Under the banner of heav.., p.6

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, page 6


Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

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  Michael became emotionally withdrawn and angry. He sexually molested one of Debbie's sons, as well as another boy outside of the family. On October 27, 1986, Debbie's daughter Sharon was lying in bed with a high fever. Michael went into her bedroom, Debbie says, “and began wiping her face with a cold cloth. Then he took the nightgown off her thirteen-year-old body and washed first her back, then her breasts. When she asked him to stop he acted like he didn't hear her and kept doing it. He washed her over and over, and then put the nightgown back on her and put her between his legs on the carpet and continued to massage her breasts and scalp.”

  After blurting out to her mother what Michael had done, Sharon cried uncontrollably for weeks. She told Debbie that she was “terrified she would have to marry Michael, because some of her friends in Colorado City had had to marry their stepfathers after being molested by them.”

  In December 1987, Winston ordered Sharon—who was his half sister—to move out of Debbie's house and move in with him. When Debbie learned of this, she says, “I went wild. I'd seen him take so many women's children away from them, and I wasn't going to let him take Sharon. I went straight down to Winston's house and confronted him. He was in bed. I stormed into his bedroom and started screaming that there was no way he was going to get Sharon.”

  Debbie vividly remembers the reaction this provoked in Winston, who was unaccustomed to having a woman disobey him. “He issued a clear, unmistakable threat,” she says. “This cold look came into Winston's eyes and he told me, ‘You might want to be careful. . . . I've got at least six boys who will rearrange your face if I just give them the word.'”

  Debbie stood her ground. “Sharon will come here and live with you,” she vowed, “only over my dead body.” And then she walked out and went home.

  By this point Winston had moved Michelle and Marlene out of Michael's house and was haranguing Debbie to vacate the premises as well, so that he could take possession of it. “Every single day Winston would come to the door and yell at me,” Debbie remembers. “He'd shout, ‘You have to leave! You have to leave NOW!' But I didn't have anywhere to go. Except my dad's house. And I couldn't go back there. Not after what had happened with him.” Mustering her mulish resolve, each time Winston showed up Debbie would let him rant, then silently wait for him to leave. She refused to move out. Her obstinacy enraged him. Alone in Michael's big house with her kids, Debbie thought about women who had summoned the courage to leave Bountiful. On many occasions over the years, Winston, Uncle Roy, and Uncle Rulon had warned that those foolish enough to forsake the religion would be “cast into outer darkness and ground into native element.” They would end up walking the streets as whores, selling their bodies to dirty Gentiles, damned until the end of time. Debbie had never doubted that this was exactly what happened to all those who left Bountiful and abandoned the faith.

  More and more, however, the behavior of some of her brethren within the religion struck her as anything but righteous. Debbie was finding it increasingly difficult to believe that God made his will known through the commandments of self-proclaimed prophets like the leaders of the UEP. She discovered herself trying to “unravel where God stops and men begin.” The prospect of abandoning everything she believed to be true about the world and her place in it was a terrifying intellectual leap to make, she says, “but I knew I must take responsibility for my life and my children, and quit pretending that God ever had anything to do with the pain I was in.”

  Debbie spent the day of February 7, 1988, cleaning the house with obsessive thoroughness. It was Sunday. She put a turkey in the oven to bake. A strange feeling came over her, like she was walking around in a dream. It was a frigid, foggy day, with snow blanketing the ground, but she didn't notice the cold. “I got the kids all to bed really early,” she remembers. “On some level I guess I knew what I was about to do just before I put the kids to bed. I suddenly realized, ‘Everything is ready now. The house is perfect.' I chopped a big pile of cedar kindling, put it in a corner cupboard with some fire paper, and put a match to it. Then I went into my bedroom at the other end of the house and shut the door. I got out the photo albums that told the story of my life. I sat on the bed and looked at them for a long time, then put them back on the shelf. And then I sat down to wait.

