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Elizabeth Smart, who survived a brutal kidnapping, says she was sexually assaulted on an airplane

Elizabeth Smart. (Washington Post illustration; Michael Kovac/Getty Images)

Elizabeth Smart was asleep on a plane, one of the places where she has always felt safe, when she says a man seated next to her put his hand between her legs.

She says she woke to him rubbing her inner thigh, and froze.

The last time anyone touched her without her permission, Smart would later recall, was when she was abducted at knifepoint as a 14-year-old, held captive for nine brutal months and raped nearly every day.

That saga began in 2002 and lasted until March 2003, when her captors were arrested in Utah, her home state. Their federal trials five years later generated international news coverage, when Smart testified publicly about the horrifying conditions she was held under.

Now, more than a decade later, Smart is speaking out again about another sexual assault, which she said occurred on a Delta Air Lines flight last summer.

“Do I just have a big badge on my forehead that says ‘Easy Prey’ or ‘Victim’? Because I’m sick of it,” Smart said in an interview with “CBS This Morning,” broadcast Thursday.

“I’ve never been worried, I’ve never felt threatened on an airplane,” Smart said. “Until now.”

Smart is a high-profile victim of a crime the FBI has said is on the rise: sexual assault aboard an airplane. In 2018, the bureau described a disturbing, and familiar, pattern: A predatory person, usually a man, touches a woman or unaccompanied minor while she sleeps. Victims, usually sitting in middle or window seats, report waking up with the assailant’s hand beneath their clothes or underwear.

In 2014, there were 38 reported cases of in-flight sexual assault, according to federal government data. In 2017, there were 63 — a 66 percent increase. Yet those numbers are far from comprehensive, as they comprise only the cases reported to the FBI, and there is no official clearinghouse for in-flight assault data.

Last month, a woman on an Atlanta-to-Detroit Spirit Airlines flight woke up to a man with his hand down the back of her pants. That incident echoed a 2018 assault on another Detroit-bound Spirit Airlines flight, when a man unbuttoned a woman’s shirt and put his hand down her pants as she slept, her head rested against the plane window. The assailant in that case was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to nine years in prison. In November, another man was charged with sexual assault after a woman said he grabbed her crotch on an American Airlines flight.

Smart said the assault jolted her awake, and she looked at the man, expecting him to explain himself — or, at least, to apologize. But he said nothing, she said. Smart reported the incident to Delta, and the airline is cooperating in an ongoing FBI investigation, she said. A representative for Delta did not respond to a request for comment.

Smart told CBS that she doesn’t blame the airline. When “This Morning” host Gayle King asked whether she intended to press charges, Smart replied, “I don’t want him to be preying on other girls.”

Smart’s husband suggested she train with a family friend to learn self-defense tactics — an idea she said eventually inspired her to start Smart Defense, a self-defense class for women and girls. She said such training might have helped her when she was abducted.

In her book, “My Story,” Smart described waking in her bedroom in June 2002 as Brian David 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,” Mitchell whispered to her in the darkness. “Or I’ll kill you and your family.”

Mitchell marched Smart up a mountain to a campsite he and his wife, Wanda Barzee, had spent weeks setting up, preparing for Smart’s arrival. She was still wearing her red, silk pajamas.

In the days and months that followed, Smart was starved, tied up with steel cables and kept in a dugout full of mice and spiders. She 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.

Smart’s nine-month nightmare ended when Mitchell took her on a supply trip to Walmart in Sandy, Utah. A shopper recognized her from “America’s Most Wanted” and called the police.

Mitchell is serving a life sentence for the kidnapping and abuse, while Barzee was released in 2018, after 15 years behind bars.

In her interview this week, Smart said she hopes more teens take her class. She wants to give them, she said, something she was looking for during her months of captivity: an opportunity to get away.

Taylor Telford contributed to this report.

Read more:

An airline employee took a woman’s number from her bag tag, then harassed her via text, lawsuit says

Spirit passenger who says a man sexually assaulted her as she slept blasts airline’s response

Jury convicts man for sexually assaulting a woman on a plane as his wife sat next to him

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