Prison is not the place for an elderly and mentally ill convict

Kati Gardella, Crier staff

When one pictures a dangerous offender, a seventy-two-year-old woman certainly does not come to mind.

The prison release of Wanda Barzee has prompted people to consider the possibilities of an elderly woman still presenting a danger to society.

Barzee did nothing to stop her husband from kidnapping and sexually assaulting a teenage girl.

Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her home on June 5, 2002. She was woken up by a knife pressed to her neck and the threat “get out of bed and come with me, or I will kill you and your family.”

Her kidnapper was Brian David Mitchell, a self-proclaimed prophet and angel from heaven who went by the name “Emmanuel.” He believed that his purpose was to correct the Mormon church by restoring order on Earth.

He had a tumultuous past, with his criminal behavior beginning at age 16 when he was arrested for exposing himself to a child. He was alienated from society after this, and his already odd relationship with his parents became further strained.

He married his first wife at age 19, who was 16 and pregnant with his child. Their relationship ended, and Mitchell turned to religion in 1980, becoming very active in the Church of Latter-day Saints.

In 1981, he married his second wife. He became extensively controlling, manipulative, and abusive during this time.

After he and his second wife separated (driven by both his abusive behaviors and his fascination with Satan, who he considered his enemy), he was accused of molesting their three-year-old son, but was never officially charged.

His second wife’s daughter accused him of assaulting her for years, but when reported to the Church of Latter-day Saints, it was covered up.

On the day of his legal divorce from his second wife, he married Wanda Barzee, who was a previously married forty-year-old. They became well-known in the LDS community as being hardworking Mormons.

Their close friends and relatives knew about Mitchell’s fits of rage that he directed toward Barzee, and the growing extremity of his religious views. His graphic depictions of Satan during temple rituals made other members of the religion uncomfortable.

This escalated even further when one night, he woke up one of Barzee’s sons and told him that he had just spoken to angels.

Barzee’s children soon left the home after that, wishing to separate themselves from the religious fervor. At this point, it was the 1990s, and Mitchell had left the Church of LDS and changed his name to Emmanuel.

Barzee and Mitchell attempted to become influential religious figures on the downtown streets of Salt Lake City. Mitchell had grown out a long beard and wore a robe, attempting to obtain the Jesus look.

Barzee was his most adoring disciple, calling herself “God Adorneth.” It was over a decade later when his actions escalated to kidnapping Elizabeth Smart.

Smart’s nine-year-old sister was actually a witness to the kidnapping and was crucial in identifying the perpetrator. She told police that the voice she heard was similar to the one of “Emmanuel,” who had sometimes helped her family with odd jobs, but the police did not consider this to be a valid lead.

Meanwhile, Smart was sexually abused and mentally tortured for nine months. She was even shackled to a tree with a metal cable for long periods of time, forced to wear a veil over her face when they went out in public, forced to consume alcohol, and would be sexually assaulted up to four times a day.

Smart was rescued after her family decided to pursue the “Emmanuel” lead. They hired a sketch artist to draw his face and the depiction was shared across media.

Mitchell attempted using an insanity defense, but as usual, it didn’t work out. He was found guilty of kidnapping and sentenced to life, while Barzee was sentenced to prison until 2024.

Barzee may have not been the one to physically kidnap Smart, but was an active part in keeping her as a prisoner.

Elizabeth Smart described Wanda Barzee as an “evil and twisted woman,” who was not only a bystander while Smart was kidnapped and assaulted by her husband, but also watched and encouraged him. It is terrifying to think of an older woman with more power not rescuing a young and terrified fourteen-year-old victim.

My theory is that Barzee endured years of abuse from her husband. Again, her relatives were aware of how severely Mitchell lashed out at her. It is possible that she experienced a degree of Stockholm Syndrome, where she felt forced to share her husband’s outlook on life as a means of survival.

Also, if Smart experienced the brunt of Mitchell’s abuse, Barzee would be relatively safe.

In court, she stated that mental illness impaired her judgement. She revealed that she wanted to leave her marriage after the first year, but experienced lots of religious pressure to maintain the relationship.

She coped by reading the Bible extensively and teaching herself to be more submissive and compliant. To a degree, Barzee was trapped in her situation, but should have contacted the authorities as soon as her husband’s fourteen-year-old hostage was brought to their home.

With her family on the outside cutting ties with her, and her struggles with mental health, it is not the best idea to release her on the streets either.

Barzee’s sister stated that she disagrees with the choice to release her from prison, explaining “she’s mentally ill, terribly mentally ill, and she’s also very manipulative.” Barzee’s niece added that their family wants nothing to do with her.

Prison is not an appropriate environment for an elderly woman. Ideally, Barzee would be placed in a retirement home-like setting with extensive mental health care available.

Elizabeth Smart has recovered tremendously. She is an activist, author, TV correspondent, and victims’ rights advocate. She is also currently pregnant with her third child.

Smart is understandably very unsettled by the release of one of her kidnappers. However, she will continue to move forward and exemplify strength.