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Fort Union eatery knew pair all too well

The robed couple were such frequent customers of the Fort Union restaurant that waitresses there had christened them with nicknames and knew instinctively their dining habits.

Joseph and Mary, as they were known, came to the SouperSalad often, sometimes three times a week, eating piles of fruit and vegetables. They paid mostly in change and small bills and rarely had enough money to leave a tip.

Instead, the woman would often jot a quick note: "God be with you" or "God bless."

Mary, or Wanda Ilene Barzee, rarely spoke, and only when Joseph, Brian David Mitchell, was away from the table. She also never concealed her face with a veil, until one day in August when they were joined by a second veiled female — now believed to be Elizabeth Smart.

"I saw the girl, the younger girl, and I looked at her and thought, 'What is she doing with them?' It just gave me this really weird feeling," said Lindsay Dawson, who waited on the group. "It just really creeped me out to see this girl with them, and the masks just made me feel like they were being totally controlled and oppressed by him."

The young woman was free to move about as she pleased, Dawson said, and didn't appear scared or anxious in any way. "I looked at her eyes. She was just really solemn looking."

Still, neither of the women spoke to Dawson or server Erin Ptaschinski, even when asked a question directly.

It never occurred to either Dawson or Ptaschinski that the girl was being held against her will. In fact, they didn't even think she was a girl. The second female appeared to be at least 16 years old, and perhaps even at least 20.

"I knew that they were really a weird type of religion thing. and I thought maybe that she was his young wife or something like that," Dawson said.

It wasn't until seeing photographs of a veiled Elizabeth on news reports that Dawson and Ptaschinski realized it was Elizabeth eating in their restaurant, just two months after the then 14-year-old girl disappeared from her Federal Heights home.

"When I saw that picture on the news, I got the biggest chills and tears in my eyes," Ptaschinski said. "I knew, I just know, it was her."

In addition to the Fort Union eatery, Mitchell and Barzee frequented SouperSalads in Holladay and Salt Lake's Brickyard Plaza.

Once, when asked by customers at the Holladay store what religion they were, Mitchell said he and his wife were "followers of God," SouperSalad employee Kristin Gregson said.

Mitchell, a self-proclaimed prophet and street preacher, didn't proselytize at the restaurants. Instead, the couple normally chose a booth along the back wall and ate their meals quietly. They would stay a long time, and eat a large amount of food.

But the evening Mitchell and Barzee came to SouperSalad with the young woman, it was well into the dinner rush and the three had to sit at a table in the middle of the restaurant. The older couple ate as they normally did, but the girl didn't eat as much and had dessert, something Mitchell and Barzee never ate.

The women didn't remove their veils to eat. They simply leaned forward so the covering would fall away from their faces.

The trio stayed for at least an hour, perhaps as long as two, before exiting through a glass door adorned with a flier with Elizabeth's photograph on it.

Mitchell and Barzee have never returned to the Fort Union restaurant, though Gregson said they were at her restaurant in late January. The couple didn't have enough money for the $5.09 all-you-can-eat buffet, so Gregson bought their dinner.

Unusually, they were in civilian clothes, something Gregson had only seen once shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.


E-MAIL: awelling@desnews.com