“I have a knife at your neck. Don’t make a sound. Get up and come with me.”
Those were the last words a 14-year-old girl heard, as she felt something cold and sharp pressed against her neck, before a strange man snatched her from her bedroom and turned her world upside down.
People attending the Children’s Trust of South Carolina’s Prevention Conference – who met to learn about child abuse, neglect and injury prevention – heard from Elizabeth Smart on Friday at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center and how she persevered through unimaginable horrors.
Smart made headlines after she was abducted from her Utah home in 2002 and returned to her family nine months later.
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“When I was 14 years old, I thought I (would be) the last person in the world to be kidnapped, to ever be raped or abused or anything,” Smart said.
But with what she had learned about kidnappings from the news, she expected to be raped and killed. She asked her captor, Brian David Mitchell, to do so near her home so her family could find her remains.
“I wanted my parents to know what had happened to me,” she said. “This man, he stopped and looked at me and just kind of smiled. He said, ‘I’m not going to rape and murder you. Yet.”
“And we kept going.”
He led her to a nearby campsite where she met a woman, Wanda Ileen Barzee, who she could only describe as “evil.”
After Barzee forced Smart to dress in a similar robe, Mitchell pronounced he and Smart were married. When she protested, he threatened to kill her if it happened again.
Afterward, he said it was time to consummate the marriage and he raped her.
“I was very much a little girl who played with dolls and dreamt of meeting her Prince Charming and getting married and living happily ever after,” she said.
Smart said she thought about the children who had been violated and murdered and how lucky they were because no one could hurt them ever again.
“I felt like someone had torn apart my soul into a tiny, million pieces and there was no way that they could ever be put back together again, that I was filthy and so dirty,” she said.
Afterward, her kidnappers tied a metal cable around Smart’s ankle, giving her only about 12 to 15 feet of space.
In March of 2003, police officers approached the three about 18 miles from Smart’s home, then isolated her from her captors. She mustered up the courage to admit who she was and was soon reunited with her father.
“I remember just feeling like nobody ever again could hurt me the way that these people had hurt me because my dad was there,” she said.
Smart said people commonly will ask survivors, including herself, why they didn’t leave, but many will instead hear, “It’s your fault. You should have done something.”
Because she had been taken from what she believed to be the safest place in the world, the threats against her life and her family felt real, Smart said.
“No one was ever there to stop my captors from hurting me ... Anything these people said they were going to do me, they did.”
Smart said she doesn’t dwell on the past because her captors do not deserve to steal any more of her life away from her. She now appreciates the perspective her experience gave her and how it has inspired her platform.
“I know kidnapping, abuse, trafficking, rape, it happens everywhere,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what walk in life you come from. I’m grateful for that knowledge because now I’m able to do something about it.”
Smart has gone on to establish the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, which aims to prevent crimes against children, has written a book about her experiences and promotes child safety legislation.
Children’s Trust Board Chairwoman Kim Wellman said although few have experienced what Smart has, everyone can learn from her resilience.
“Each of us here today has the capacity, regardless of what our personal circumstances are, to make a difference in the lives of children... to rewrite the narrative so fewer and fewer and fewer children fall victim to abuse, neglect and injury,” Wellman said.