(Editor's note: The following is a first-person account filed by Daily Times staffer Alysa Landry, who explains her personal emotions and connection to the Elizabeth Smart story that was featured last week in the national media spotlight.)

 

SALT LAKE CITY — The edges of my silver Saint Jude pendant dug into my palm Tuesday as I fidgeted in the witness box in United States District Court.

I am not Catholic. I bought the pendant, which depicts the patron saint of hopeless causes, as a humorous good luck token.

I am an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is my affiliation with this church, known as the Mormons, that ultimately led me to the federal courthouse located just blocks from the church's Temple Square headquarters.

The most recent chapter of this story began last month when a ghost from my past tapped my shoulder and served a subpoena commanding me to appear in court Dec. 1 as a fact witness in the competency hearing of Brian David Mitchell.

Mitchell, 56, is accused of kidnapping and repeatedly raping 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart in 2002. He was a drifter who called himself Immanuel David Isaiah and weaseled his way into hearts and wallets by preaching the gospel of Christ.

For the last seven years, Mitchell avoided trial by singing hymns and crying repentance in court until being forcibly removed.

The competency hearing, which continues this week in Salt Lake City, will determine whether Mitchell can stand trial. If he is found competent, prosecutors will seek life in prison without the possibility of parole.

I became acquainted with this man and his now-estranged wife, Wanda Barzee, in 1997 when I was engaged to the son of another self-proclaimed prophet. Together, the two religious fanatics practiced and marketed what they believed to be the science behind the miracles Christ performed as documented in the New Testament.

Barzee, who was medicated until she regained mental competency, pleaded guilty last month to her role in the kidnapping. She will serve 15 years in prison.

Mitchell, who was removed from the courtroom Tuesday morning before I testified, prophesied seven years ago of his own demise. Writing in his 27-page manifesto, a rambling supposed revelation from God, Mitchell revealed his divine name and foresaw that he would "pour out his soul unto death, and (would be) numbered with the criminals."

 

Legal pointillism
U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman's goal in the competency hearing was to paint a picture of Mitchell's entire life using a "legal pointillism" technique.

"Each of you has a dot to contribute," Tolman told a group of witnesses lounging on couches and chairs Monday in room 400 at the courthouse. "(Mitchell) wants us to be close, to just see the dots. We're standing back and viewing the big picture."

Prosecutors called 29 witnesses, including four experts, to testify during the 10-day hearing. I was numbered among Mitchell's family members, doctors and technicians from the state mental hospital and local leaders of the church who had counseled or disciplined Mitchell.

My contribution, or dot, was a narrative of the five or so months Mitchell lived at my fiance's parents' house in Orem, Utah, a place I visited daily and a home Michael Welner, a federally renowned forensic psychologist, called "an al-Qaeda training ground for fundamentalist Mormons."

I told of the mind games, power struggles and escalating violence in the house. I also told of Mitchell's self-important and demeaning attitudes and his mission to reinstate the laws of polygamy and consecration, both of which were abandoned during the church's early history.

Mainstream religions as a whole had gone horribly awry, Mitchell believed, and he felt he was called by God to save all who would follow him.

I waited 12 years for someone to listen to my story, but I was not prepared for the vulnerability or isolation I felt after testifying.

My testimony opened a wound carved more than a decade ago when I, then a teenager, made what seemed to be a logical decision. I got engaged to a man of my faith who had served a two-year mission and promised to take me to the temple, the holiest of Mormon places, to be married for eternity.

Early in the relationship, however, my fiance, along with his family and Mitchell, began to preach of plural marriage. Women were treated as objects, violence was rampant and members of this "family cult" regulated dress standards, diets, conversations and even thoughts.

When the prosecution asked me Tuesday how Mitchell treated his wife, I answered, "Like a sheep." I also told the court that my involvement in the cult was pivotal, creating distinct "before" and "after" periods of my history and influencing every day of my life since.

 

The healing power of words
As a professional journalist for the past decade, my main role in courthouses is an observer. I have covered all kinds of trials, from murder to bankruptcy and from molestation to child custody.