  “I thought about the kids. I tried thinking about leaving Bountiful and moving to Calgary and trying to make it on my own, but it made my head hurt too much. It was a blinding pain—I couldn't think about it. I just stayed in my room with the door shut until I could hear the crackling of the flames. At that point I walked to the bedroom door and opened it without really even being conscious of doing it. Down the long hallway, the kitchen was alive with licking, twisting flames dancing across the ceiling toward me. I knew then that I had to get the children out. As I ran downstairs to wake them, I could feel my heart throbbing in my ears.”

  After Debbie ushered all the children outside, Winston arrived and drove them all down the hill to his own house. A policeman from Creston came over and asked Debbie how the fire had started. “I was cooking a turkey in the oven,” she lied convincingly, “and must have forgotten to turn it off.” This seemed to satisfy him, and after a few minutes he left. Debbie found herself alone in Winston's kitchen. After a while she went back out into the raw night and walked up the hill to where her home was burning. “The firemen were there by then,” she says, “running all over the place. Suddenly they all came pouring out of the house, yelling that it was at flash point. A second later the whole thing exploded in flames, and all the windows blew out.

  “I stood a short distance away in a field, next to a barbwire fence, watching the flames roar against the mountains behind, swaying and shaking uncontrollably. After a while I realized that the men had stopped spraying water on the fire and were leaving, so I turned to leave myself. When I uncurled my fingers from the fence, my hand was damp with blood. I had been holding tightly onto a strand of barbwire and it had cut deep into my hand, but I hadn't felt a thing.”

  Burning down her house was a desperate act, but it served as the instrument of her emancipation. Not long after the embers had cooled, Debbie loaded her five children and a few garbage bags holding all their worldly belongings into a rust-ravaged car. Then she drove out of Bountiful and steered the vehicle east over the snow-choked Rocky Mountains, determined to create a new life for her family and herself, beyond the grasp of Winston, Uncle Rulon, and the UEP.



  But then I sigh and, with a piece of scripture,

  Tell them that God bids us do good for evil;

  And thus I clothe my naked villainy

  With odd old ends stol'n forth of Holy Writ,

  And seem a saint when most I play the devil.



  On June 5, 2002, fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart was abducted at knifepoint from her Salt Lake City bedroom in the middle of the night while her parents slept in a nearby part of the house. Details of the audacious kidnapping were reported breathlessly and without pause by the news media, leaving much of the country aghast and riveted. When a massive investigation failed to locate Elizabeth or her unidentified abductor by summer's end, people assumed the worst: that she had been subjected to some unspeakable ordeal and murdered. Then, nine months after she disappeared, she turned up alive, surprising almost everyone.

  The astonishing reappearance of Elizabeth Smart occurred in the jittery days immediately before the invasion of Iraq. Most Americans, made fretful by the uncertainties of the imminent war, were desperate for some good news and rejoiced with commensurate intensity when the girl was reunited with her family. President George W. Bush took time out from planning the assault on Baghdad to phone Elizabeth's father and convey the nation's collective jubilation over her safe return. Ed Smart, brimming with emotion, called the outcome a miracle. “God lives!” he declared. “The prayers of the world have brought Elizabeth home.”

Like so many other Americans, Dan Lafferty found himself spellbound by the Elizabeth Smart saga, monitoring its heartrending convolutions via a small television in his cell at the Utah State Prison. Within hours of the girl's rescue, the media disclosed that her abductor was an excommunicated Mormon. “With that small piece of information,” boasts Lafferty, “I immediately guessed that he was probably a fundamentalist, and that Elizabeth was somehow involved in a polygamy situation.”

  Lafferty was soon proven correct. The man who kidnapped Elizabeth turned out to be a forty-nine-year-old Utahan named Brian David Mitchell. Although he was indeed a Mormon Fundamentalist, he was not affiliated with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the faction that holds sway in Bountiful and Colorado City–Hildale) or any other established sect; he was a so-called independent, of whom there are untold multitudes currently practicing polygamy throughout the western United States, Canada, and Mexico. Thanks to the torrent of publicity generated by his 2001 trial and imprisonment, polygamist Tom Green had been the most widely recognized independent fundamentalist. But that was before Mitchell was arrested for kidnapping Elizabeth Smart and became a fixture in the news.

