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Brian David Mitchell had strong religious beliefs before kidnapping Elizabeth Smart, witnesses say

SALT LAKE CITY — Doug Larsen says at one time in his life, he felt as close to Brian David Mitchell as a brother.

The two worked side-by-side at O.C. Tanner in Salt Lake City until the early 1990s. They both shared many similar religious and political views and would spend a lot of time discussing religion.

In 1998, several years after Mitchell had left O.C. Tanner and fallen out of touch with Larsen, he spotted the once well-kept, short-haired Mitchell now with long hair, a long beard and wearing robes, panhandling in Salt Lake City. Though Larsen is sure Mitchell recognized him, Mitchell would only speak to him briefly using religious terminology and did not acknowledge his old friend.

That was the last time Larsen had seen Mitchell until last week when he watched his former friend be escorted out of U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball's courtroom for once again refusing to stop singing in court.

On Tuesday, the government rested its case against Mitchell, accused of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart. The defense began calling its witnesses to the stand to testify. Defense attorneys are expected to argue for an insanity defense.

The defense on Tuesday attempted to paint a picture for the jury of a Mitchell who was once a clean-cut, well groomed, active member of the LDS Church, who has been heavily involved in religion all of his life — not just a religious persona that he came up with before kidnapping Smart. But at some point in his life, Mitchell became more than just a person who liked to sing hymns and read scriptures.

Larsen testified in court Tuesday as a defense witness. But outside the courthouse, he admitted that he didn't believe his longtime friend was qualified to be found not guilty by reason of insanity.

"He's guilty, absolutely," he said.

Larsen described Mitchell as "insane, but not incompetent."

From the evidence he has heard in court, Larsen said Mitchell was too calculating and too controlling for him not to know that taking Smart was wrong.

"He knew it was against the law," he said.

While he and Mitchell once agreed on about 90 percent of their religious views, Larsen said Tuesday, "The person I knew no longer exists."

Mitchell's religious views today are fundamentalist and extreme, and he sees himself as a pathetic figure whose behavior towards others is selfish, Larsen said. The Brian Mitchell of the late 1980s did not think that way, he said.

But Larsen also said the person that people see today is the genuine Mitchell. He believes his singing in court is only partially an act. Mitchell used to sing hymns to calm himself even before he grew his hair long and called himself Immanuel, Larsen said. But he also suspects he does it to get out of court.

"He knows how other people perceive it, but he couldn't care less," he said.

Inside the courtroom Tuesday, Larsen testified he met Mitchell in 1988 when Mitchell was hired at O.C. Tanner.

"He and I hit it off really well," he said.

The two talked a lot about religion. They both had a great admiration for the then-president of the LDS Church, Ezra Taft Benson.

"We both considered him to be a very powerful prophet," Larsen testified. "Among the great prophets of the LDS Church."

They also shared many similar political ideologies. Both voted for Bo Gritz during the 1992 presidential election.

Larsen referred in his testimony to the story of the creation that is depicted in temple ceremonies of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and said Mitchell once worked as an actor playing the role of Satan. Larsen said fellow Salt Lake Temple workers told Mitchell, "You're one of the best we've ever had, but can you tone it down a little bit?"

Larsen added, "I think he (Mitchell) was amused by their concern. He could play a good Devil — maybe more convincing than they wanted."

Larsen also said Mitchell "had a really good sense of humor. That was one of the first things that impressed me."

But other co-workers took note of Mitchell and Larsen's deep religious convictions and would harass them, especially Mitchell, Larsen said, which sometimes would lead to arguments.

"He was very confident to the point of being very dogmatic," Larsen said. "His religion was behind everything he said. That's what the other guys found annoying."

Several times a week, Mitchell would pull out his hymn book and sing to himself at his desk, much like he does in court, Larsen said. He especially sang when the company started playing pop music over the speakers in the work area.

Mitchell talked to Larsen a little about his family. He talked mostly about his relationship with his father, whom he was saddened he had drifted apart from because of religious views.

"He was more concerned to get close to his father than anyone else in his life," Larsen said.

Mitchell's father, Shirl Mitchell, may be called to testify as a defense witness later this week.

As for Brian Mitchell's marriage to Wanda Barzee, Larsen testified, "I didn't sense any real chemistry in their relationship."

During cross examination, Larsen admitted his view of Mitchell was mostly formed from his interaction with him at work. He never went to Mitchell's house and saw how he acted there. He also admitted he knew people other than Mitchell whom he talked religion with and shared similar religious views, and who have had personal revelations, like Mitchell and Barzee claim.

An interesting point of the testimony came when Larsen was asked about a book he published in 1990 that was a sort-of religious science fiction book, in which the anti-Christ, an excommunicated member of the LDS Church, fights against the hero of the book, an active Mormon. Mitchell liked the book, Larsen said, but did not like a female character who was forced into prostitution.

"He didn't think God would ever ask a girl to do that," Larsen said.