But as I sat in the witness box Tuesday, I felt absolutely powerless. The subpoena had "commanded" me to appear, and I swore to "tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."

As a journalist, my pen gave me power. Without that pen, I was terrified.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Elizabeth's parents, Ed and Lois Smart, seated in the audience. Most of the remaining seats were occupied by members of the media, pens scurrying over paper in their rush to capture the perfect quotes.

The judge called a lunch recess after the defense completed a short cross-examination of my testimony. As I left the courtroom, the media descended on me, aggressive and hungry.

I knew that feeling. A source who refuses to answer questions can be a reporter's worst nightmare, especially in a high-profile case such as this one.

Reporters' brains are wired differently. With every story, they face the fear of returning empty-handed to expectant editors, the risk of not getting the latest news to the public, the possibility that the FBI will remove witnesses from the courthouse via an unmarked car parked near a basement door.

I saw the frustration on the reporters' faces as they waited for me to exit the courthouse. I hope they saw the relief on mine when a victim advocate with the FBI whisked me off to the elevator and pushed the down button.

I felt like two people during the short trip to the basement and the walk to an unmarked white Jeep. As a reporter, I still wanted to tell the story. As a victim and witness, however, the last thing I wanted was a microphone shoved to my lips.

Every aspect of my life today is a response — good or bad — to the violence I experienced 12 years ago. I escaped this cult in 1999, but not without emotional and physical scars. I went to school to become a journalist to give a voice to people who suffer. It was a voice I never had, a voice that finally was heard Tuesday.

Attorneys, psychologists and detectives interviewed me for a total of about 10 hours during the last five months as prosecutors prepared for the competency hearing. Several times during each of the interviews, and in brief follow-up calls, each of these men asked about my emotional state.

Immediately after stepping from the witness box Tuesday, FBI agent Eric Lerohl asked me again if I was OK. I wasn't. My breath was quick and my fingers were beginning to spasm from lack of oxygen.

Within minutes, Lerohl had me reclined on a couch and called a victim advocate, who stayed with me for four hours following my testimony, ultimately dropping me off at the airport for my return flight to New Mexico.

I never have seen that happen in a newsroom. Often, it doesn't happen in police stations or courtrooms, either.

In this case, an obvious disparity existed between law enforcement officers and the press when it comes to treatment of witnesses and victims. That disparity is apparent in the way I fled from people in my own profession and sought refuge from the FBI.

As a journalist, I never want to force people to talk or retraumatize them by asking for their story. Yet I firmly believe healing begins with finding the words, and the media, if sensitive, can provide the audience.

 

Keeping the faith
My recent trip to Salt Lake City, a place I have avoided for a decade, became something of a commentary on what I do not fear.

For example, I am not afraid of walking the streets of downtown Salt Lake City alone in the dark. I am not afraid of the panhandlers who sat on nearly every street corner, despite my life-altering experience with one drifter 12 years ago. And I am not afraid of the truth, or of people who seek to tell it.

I am afraid of evil.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Lambert called Mitchell "pure evil," a man with the capability of manipulating a person's belief in God to cause harm.

Mitchell, despite his state of mental competency, used God to further a selfish agenda that included rape, abuse and control of another person. His is a narcissistic, psychopathic personality, in my opinion, that doesn't allow him to care for another person's comfort, identity or even life.

So I posed a question to Lambert and to Mark Sharman, the Salt Lake City detective who headed the case and who worked as a beat officer covering homicide for more than 10 years. Both men are active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"How do you see the kind of things people do to each other in the name of religion and not lose faith?" I asked.

Sharman answered, and his words were healing to me.

"It becomes black and white," he said. "When you see pure evil, when you look it in the eye, your decision is easy. You want the good."

 

Alysa Landry is a national award-winning journalist noted for her specialized work in the field of mental health issues and for her work in covering the Navajo Nation. She joined The Daily Times staff in 2007. She can be contacted at alandry@daily-times.com