When her husband said God had ordered him to take another wife, Wanda Barzee believed him. When he stole a teenage girl and dragged her up a mountain, Barzee helped keep her captive for nine months. When he raped and tortured the girl, Barzee never intervened.
In 2009, Barzee pleaded guilty in federal court to helping her husband, former street preacher Brian David Mitchell, kidnap and hold 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart hostage. But Barzee, 72, will be released from prison on Sept. 19, after the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole announced Tuesday that it had miscalculated her prison sentence, board spokesman Greg Johnson told the Salt Lake Tribune. After her release, she will be under federal supervision for five years.
“It is incomprehensible how someone who has not cooperated with her mental health evaluations or risk assessments and someone who did not show up to her own parole hearing can be released into our community,” Smart said in a statement Wednesday. She added that she would comment further after she had had time to digest the news of her captor's imminent release.
Along with her role in Smart's kidnapping and captivity, Barzee also pleaded guilty in Utah court to the attempted kidnapping of Smart's cousin, Olivia, whom Mitchell also wanted to take as a wife, and was sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. Barzee finished her federal sentence in 2016, and was transferred to a Utah prison to serve her state sentence. The parole board had said Barzee was slated for release in January 2024. But according to her attorney, Scott Williams, Barzee was supposed to be serving both sentences concurrently, and her time is now up. Williams did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post.
“I'm happy that they were willing to reconsider,” Williams said of the parole board's reversal, according to reporting from KSL.com.
Now estranged from Mitchell, Barzee painted him throughout his trial, as a “great deceiver” who manipulated her through their shared faith. She met Mitchell at a group-therapy session run by the Mormon Church after leaving her abusive ex-husband, but the comfort he offered her turned quickly to terror, she testified. A professional church organist, Barzee described the early years of their marriage as “hellish"and said he made her stop playing music, give up attending church and even controlled what she watched on TV.
Once, Mitchell ordered Barzee to cook her 14-year-old daughter's rabbit, Peaches, and feed it to her for dinner. She complied, Barzee testified.
Their life together improved, she said, once she became more obedient. She abandoned her six children from her previous marriage and focused only on Mitchell. She told jurors that Mitchell claimed God had ordered him to become polygamous in 2001 and that he hoped to amass 350 wives. When Barzee collapsed in his arms, weeping in protest, she said Mitchell consoled her with a blessing, telling her his plan would make her “Mother of Zion.”
Over and over, Barzee claimed she'd been horrified by her husband's ideas but said she had not wanted to go against God's will.
"Being perfect included obeying him, no matter how much you didn't want to do it, regardless of how much it hurt [me],” Barzee testified.
Mitchell is serving a life sentence for kidnapping and abusing Smart. He was diagnosed with multiple mental disorders, including pedophilia and antisocial personality disorder, ABC reported in 2011.
After she pleaded guilty in 2010, Barzee apologized for the agony she had caused Smart and her family.
"It is my hope that you will be able to find it in your heart to forgive me one day.”
In her book, “My Story,” Smart described waking in her bedroom in June 2002 as Mitchell stood over her, pressing a knife against her throat. One of her little sisters was asleep in bed beside her.
"Get out of bed,” Smart remembered Mitchell whispering in the darkness. “Or I'll kill you and your family.”
Mitchell marched Smart up a mountain to a campsite he and Barzee had spent weeks preparing for her arrival. Smart was still wearing her red silk pajamas. In the days and months that followed, Smart was starved, tied up with steel cables, kept in a dugout full of mice and spiders. She was forbidden by her Mormon faith to use intoxicants but was forced to take drugs and drink alcohol. In place of her given name, her captors referred to her only as “Esther” or “Shearjashub.” She was raped almost every day. After the first rape, Smart wrote, she wondered whether her family would even want her back, or if Mitchell had ruined her.
Barzee “wasn't an innocent bystander,” Smart wrote in her book. She was a “wounded and evil woman” who never tried to protect Smart or ease her suffering. Although she was jealous and hated to share her husband, she followed his every order, Smart wrote.
Smart's nine-month nightmare ended in March 2003 when Mitchell took her on a supply trip to Walmart in Sandy, Utah. As they entered the store, Smart stopped by a board covered with pictures of missing children, searching for her own face among them. Mitchell tore her away, whispering that she had been forgotten, that no one cared about her anymore. Then a shopper recognized her from “America's Most Wanted” and called the police.
An officer pulled her aside and asked her whether she was Elizabeth Smart, explaining that her parents desperately wanted her home. She struggled to speak, haunted by all the times Mitchell had sworn to hunt down her family and kill them if she ever tried to escape.
"I am Elizabeth,” she finally said.
Smart, now 30, is a child-safety advocate, working to keep children from being kidnapped and harmed as she was. She is married now, with two children of her own. She is expecting a third in November. Her father, Ed, said his daughter fears that Barzee might come near her or her children after being released, according to reporting by the Deseret News.
Although Barzee turned on Mitchell at trial, she still follows his false teachings, her sister, Evelyn Camp, told KUTV after Barzee skipped out on her own parole hearing in June. She totes around Mitchell's handwritten “bible,” Camp said, and sends letters full of scripture almost weekly. Apparently, she is still convinced that she is the “Mother of Zion.”
"She thinks her laws are God's laws,” Camp told KUTV. “Nothing's changed.”
This story has been updated to correctly name the newspaper, The Salt Lake Tribune. It was incorrectly referred to as The Salt Lake Star Tribune.