  Mitchell was not born into fundamentalism. He'd spent most of his life as a dutiful Latter-day Saint, and for three years he'd actually worked at the Salt Lake Temple, the epicenter of the establishment church, where he performed in ritual reenactments of sacred history. His wife, Wanda Barzee, was an upstanding Saint, as well, who for a period had played organ at the Mormon Tabernacle. One of Barzee's music teachers described the couple as “the epitome of righteousness, fulfilling every church duty and assignment.”

  Mitchell's unflagging zeal raised eyebrows even then, however. During his tenure as a temple worker, his job was to act the part of Satan in staged religious dramas. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Mitchell was so convincing in the role that “he made church officials uneasy.” Inevitably, his religious ardor brought him in contact with the fundamentalist fringe, which has a ubiquitous, if shadowy, presence up and down the Wasatch Front. By the mid-1990s Mitchell had grown firm in his conviction that the church leaders had erred, ruinously, more than a century before when they'd let the federal government force them to renounce polygamy. He and Barzee embraced Mormon Fundamentalism as passionately as they'd previously embraced mainstream Mormonism, and were officially cast out of the LDS Church.

  On Thanksgiving Day 2000, Mitchell announced to Barzee and anyone else who would listen that he had received a revelation in which the Lord commanded him to take seven additional wives. Subsequent divine commandments revealed that Mitchell's name was actually Immanuel David Isaiah, and that he had been placed on earth to serve as a mouthpiece for the Lord during the Last Days. Mitchell stopped shaving and cutting his hair, dressed in billowing robes fashioned after the garb of Old Testament prophets, and gained a reputation throughout the Salt Lake Valley as an eccentric but harmless street preacher. He often introduced himself as “God be with us,” and Barzee as “God adorn us.”

  A year after determining that God wanted him to marry a plurality of women, Mitchell crossed paths with a wealthy Mormon housewife named Lois Smart outside a downtown shopping mall; he told her his name was Immanuel. Smart, who had a soft spot for the destitute—particularly those as pious as Immanuel/Mitchell appeared to be—gave the robed holy man a five-dollar bill and offered him employment doing odd jobs around her lavish Salt Lake City home. Thus, in November 2001, did Mitchell end up working half a day at the Smart residence, helping Lois's husband, Ed Smart, patch their roof and rake leaves in their yard. During the five hours he spent on the $1.1 million property, Mitchell met the Smarts' fourteen-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and became infatuated with her angelic features and innocent demeanor. He decided that God intended her to be his polygamous wife.

  Over the months that followed, Mitchell obsessively stalked Elizabeth, spying on her from the lower slopes of the Wasatch Range, which rises directly above the Smarts' affluent Federal Heights neighborhood. Around two in the morning on June 5, 2002, Mitchell placed a chair beneath a small window that had been left ajar on the first floor, sliced through a flimsy screen, and squeezed through the opening into the Smarts' kitchen. Making his way through the vast, 6,600-square-foot house, he located the upstairs bedroom Elizabeth shared with her nine-year-old sister, Mary Katherine, and woke Elizabeth. Unbeknownst to Mitchell, he also woke Mary Katherine; feigning sleep, the younger girl stole a furtive glimpse at the intruder in the darkness and heard him threaten her sister. After telling Elizabeth to put on some shoes, Mitchell hustled her past the bedroom where the Smart parents were sleeping soundly, and exited the house.

  Mitchell marched Elizabeth at knifepoint four miles into the foothills west of her home. Upon reaching a secluded campsite in Dry Creek Canyon, he and Barzee conducted a weird, self-styled wedding ritual to “seal” the girl to Mitchell in “the new and everlasting covenant”—a Mormon euphemism for polygamous marriage. Barzee then demanded that Elizabeth remove her red pajamas. When the girl balked, Barzee explained that if she refused to cooperate, Mitchell would forcibly disrobe her. Faced with this prospect, Elizabeth complied, whereupon Mitchell consummated the marriage by raping his fourteen-year-old bride.

