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Exclusive: Kidnap girl's message of hope to Kate and Gerry McCann

HOMEPAGE NEWS REPORTS INDEX MISSING T.O.T.L. FILES NEWS JULY 2008
Original Source: SUNDAY MIRROR: FRIDAY 06 June 2008
By Deborah Sherwood And Dennis Ellam 6/07/2008
 

These are the words that will give fresh heart to Kate and Gerry McCann this week: "Don't give up... because

Elizabeth Smart (Pic:SM)

 miracles DO happen."

It's a simple enough message, but what's important is that it comes from the one person who is living proof that there will always be hope for missing Madeleine.

As the McCanns wait to hear if Portuguese police have abandoned the search for their daughter, a pretty young woman called Elizabeth Smart has broken a long silence to talk about her own childhood ordeal.

Elizabeth, 20, reveals how she too was kidnapped in the night and was missing for months on end. She tells how her parents came under suspicion, just as Gerry and Kate McCann have.

Her case bears striking similarities to the baffling disappearance of little Maddie... but with a final instalment. It ended happily. Elizabeth came home.

"I feel so lucky to be here, to have come through this unscarred," she says. "While I was gone I didn't know if I would ever be found, but I had hopes and dreams that I would.

They tell me I am an icon of hope. I just wish everyone could be as lucky as I was.

"Madeleine is a beautiful little girl and I can only imagine how her parents must feel, to see the case closing on their daughter - I feel so heartbroken for them.

"But look at me... I'm proof that good things do happen in this world."

Six years ago when she was 14, Elizabeth went to sleep in the bedroom she shared with her 10-year-old sister Mary Catherine - and the next morning she was gone. There was no evidence left behind and searches of the countryside around the family's home in Salt Lake City, Utah, produced not a single clue.

For a while her own parents Ed and Lois were suspects, like Gerry and Kate. And just like the McCanns, they carried on defiantly, campaigning to keep her face and name in the media.

Missing Elizabeth dominated the American TV networks as speculation raged - where had she been taken, how had anyone managed to spirit her away, was she alive or dead?

Months later, the police declared they were winding down their investigation.

And then, after nine agonising months, as suddenly as she had vanished Elizabeth was found again.

She was spotted on the street with her kidnapper, 54-year-old Brian David Mitchell, a drifter and a religious fanatic, who had done odd jobs at the Smarts' home.

The mystery that gripped the country was solved at last, and, little by little, details emerged of her terrible ordeal.

Mitchell - who called himself the Prophet Immanuel - and his wife Wanda Barzee, 53, had kept Elizabeth chained to a tree in a camp in the woods, where they starved and abused her.

Amazingly she was held captive just three miles from home - but the massive search of the locality in the first days of her abduction still failed to find her. Months later her captors took Elizabeth to spend the winter in California, living in an abandoned trailer. They moved back to Utah in the spring.

"In those nine months they threatened to kill me, and my family too if I managed to escape," says Elizabeth.

"There were several times when I tried, but I couldn't cut through my chains.

"All I had to use was a vegetable knife. I was scared that I might stay a prisoner there for the rest of my life. I went into survival mode and did whatever was needed to stay alive.

"I reminded myself that no matter what they did or how they tried to change me, I would always be Ed and Lois Smart's daughter. My parents would always love me - I knew that, no matter what."

The night Elizabeth was kidnapped, Mitchell had crept into the house and seized her at knifepoint. He must have partly disturbed her sister because months later Mary Catherine seeing flashbacks of him taking Elizabeth away.

Mitchell forced her to walk through the woods in her pyjamas to a makeshift campsite, where there was no plumbing and little shelter.

When Elizabeth wasn't tethered to the tree, the couple hid her in a hole in the ground, covered with wooden boards.

"I had no idea what was going to happen to me each day," she says. "It really depended on how Mitchell was feeling, what thought or theme was in his head.

"He didn't strike me or hit me, but there was always the threat that I would be killed. Every time I did something wrong, he would make my life that little bit harder.

"I was given mostly bread to eat, with the occasional piece of fruit. In all those nine months I wasn't allowed to take a bath. They dressed me in a white robe and a white headscarf, with a cloth across my face. Often they wore robes as well - that was all part of their so-called religion.

"Sometimes I heard police helicopters overhead, and people who were searching for me calling my name, but I was too terrified to cry out."

As Ed and Lois, both devoted church goers, vowed they would never abandon the search for their daughter, she was enduring a daily struggle to survive.

It was only when months later Mary Catherine started having vivid flashbacks of the kidnap that a new wave of publicity was started. Pictures of the missing girl and photofits of "Immanuel" began appearing in the newspapers.

Within days, several reports came in that a couple with a girl had been seen on a street in Sandy, 18 miles from Salt Lake City. The girl was wearing a red wig over her tightlybraided blonde hair, and she said her name was Augustine.

When a police officer approached and asked her, "Are you Elizabeth Smart?", she denied it.

But he followed her and asked again, and she replied in the Biblical style of language that her captors had been teaching her. "If thou sayeth," she nodded.

Elizabeth was safe, and soon in the arms of her overjoyed family.

Two weeks later she took them to see the remote place where she had been a prisoner.

"I felt triumphant - it wasn't a secret any more," she says. "When I was held against my will, nobody in the world knew I was there. Now nobody could make me hide.

"I'm not sorry any more that this happened to me, because it was an experience that made me grow up."

Today, Elizabeth is at university studying music. When she's home on holiday, she still sleeps in the same bed where her ordeal began.

She helps to counsel other families of missing children - the same work that her parents took on full-time through a specialist centre in Washington. Her dad Ed, 53, met the McCanns when they visited the States last summer and they regularly keep in touch.

Madeleine was abducted at the age of three from her bed in a holiday apartment in Portugal last May where she was left sleeping with her younger brother and sister while Gerry, 39, and Kate, 40, went to a nearby restaurant.

A worldwide search has failed to find her, and Portuguese police are reported to be about to wind up the case.

Ed says he really sympathised with the McCanns when they too were suspected of their child's abduction.

At one stage in the search for Elizabeth, police insisted he take a lie detector test.

He says: "I was talking with Kate at dinner one night and she asked me how I kept up hope while Elizabeth was away. I told her I always believed my child was out there. One day she would walk back into our lives. I never gave up thinking that.

"Kate feels the same way about Madeleine, and I told her to hold on to that hope - it's the only way."

He has also been able to advise the couple about the strain put on their own relationship.

"The McCanns have become victims on their own," Ed says. "They are keeping strong, but when you are under this kind of stress it certainly brings out your differences.

"But they are sticking together and keeping a routine for the sake of their other children, just as we did.

"I know they won't stop until they find their little girl."

After Elizabeth's return, Mitchell and Barzee were charged with kidnap and sexual assault. But they have yet to stand trial as the legal arguments continue over whether or not they are mentally ill.

"I'd like a conclusion, but on the other hand if they stay in hospital for the rest of their lives then they can't get to me or anyone else," Elizabeth says. "I do believe that if they were free they would come after me again.

"But I never dwell on the past. They have taken too much of my life already. From the day I came home, I haven't wasted time looking back."

I thought I'd be a prisoner for ever.. they said I'd die if I escaped

I clung on to the fact that my parents loved me.. no matter what

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