Smart Case Prompts Renewed Scrutiny of Polygamy (April 2003)

Self-proclaimed polygamist prophet Brian Mitchell, with his wife Wanda Barzee, was arrested on March 18 for the abduction of missing Mormon teenager Elizabeth Smart, who disappeared June 5, 2002, from her home in Salt Lake City.

“We are not dealing with just a religious zealot, we are dealing with a predatory sex offender,” said District Attorney David Yocom, in announcing charges of aggravated kidnapping and sexual assault. They are also charged with burglary and attempted aggravated kidnapping in an attempt to abduct Elizabeth’s 18-year-old cousin last July.

Mitchell, an excommunicated Mormon, was a religious drifter and panhandler, who apparently became obsessed with the young teen after he was invited by Elizabeth’s mother to do odd-jobs one afternoon at their home, seven months before the abduction.
Although the family credited “prayer” with her return, they had also recently turned to “America’s Most Wanted” TV show to publicize photos of the suspect, which almost immediately resulted in Mitchell’s apprehension.

Mitchell told an attorney, Larry Long, that he was called by God to take Elizabeth as a wife. Mitchell’s 27-page manifesto as “David Emmanuel Isaiah” espouses polygamy. Mitchell declares himself a messenger of God, descended from a line of Mormon prophets. He plotted to acquire seven additional “young wives”–because young girls would be more “obedient.”

Cult expert Steven Alan Hassan told Associated Press that Mitchell probably made use of their shared Mormon background, using religious indoctrination, after Elizabeth’s knife-point abduction, rape and imprisonment, to brainwash her. Elizabeth was renamed “Augustine,” was apparently instructed to speak to no one but her abductors, and was hidden by her veils in plain sight, with Barzee as a role model of wifely submission.

Barzee told a friend that Elizabeth’s abduction was fulfillment of divine “revelation that the celestial law of polygamy” had returned. Witnesses in San Diego, where the trio went during part of her abduction, recall Mitchell hollering “Jesus Christ is Lord” and telling them he was “God.”

The case has refocused attention on the polygamous roots of the Mormon faith. Although the official church disowned the practice of polygamy in 1890 as a condition of Utah statehood, it continues to spawn polygamous colonies. A temple ceremony still permits Mormon men to choose polygamous partners for the “afterlife.” Mormon and Old Testament scripture both sanction polygamy.

“The Mormon community is alive with one essential position of faith, that God continues to reveal new things, new doctrines, new words,” historian D. Michael Quinn told the Salt Lake Tribune.

Polygamy has figured in several high-profile crime cases in Utah:

Ervil Morel LeBaron executed two rival polygamists to control his “Lamb of God” church in the late 1970s.

John Singer, a German-born convert to the LDS Church, died in a shootout with law enforcement officers at his Utah home following a polygamous marriage.

Addam Swapp, who considered Singer a martyr and married two of his daughters, had a revelation from God to blow up the Marion LDS stake center in 1988 to bring Singer back from the dead. A 13-day siege ended in a shoot-out with Swapp wounded and a corrections officer killed.

Dan Lafferty, after joining a polygamous cult, said God directed him and his brother to slay his sister-in-law and her infant daughter on Pioneer Day, 1984.

Rachal David threw her seven children off the 11th floor balcony of a hotel at 200 South West Temple, Salt Lake City, in 1978, killing all but one. The widow of self-proclaimed polygamist prophet Immanuel David, who had converted to Mormonism in the early 1960s, then jumped to her own death.

The Smart case has also renewed scrutiny of polygamous pockets of the West. At least 6,000 polygamist practitioners live in northern Arizona and Southern Utah, where sexual abuse and incest of young girls is common. Polygamy has been publicly practiced in Hildale, Utah, and the adjacent Arizona town of Colorado City for more than 70 years.

Warren Jeffs leads a renegade branch of the Mormon Church, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, founded in Hildale, by his father Rulon Jeffs, who died last September at 92 and had 70 wives. Jeffs, who has at least 14 wives, is accused of having sex with an underage girl who gave birth to a daughter in 2000.

The State of Arizona filed felony sexual misconduct charges for the first time in 50 years against a polygamist from the Colorado City area in February. Orson William Black Jr, who considers himself an archangel who communicates directly with God, was charged with five felony counts of sexual misconduct with two girls.

The Phoenix New Times reports “hundreds of teenage girls–some younger than the 15-year-old Smart–have been joined with older men in legally unsanctioned ‘spiritual’ marriages performed by FLDS elders in the Colorado City-Hildale area.”

Some breakaway Mormon groups endorse incest. A 16-year-old girl was badly beaten in Idaho after running away from an arranged marriage to her uncle, David Ortell Kingston, 33. Prosecuted polygamist Tom Green married two mother-daughter pairs, and began a sexual relationship with one wife when she was 13.

Most polygamous relationships–and even many practitioners, who often do not have Social Security numbers–are undocumented. Government estimates of polygamists in Utah range from 30,000 to 50,000, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Freedom From Religion Foundation