Who doesn't recognize the face and the name? Tall and striking, Elizabeth Smart walks into a room, and people stand almost in awe of what she survived as a 14-year-old — abduction, rape, death threats and nine months of captivity.
Now 24, she told me that in grocery stores these days, shopping often takes her longer than she would expect. People want to talk.
“That's a small price to pay,” she said in an interview, “for the gratitude I feel and the blessings I've had in my life.”
Elizabeth came to Omaha to speak Friday at a six-state conference at the Doubletree Hotel titled “Protect Our Children.”
Kidnapped from her Utah home, she was the subject of massive searches, and at least once she heard someone call out her name. But her captors threatened her life and the lives of her family if she responded.
Her photo was published and broadcast nationwide. Her captors, a middle-aged man and woman, disguised her when they went out, always staying at her side so she couldn't escape.
At times, Elizabeth said, she would make eye contact with people, hoping they would recognize her. She detected expressions that seemed to say, “Where have I seen that girl?” Even police officers approached her and her captors without realizing she was the girl everyone wanted to find.
After nine months, someone did recognize her in Salt Lake City — and police cars appeared from every direction. An officer asked, “Are you Elizabeth Smart?”
She was so overcome with emotion, and yet still fearful in the presence of the couple who had threatened and controlled her, that it took nearly a minute before she answered, “Yes.”
She was taken to a police precinct station, where her father burst in, embraced her and asked through his tears, “Elizabeth, is it really you?” Together, they wept.
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Not everyone who is abducted by a stranger and raped lives to tell about it. Elizabeth calls herself an exception.
When she mentioned her father's response, I let her know I empathized. As regular readers of this column know, my daughter, too, was abducted by a stranger and raped.
As with Elizabeth, it happened in June 2002. Both were abducted from their homes in the middle of the night. Both were abducted by strangers (who eventually received life sentences).
Elizabeth's abductor, who came in through a window, held a knife to her neck. Bridget's, who kicked down her door, held a gun to her ribs — and eventually shot her three times in the back, leaving her for dead in a field.
Bridget, 24 at the time, survived after hours of surgery. Elizabeth survived by doing what her captors ordered.
For her, there was no Stockholm Syndrome, in which an abductee bonds with the abductors. “I did what I had to do to stay alive, plain and simple.”
Elizabeth's case is much more widely known, but she and Bridget each have spoken out publicly and become advocates. Each has refused to let the horror define her. Each stands tall literally (about 5-feet-9) and figuratively, refusing to accept any stigma.
This year, both married.
“Women often come up to me and say they experienced something terrible in their past,” Elizabeth said. “I'm always amazed. It's still always shocking when people say they were raped or kidnapped.”
Stranger rapes are far less frequent than rapes by someone who is known to the victim. But the stranger cases often gain more notice.
Jaycee Dugard was 11 when kidnapped as she walked home from school in California — and was held captive for 18 years until 2009. Elizabeth said she and Jaycee have spoken by phone but haven't met in person.
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Elizabeth Smart was the star attraction at the Omaha conference, and the final speaker. She helped attract a record crowd of 650 to the ninth annual “Protect Our Children” event.
It is sponsored by U.S. attorneys from Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. Attendees included social workers, prosecutors, police officers, psychologists and others.
Gene Klein of Omaha, executive director of the Project Harmony child advocacy center, told them Thursday morning that cooperation among agencies that investigate child-abuse cases has improved.
Klein, president of the National Children's Alliance board of directors, also said the number of child advocacy centers has increased in the United States from fewer than 25 in 1992 to more than 850 today.
Among the conference's general sessions was one titled “Institutional Cover-Up of Childhood Sexual Abuse.”
Steve Wigginton, now the U.S. attorney for the southern district of Illinois, told of a $5 million judgment a jury awarded to a man, 42, who had been a 12-year-old altar boy when repeatedly sexually abused by a Catholic priest. When in private practice, Wigginton and a partner represented the former altar boy.
Even though the diocese's own records proved it knew the priest was a pedophile, Wigginton said, he was reassigned from parish to parish.
The attorney said the Catholic Church in the United States has paid out more than $3 billion because of abusive priests, and now a monsignor in Philadelphia and the bishop in Kansas City, Mo., have been convicted in criminal cases of covering up for abusers.
Wigginton said one good result from high-profile cases, including that of Penn State, is that more victims are willing to come forward.
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U.S. Attorney Deb Gilg of Omaha, who introduced Smart, called her an inspiration.
Elizabeth spoke for more than 45 minutes without reading her remarks or looking at notes. After the man kidnapped her, she said, she was sure she would be raped and murdered — and asked him to do so where her body would be easily found so that her parents at least would know what happened to her.
“He said, ‘I'm not going to do that to you yet,'” she recalled.
In the mountains, he soon declared that he was taking her as his wife and raped her. She had led a shy and sheltered life. “I felt worthless and filthy,” she said. “How could anyone ever love me again?”
But she was determined to live, and finally her “miracle” came — she was found. The years after that included frustrations and ups and downs, she said, before the rapist finally was sentenced in 2011.
Her mother advised that while her abductor had taken nine months of her life, the best way Elizabeth could punish him was to live her life and her dreams fully. Today she and her father help children through the Elizabeth Smart Foundation and push for legislation to help victims.
The girl who wasn't allowed to talk to strangers for nine months is now a woman who speaks out often and looks forward to the day when she is a mother.
When children are missing, she said, it's easy to give up hope. “I am here because people didn't give up on me.”
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