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Parents describe struggles during Brian David Mitchell’s childhood

Mitchell’s first two marriages also were filled with strife

SHARE Parents describe struggles during Brian David Mitchell’s childhood

SALT LAKE CITY — Brian David Mitchell's disturbed childhood years through his tumultuous second marriage received much of the attention Wednesday during the trial of the man accused of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart.

But several of the people subpoenaed to testify as defense witnesses only seemed to provide additional evidence for the prosecution.

Seven witnesses were called to the stand Wednesday, including Mitchell's parents, Shirl and Irene Mitchell, and two of his sisters. At times, the testimony became emotional as many people from Mitchell's past appeared to still be in disbelief that the boy they once knew could be accused of such a horrendous crime.

"I didn't believe it. I didn't believe it was my Brian," said long-time friend Marlon Peterson, who got choked up when asked for his reaction when he first heard about Mitchell's arrest.

Irene Mitchell, Brian Mitchell's mother, told the court it was difficult for her to be there to testify. She still remembers her son as a little boy.

"What I see now is not the same person. And what he did is painful," she said.

Kayleen Hill, Mitchell's older sister, sent a Christmas card to Mitchell after his arrest. But in it, she also expressed her anger at him.

"I told him I was devastated," she said.

The parade of witnesses started Wednesday with Shirl Mitchell, Brian's father, who slowly made his way to the witness stand Wednesday morning with the help of a walker. His odd testimony at times directly answered the questions he was asked, but at other times seemed to be all over the place and drift off into many tangents.

At times, he seemed to express regret for the way he handled certain situations with his son, such as the time the elder Mitchell tried to teach a then 9-year-old Brian Mitchell a lesson by driving him to an unknown area, dropping him off and making him find his own way home. Brian went to an area in Salt Lake City near the Capitol, where he stayed and just waited.

"He's smart," Shirl Mitchell said. "He said, 'I'm going to make them worry about me. I'm going to stay away all day.' "

He referred to a Or the time he tried to "teach" Brian about sex education by showing him color pictures of genitalia from a medical handbook when he was 8. The sex education lesson came after Mitchell was caught "playing doctor."

Shirl Mitchell said there were "a whole series" of what he called "alienation incidents" between Brian and his family, especially with his younger sister, Lori, and his mother.

"Brian is a very intelligent person. He used that to his full extent in his harassment of other children and my wife," said Shirl Mitchell, who is now divorced from Irene.

Of Brian's relationship with his younger sister, Shirl Mitchell commented, "His relationship with Lori overshadowed everything. It was so combative, she'd whine and whimper about it." He later added, "When she was an adult, she continued to whine when she wanted something."

When Mitchell was 16, he was arrested for exposing himself to an 8-year-old girl and allegedly asking her to touch him, prosecutors said. Shirl Mitchell said the girl's father "overreacted and pulled him to juvenile court."

Shirl Mitchell described his son as isolated from the rest of the family,

"I didn't have too much connection. Maybe that's the trouble, he alienated himself, isolated himself in his own little world. He wasn't really responsive to me or my instruction."

Also when Mitchell was 16, he was sent to live with his grandmother for a few months after constant arguing with his mother, which culminated in a shoving incident.

But on the witness stand Wednesday, Irene Mitchell claimed to not remember much when asked about bad incidents involving her son, including his arrest for exposing himself. When asked about name calling in the house, she replied, "I have no memory of that."

When questioned about Brian being asked to leave the house to live with his grandmother, Irene Mitchell replied, "I'm not sure about that," but was later able to talk about Brian's brief time at East High School, which he rarely attended because he often skipped school.

In 2002, less than two months before Smart was kidnapped, Irene Mitchell filed a restraining order against her son after he and his wife, Wanda Barzee, showed up at her house and aggressively tried to get her to read his Book of Immanuel David Isaiah.

Mitchell's fondness of fruits, vegetables and juices started at a young age, possibly in part because of his father's own beliefs about nutrition. Mitchell later took to studying lymphology.

But prosecutors noted that despite his apparent commitment to healthy living, there were a lot of drugs and alcohol in Mitchell's life.

Much of Wednesday's testimony focused on Brian Mitchell's first two failed marriages.

