20 years after kidnapping, Elizabeth Smart's focus is on helping others

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Elizabeth Smart Foundation's namesake was bouncing from one interview to another Tuesday at the foundation's headquarters in Trolley Square.

This Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of when Smart was rescued after being kidnapped from her bedroom in 2002 when she was 14 years old and was sexually assaulted almost daily for over nine months. Smart set aside Tuesday to do one-on-one interviews to accommodate the flood of media requests to commemorate the rescue.

She has been asked multiple times to recount what it was like being rescued. And while her story garnered worldwide attention 20 years ago and still remains a topic of interest among many people today, Smart says she, her husband and their three children aren't planning anything special to mark the occasion.

"It is a great day and it's the anniversary of a very happy day. But I mean, also, it has been 20 years. And I think the best way for me to honor that anniversary is to live. And that's what I'm doing. When I'm done here, I'll go home and probably have time to make my kids their after-school snack and then pick them up and take my daughter to dance and make dinner and probably do a couple of loads of laundry. It'll just be a day.

"I kinda think that's the best way for me to honor the day," she told KSL.com.

Smart says she will also call her parents, Ed and Lois Smart.

"I'll probably just call them, I call them a lot anyway, but I'll probably call them an extra time and tell them I love them," she said.

Elizabeth Smart Foundation and advocacy work

While Smart understands there is still a lot of interest in her story, she is more interested nowadays focusing on her foundation and her Smart Defense program that teaches women and girls about hands-on self-defense. Smart Defense was started after Smart was violated for a second time by being groped while on an airplane in 2019.

"And I'm sick of it. It should not happen to me. It should not happen to anyone. But if it is happening to me, then it's probably happening to a lot of people. I hear stories every day of people being victimized, people being sexually exploited, like having their boundaries crossed," she said. "I just felt like I needed to do something, like do something more."

Elizabeth Smart reflects Tuesday on the upcoming 20th anniversary of her rescue after being kidnapped and assaulted for nine months between 2002 and 2003.
Elizabeth Smart reflects Tuesday on the upcoming 20th anniversary of her rescue after being kidnapped and assaulted for nine months between 2002 and 2003. (Photo: Jeff Allred, Deseret News)

Smart says sharing her story during speaking engagements is great, but not enough. "I wanted to arm these women with something so they have a way to respond back."

The mission of the Smart Foundation "is to bring hope and end the victimization and exploitation of sexual assault through education, healing and advocacy. Our vision is to vanquish sexual assault and exploitation in all its forms," according to its website.

One of the tools Smart uses with her own children is the Raise app, which helps teach parents how to talk to their children about being safe.

"I've only been a parent eight years; I feel like I need all the help I can get," Smart says. "(The app) gives parents the education to talk about these topics competently and it helps to guide them through the journey of talking to their kids about it and helping these conversations to grow. Because it is scary."

But while Smart is very active today in working to prevent other girls and women from being exploited and abused, her advocacy work didn't really start in earnest until after Brian David Mitchell was convicted of kidnapping her in December of 2010.

Becoming a public figure

Smart is quick to point out that several years went by from the time she had been rescued to the time Mitchell was convicted.

"It was important for me to go back to high school, and it was important for me to go to college. And it was important for me to go experience more of life," she said. "I think that was important because I needed to gain some control over my life again, even to just a small degree where I could decide what to study or where to go on my study aboard or whatever it was."

But when Mitchell finally went on trial — eight years after she was rescued — Smart found herself back in the spotlight and again receiving worldwide attention. Today, she is still recognized frequently in public. Smart notes she went skiing this week and was recognized even though her well-known long blonde hair is now amber red, and she was wearing a ski helmet and goggles.

Elizabeth Smart smiles during a media interview in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.
Elizabeth Smart smiles during a media interview in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Chris Thomas, who acted as the Smart family spokesman during the time she was kidnapped and remains a close confidant of Elizabeth today, says Smart tried to get back to having as normal of a life as possible after she was rescued. It wasn't until after Mitchell was convicted that she started to go all in on using her public platform and notoriety for advocacy work.

"She has said many times, 'I never wanted this attention. I never wanted this fame. But it's something I can't make go away either, so why don't we try to do something positive with it and be a voice for the voiceless?'" Thomas said.

"I felt like so much that I had never spoken about to anyone came out during the trial, like there were things I never told my parents about, there were things I never talked about with anyone," Smart added. "And they all came out during the trial. And when it came out, I felt like, 'Well, it's all out there now. I might as well do something with it. There are very few secrets left. I might as well do something with it.' And that was kind of, I guess, my cannonball into the deep end."

Smart also recognizes there are some who have questioned why her case got global attention while other families with missing children have not received any.

"Honestly, they're not wrong," she said.

Smart says she once read a study that claimed between 2002 and 2003, the news stories that received the most attention were the 2002 Winter Olympics, the Iraq War, and her story.

"Are people wrong when they say there's a disparity? Absolutely not. They're 100% right. I mean, the facts show that. I'm not sorry that I got that attention, though, because I'm alive and I'm here and I'm rescued. What I am sorry for, though, is, you're right, there are so many cases that never see the light of day," she said.

"I feel like every person deserves an ending to their story," Smart continued, talking about her efforts to help other families with missing children. "I recognize that every story is not going to have that happy ending, if you will. But every story deserves an ending. Because in the 20 years since my rescue, I have met with so many — too many — families whose children are still missing. And my parents said it as well: 'The worst part is not knowing.'

"Every person has a name and every person has a story, and no one deserves to just disappear uncared about, unremembered," she said. "And every story deserves space and deserves attention. So yes, I'm not sorry that I got the attention because I'm so grateful to be here. On the flip side, I am sorry that too many stories never receive even a second of attention from anybody."


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Elizabeth SmartPolice & CourtsUtahSalt Lake County
Pat Reavy is a longtime police and courts reporter. He joined the KSL.com team in 2021, after many years of reporting at the Deseret News and KSL NewsRadio before that.


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