He roamed the streets in a long white robe and unruly beard, a beggar clutching a wooden staff, convinced he was a savior and prophet.
Banished from the Mormon church, estranged from his family, he had sold his possessions and survived for years by relying on the kindness of strangers. Those who crossed his path here say he sounded delusional but seemed harmless, a lost soul who spent his days reciting rambling passages from his own homespun gospel, a 27-page pamphlet he called "The Book of Emmanuel David Isaiah."
His real name was Brian David Mitchell. But that was from a life long gone.
"Everybody knew of him," said Jeff St. Romain, president of the local chapter of the Volunteers of America, which aids people living on the streets of Salt Lake City. "He was very resistant to any of the services we tried to offer. He only wanted to talk about his religious beliefs. Sometimes he referred to himself as Jesus. He was always ranting and raving. But no one who tried to help him ever said he was scary or acted threatening."
That was before he was caught walking along a suburban main street near here last week with 15-year-old Elizabeth Smart, kidnapped at knifepoint from her home one night last June. Now, accused of that crime, Mitchell appears more sinister than sad.
Authorities say that for nine months, first camped in the rugged foothills that surround Salt Lake City then wandering the outskirts of San Diego, Mitchell held Elizabeth, a churchgoing teenager who plays the harp, as a physical and psychological prisoner, possibly because as a devout believer in polygamy he wanted another wife.
Elizabeth, showing no visible scars from the ordeal, is back home with her large, loving family. Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, 57, who accompanied him and the teenager, are being held here without bail. The portrait emerging of Mitchell, 49, shows a life that had been unraveling for more than a decade and apparently had reached messianic, dangerous extremes.
He had gone from being a fresh-faced stalwart of his local church ward who sometimes counseled high school students to a wild-eyed, unkempt gypsy spouting a religion that most listeners characterized as gibberish. From steady work in factories to scraping by on odd jobs such as the one the Smart family gave him tending their roof and raking their yard on a fall day in 2001. From never having a criminal record to allegedly abducting a girl from the bed where she slept.
By some accounts, though, Mitchell's life had long been turbulent. His father, Shirl Mitchell, has told reporters in recent days that his son was a "classic black sheep," unable to make many friends and forced to spend a stint in juvenile detention as a teenager after exposing himself to a child in their neighborhood. A month before Elizabeth's kidnapping, Mitchell's mother won a restraining order against him and Barzee after the couple allegedly threatened to "destroy" her. Mitchell, relatives say, had spoken of experimenting with LSD in the Utah desert. He also fled Salt Lake City at one point to flirt with anti-tax militias in Idaho. And he and Barzee were excommunicated from the Mormon church for what its leaders this past week called "activity promoting bizarre teachings."
Still, many here say that Mitchell also often displayed a gentle, engaging personality that bore no hint of menace and brought him all manner of mercy.
After he was arrested and jailed for six days for attempting to break into a San Diego church last month, Mitchell appeared before a judge. A videotape of that proceeding reveals the puzzling contradictions of Mitchell's personality. He sounds polite and apologetic, saying the incident had occurred only because he had made the mistake of getting drunk the night before for the first time in 22 years. He likened his brief experience behind bars to "Jonah getting swallowed by the whale" and said that it had jolted him into realizing he had to live a better life.
"It's turned me around," Mitchell told the judge.
But he was using a fake name, Michael Jensen. He described himself as a minister. And he made reference to Elizabeth as his daughter.
Mitchell grew up in the Salt Lake area in a Mormon household, the third of six children raised by his mother after his father left the family. Mitchell attended two different high schools, but there is no record he graduated.
He first married at 19; his bride was 16. That union ended a few years later in divorce. He married again, had four children, and got divorced. Next he met Barzee, a onetime church organist who had an angry breakup with her first husband and her children in the early 1980s, and whose life appeared to be falling into disarray. At times in recent years, Barzee had been seen on the streets of Salt Lake City cuddling dolls.
Mitchell and Barzee were wed in the Salt Lake City Mormon Temple in 1986, a clear sign that their earlier marriages had ended in formal divorce and that they were in good standing in the church. Marrying in the temple is an honor for Mormons. An elder from the couple's parish must sanction such a request.
Barzee was 41, eight years older than Mitchell. They continued living in Salt Lake City and had no children. He was a member of his parish council who loved to argue about religion. Early in the 1990s, Mitchell joined a group, sometimes called "fundamentalist Mormons," that believes God intended men to have more than one wife.
The mainstream church rejects this view, but it is still in evidence in Utah. The state attorney general estimates that there are more than 25,000 polygamist families in Utah, and thousands more in Arizona, along the Utah border north of Grand Canyon. Mormon founders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were polygamists, but the church banned the practice in the 1890s as part of a deal to win Utah's admission into the union.
Before he was ousted, officials here say, Mitchell had been trying to convince members of his local parish that polygamy was an essential Mormon belief. He would go on to promote that idea as a "blessing" in a cryptic screed that he described as his own Book of Mormon. And police now say they are investigating whether Elizabeth's kidnapping was part of a larger scheme by Mitchell to take seven young wives -- including one of her teenage cousins.
An attempted break-in at the cousin's home a few weeks after Elizabeth was kidnapped was foiled when family members heard disturbing noises and began shouting. But in both instances, police say, someone had stood on a chair and cut through a window screen with a knife.
After Mitchell and Barzee sold their belongings and quit work, they began drifting among homeless shelters in Salt Lake City and panhandling. His religious fervor grew. One of his stepsons has told reporters that Mitchell awoke in the middle of the night several years ago saying that he had heard the voices of angels inside his head.
Vicki Cottrell, a mental health worker who knows the couple and who visited Barzee in jail a few days ago, told the Deseret News here that she believes each of them is suffering from severe mental illness.
"This is what people with schizophrenia do," she said. "They think they're God or Noah or Moses."
Others acquainted with Mitchell say that while he usually was not belligerent, his mood could take sharp, dark turns. Last fall, Mitchell and Barzee brought Elizabeth with them to a block party near the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. At first, guests there recall, he was talkative and friendly. But later, he stood on a chair in his white robe and began haranguing guests, saying they were damned to hell if they did not follow Jesus.
Eventually, the hosts persuaded him to stop preaching and asked him to leave. Barzee and Elizabeth, who also were wearing white robes and whose faces were shrouded, followed him out the door.
Sanchez reported from Los Angeles. Special correspondent Kimberly Edds also contributed to this report.