  Back in the Smart household, sister Mary Katherine had remained in her bed, too terrified by what she'd witnessed to get up and alert her parents. At least two hours passed before she finally summoned the courage to go to their bedroom and wake them. Horrified and trying to comprehend how his eldest daughter could have been snatched from her own bed, Ed Smart, even before he called the police, phoned the president of his local LDS stake, who in turn mobilized a search party of trusted Saints. Searchers immediately began combing the neighborhood for Elizabeth, but found no sign of her.

  For at least two months after her abduction, Elizabeth was held at a series of campsites hidden in a labyrinth of scrub-choked ravines above her home, close enough to hear would-be rescuers calling her name. Sometimes she was kept in a subterranean hollow covered with a lean-to; on other occasions her ankle was chained to a tree. Using his gift for fundamentalist rhetoric and adroitly manipulating the religious indoctrination Elizabeth had received since she was old enough to talk, Mitchell cowed the girl into becoming an utterly submissive polygamous concubine—buttressing his powers of theological persuasion with threats to kill her and her family. Raised to obey figures of Mormon authority unquestioningly, and to believe that LDS doctrine is the law of God, she would have been particularly susceptible to the dexterous fundamentalist spin Mitchell applied to familiar Mormon scripture. The white robes Mitchell and Barzee wore, and forced Elizabeth to wear, resembled the sacred robes she had donned with her family when they entered the Mormon temple. When Mitchell bullied Elizabeth into submitting to his carnal demands, he used the words of Joseph Smith—words she had been taught were handed down by God Himself—to phrase those demands. “Being brought up as she was made her especially vulnerable,” says Debbie Palmer, who is intimately acquainted with the coercive power of fundamentalist culture from her own upbringing in Bountiful. “Mitchell would never have been able to have such power over a non-Mormon girl.”

  Once he'd gained psychological control of Elizabeth, Mitchell felt sufficiently confident that she wouldn't flee or try to alert the police that he often took her to public places, albeit with her blond braids covered in a head scarf and her face hidden behind a burqa-like veil. In September, Mitchell even brought Elizabeth, thus disguised, to a lively, beer-fueled party in downtown Salt Lake attended by more than a hundred revelers (most of whom were not particularly pious), where she was photographed by one partygoer but not recognized. On at least one occasion while Elizabeth was under Mitchell's control, according to one of her uncles, for the better part of a day Mitchell left the girl “completely by herself, but she didn't try to run away.”

  On July 24, acting with customary brazenness, Mitchell attempted to kidnap a fifteen-year-old cousin of Eliza
beth's. Resorting to the same method he'd used previously, Mitchell placed a chair beneath an open window, cut through its screen with his knife, and was preparing to crawl into the girl's home when he inadvertently knocked some framed pictures onto the floor, creating a racket that woke up the household and caused him to flee. Because the police were convinced at the time that they already had the prime suspect in custody—another former laborer for the Smarts, Richard Ricci, who had a fishy alibi and a voluminous criminal history going back thirty years—it didn't occur to the cops that the sliced screen and chair left at the scene of this attempted break-in were significant clues. They failed to give serious consideration to the possibility that Elizabeth's abductor might be someone other than Ricci and might still be on the loose, attempting to kidnap other girls.

  Late one night in October, Mary Katherine—the younger sister who was the only outside witness to the crime—abruptly told Ed Smart, “Dad, I think I know who it is.” She was pretty sure that the person she had seen abducting Elizabeth was the small bearded man who had helped fix the roof—the self-proclaimed prophet who had called himself Immanuel. Smart reported his daughter's belated disclosure to the Salt Lake City police, but because Mary Katherine had waited four months to identify the perpetrator, detectives didn't give it much credence. They nevertheless worked with the Smart family to produce three composite sketches of Immanuel, based on their hazy memories of what he had looked like when he'd worked around their house in November 2001. The Smarts thought the last of these renderings was a reasonable likeness and wanted to go public with it, but the cops refused, arguing that it wasn't accurate enough and would only inundate them with false leads. Besides, they still thought Ricci (who had died in jail on August 27 of a brain hemorrhage) was the culprit.


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