Ironically, Larsen said Smart's testimony last week of what Mitchell forced her to do was "identical" to what Mitchell objected to in his book.

Also taking the witness stand Tuesday were two brothers from Orem, Karl and Benjamin West. The men are the sons of C. Samuel West who taught lymphology for more than three decades before his death in 2004.

Samuel West had a tradition of never turning away people in need, and met Mitchell after he attended one of West's lectures. Mitchell became very fascinated with lymphology and eventually went to work for West. He and Barzee also moved into West's home in the late 1990s.

The first time the Wests met Mitchell, he was cleanshaven and had short hair. That changed during their second encounter.

"The new Mitchell, the new David. We thought we knew him. He wasn't who we thought he was," Karl West testified.

Because of their robes and religious way of speaking, the West brothers used to refer to Mitchell and Barzee as the "Israelites."

It was during that time that Mitchell built a covered-wagon handcart in the Wests' backyard.

By this time, Mitchell and Barzee had sold most of their worldly possessions and when they weren't inside the West home, they were living in a teepee in their backyard.

All of Tuesday's defense witnesses noted that they thought Mitchell's emphatic religious beliefs and lymphology beliefs were sincere.

"He felt he had some kind of divine mission," Karl West testified. "I think he sincerely felt he believed who he felt he was."

Mitchell's religious beliefs were always consistent, he said. It was his appearance that dramatically changed.

But there came a point when there was serious tension between Mitchell and Samuel West, part of that sparked by Mitchell's views on polygamy and when he declared that he wanted everyone to start calling him "Immanuel."

Mitchell and Barzee's stay at the Wests' home ended in 2001 after they were caught burning incense in the basement and subsequently "left like a tornado" after being confronted. In retrospect, Karl West said he believed Mitchell was smoking marijuana at that time.

In the spring or summer of 2001, Mitchell returned briefly to the West home, long enough to yell at them and give them a copy of his Book of Immanuel.

"I'd never seen him like that. He was just off his rocker," West said.

Karl West said in retrospect, he believed Mitchell was mentally ill.

But during cross-examination, prosecutors got West to admit that maybe his family had been manipulated by Mitchell.

"Are you saying he fooled you?" prosecutor Felice Viti asked.

"Yeah … definitely," West replied. "In retrospect, I think he was keeping things from me."

Also on the witness stand Tuesday was Dru White, Mitchell's LDS stake president in 1988.

"He looked young. His appearance was quite clean-cut, well dressed, just a normal conservative looking young man," White recalled of Mitchell at that time. "I think he was looked at as an active member of the ward. He seemed to be willing to serve and work in the church."

White said Mitchell seemed "quite eager" to perform his church duties and there were no signs of any ulterior motive.

During cross-examination, White admitted that he only saw Mitchell in church and had no idea what was happening with his home life.

Earlier in the day, FBI Special Agent George Dougherty, who interviewed Mitchell shortly after his arrest in 2003, was cross-examined. Defense attorneys wanted to know, based on his interviews with Mitchell, whether Mitchell believed he had a special purpose because he believed he was called of God or whether he believed he was a martyr.

Dougherty said that during his conversations with Mitchell, the word "martyr" never came up.

"We all have our own beliefs and we follow those beliefs to the best of our ability," the agent said. "I believe in God, and I believe everybody has a purpose."

But Dougherty said he believes Mitchell "used that to his advantage. His beliefs were in a different way."

Mitchell was able to follow along and talk about the case and knew when to be quiet and when not to say things that might incriminate himself, Dougherty said.

When asked how he believed Mitchell ranked among all of the defendants he's questioned over the years, Dougherty said Mitchell gave complete, thorough and well-thought out answers.

"By far, the top of the list," he said of Mitchell.

Whenever the questions got tough, Mitchell would resort to talking about religion, Dougherty said. Sometimes, Mitchell would also tell him, " 'I know you're trying to get me to say something. I know what you're trying to do. I know you're trying to do your job.' He was very focused on that. He knew that I had a job to do and he brought that up several times."

The defense called for a mistrial first thing Tuesday because of content that was shown to jurors on Monday. Defense attorney Robert Steele noted that during the two-hour videotaped interview between Mitchell and detectives that was shown to jurors, the officers questioned Mitchell about allegations of previous sex abuse involving his children.

Attorneys had agreed before the trial began that previous incidents of sex abuse would not be raised.

Steele acknowledged that he stipulated to the video being shown in court, but apparently didn't realize that the questions of the sex abuse was part of the video.

U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball denied the motion for a mistrial.

As he has during every day of the trial, Mitchell was ordered to leave the courtroom when he began singing hymns.

Tuesday, however, he was singing Christmas hymns, including "Silent Night," "Joy to the World," "O Come All Ye Faithful" and others. Mitchell is able to monitor the trial proceedings from a nearby annex.

e-mail: preavy@desnews.com

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