain rituals they could part the veil and have magical and mystical experiences with angels and gods and demons who had human bodies filled with white spirit fluid instead of blood. Yes, according to Joseph Smith there was and is more than one god and more than one devil. He said we have only one Heavenly Father and he is a god, but there are many other gods with their own planets in other places of the universe. Joseph told his followers, in essence, ‘There are gods and angels among us, and I have contacted them, they are my friends. You can know them, too, if you only follow my instructions.”

Lots of people at the time—living on the frontier, surrounded by stumps and mud, so alone on the big continent-thought it was a good idea. Joseph’s followers began speaking in tongues and healing the sick and having visions and revelations. They pitied members of other faiths who did not have these experiences, and thought this alone was proof Joseph Smith had indeed restored the gospel on earth.

Everything went fine until Joseph’s right-hand man, his “assistant president,” Oliver Cowdery, began speaking directly to God, our Heavenly Father, and God told him that Joseph Smith had become corrupt and now he, Oliver Cowdery, was the new prophet who held the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Joseph responded by saying Cowdery had not been speaking to God but to Satan, and he excommunicated him.

After that, Joseph prophesied that a member of the church can only receive personal revelation concerning matters within his own “stewardship,” his own domain of authority and control. Therefore, if a man has a wife and children, he may receive revelation from God concerning decisions he must make about his wife and children, and they must obey him, just as he must, in turn, obey those men in higher positions of the church hierarchy, all the way up to the prophet, who has stewardship over every member of the church.

In this way, obedience to authority became the flip side of prophecy, visions and speaking in tongues. This is the razor’s edge of Mormonism. On the one hand, you are supposed to seek the truth by having direct mystical experiences with spirits and supernatural forces, while at the same time blindly following orders coming down through a social bureaucracy. Many, especially in the early days, didn’t like these lines of authority and control and chose to contact the spirit world directly. In 1909, the sixth president of the church, Joseph Fielding Smith, wrote:

There never was a time, perhaps, when there were more false prophets than there are today ... We get letters from them, and commands and threats from them, and admonitions and warnings and revelations from them, nearly every day. ... some calling themselves “deliverers of Israel,” some calling themselves “the one mighty and strong, who is to deliver Israel out of bondage.”... We have these letters —those that we have not destroyed—stacked up almost by the cord. Some of these false prophets, these men to “deliver Israel,” and these foolish, unwise, unstable creatures, led about by every wind of doctrine have risen right in our own midst. (LDS Conference Report, October 1909, p. 9)