Space & Innovation

Elizabeth Smart Case Busts Abduction Myths

The sensational and bizarre Smart case is in many ways a very typical case of child abduction and abuse.

In what has become one of the most notorious kidnapping cases of the past few decades, Elizabeth Smart, then a 14-year-old girl, was abducted on June 5, 2002, from her Salt Lake City bedroom.

The case made international news as police searched for the blonde teen, and tips poured in from both psychics and the public. For most of a year her fate was unknown, but she was recovered March 12, 2003, living with a disturbed preacher and his wife less than twenty miles from her home.

Nearly a decade after Smart was taken, her alleged abductor, Brian David Mitchell, is on trial and Smart has begun testifying in court about her kidnapping experience. Along the way, the Smart case has busted several popular myths about abductions. For example:

Stranger Kidnappings

Though the public believes that strangers are likely to kidnap children, most child abductions are committed by someone the child knows-usually a parent or friend of the family. This was the case with Smart; her mother had met Mitchell on a Salt Lake City street, and had asked him to do work around their house. Mitchell got to know the family, and they even hired him to repair their roof. Like most child abductors, the perpetrator was someone the victim knew.

Sex Offenders

Just as strangers are widely (and mistakenly) believed to commit the typical kidnapping, they are also popularly thought to commit the typical sex offense on children.

In fact, Smart's case was used as an example of the need to bolster sex offender laws. In July 2006, Smart and John Walsh (of TV's America's Most Wanted) were instrumental in helping pass the most extensive national sex offender bill in history. According to Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the bill's sponsor, Smart's "abduction by a convicted sex offender" might have been prevented had his bill been law.

However Sen. Hatch and Smart were wrong: like most people who abduct children, Brian Mitchell was not a convicted sex offender and her abduction could not have been prevented by the sex offender bill she endorsed. As in most child sexual assaults, the perpetrator was not a convicted sex offender.

Psychic Detectives

Many people believe that psychic detectives have helped find both living and dead missing persons for police. In fact, there has never been a proven case of a missing person being located on the basis of psychic information.

During the nine months of being kidnapped and repeatedly sexually assaulted, psychics failed to find Smart. In the weeks and months after her abduction, over 1,000 alleged psychics (including Alison DuBois of TV's Medium fame) offered their visions, information, and evidence.

These tips, like all the rest, were investigated and followed up. Not a single piece of evidence from all those psychics led to Smart's recovery; instead her abductors were recognized by two alert couples in a Salt Lake City suburb who alerted police with their cell phones.

Elizabeth Smart's kidnapping and sexual assault actually help to debunk the "stranger danger" myth - that kids need to be taught to be wary of strangers only.

The sensational and bizarre Smart case is, ironically, in many ways a very typical case of child abduction and abuse.

Photo: Elizabeth Smart after being reunited with her family in 2003 after being kidnapped. credit: AP Photo