Mitchell had two children from his first marriage to a woman named Karen. He was 19, she was either 15 or 16 when they were married. But Lisa Mitchell Holbrook, Mitchell's younger sister, said they weren't great parents.

"They were kind of messed up themselves. They were teenagers, they would party. They wanted to have fun," she said.

After their marriage failed, Mitchell was concerned about losing custody of his two children, Travis and Angie, to his wife. On the day of a scheduled court hearing to determine custody, Mitchell took his two children and fled to New Hampshire, where he stayed for a couple of years. Prosecutors pointed out several times that Mitchell purposely fled with two young children out of state to avoid consequences in court, and went to great lengths to avoid being detected.

Peterson testified that he drove Mitchell to a bus depot in Provo because he was afraid of being seen.

Mitchell mailed letters to his mother, at least one sister, and to Peterson while he was in New Hampshire. A copy of one of those letters was presented in court Wednesday.

In the letter addressed to his mother, Mitchell asked her to keep the letters he sent to her "hidden" as well as anything else that had his address on it. He also asked his mother to not show Karen pictures of the children because they "would only make her more determined to find the children."

In the same letter, Mitchell also talked about how he had grown his hair long and grown a beard. Prosecutors pointed out during cross-examination that Mitchell noted to his mother in the letter that he likes "acting."

"My hair and beard are part of a new act," he wrote. "Sorry I can't be a sweet looking boy all the time."

Outside the courthouse, Peterson also commented on Mitchell's acting abilities.

"Brian was quite an actor," he said, while adding that he believed "much of (Mitchell's antics today) are a show."

When asked whether he thought Mitchell was insane at the time of Smart's abduction, Peterson replied, "No, I don't."

Peterson was very close to Mitchell in the mid 1970s to early '80s, but he really hadn't kept in touch with him for the past 20 years.

While in New Hampshire, Mitchell joined a Hare Krishna commune. But Peterson said Mitchell only pretended to be interested in the religion for "survival," so he could get food, water and shelter for himself and his children.

When Mitchell returned to Utah, Holbrook described him as "dark" and said he did not seem physically, spiritually or emotionally healthy. His family feared he was abusing drugs and alcohol at that time.

Mitchell cut his hair and returned to a more clean-cut look after his brother came home from an LDS mission and got him involved in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

He met a woman named Debbie at a singles ward dance and they soon married. Holbrook said the relationship was one dysfunctional person marrying another dysfunctional person and the result wasn't good for anyone.

It was a relationship that not only ended with a failed marriage, but resulted in Mitchell placing the two children he had fled to New Hampshire with in foster care, something everyone in Mitchell's family opposed.

Mitchell had become convinced his children from his first marriage were threatening his marriage to Debbie. "He had to take them out of his family to improve his relationship with Debbie," Hill said.

Mitchell would leave his children at home while he and Debbie attended their LDS ward, telling them they were not worthy to be baptized. He isolated them by telling them that because of their unworthiness, they could not talk to people from church, extended family members, neighbors or even other school children.

"I thought he was having very strange thoughts," Hill said.

When they were eventually adopted by a family in Kamas, Mitchell insisted they be placed with a non-LDS family and not be allowed to have any contact with his extended family.

Later, when the children were in high school, they both ran away and returned to the home of Irene Mitchell.

Mitchell was required to get a mental health evaluation before placing his children in foster care. The people who evaluated him found no sign of mental illness.

"I think he was able to come across well in the evaluation and covered up things," Hill said.

It was also about this time that Mitchell started acting superior to others in the family, his sister said.

"Like he knows special things that other people don't know," Hill said. "I didn't trust he was clearly thinking or making good choices."

Hill said Mitchell had a "strange look" in his eyes and looked down on his siblings when he spoke to them.

Other lay witnesses testified Wednesday that prior to Smart being kidnapped, when they saw Mitchell and Barzee out in public, they wore their robes, but Barzee never wore a veil.

Howard Lemcke, a long-time prosecutor with the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office, was so taken aback by the sight of two people in robes pushing a type of covered-wagon handcart in 1998 down Redwood Road, that he stopped and videotaped it.

"It kind of looked like Lawrence of Arabia meets the handcart pioneers," he said. "It was that goofy … it was extremely out of the ordinary."

Lemcke noted the craftsmanship of the handcart with its double axle and bicycle wheels seemed extremely good.

Pamela Atkinson, an well-known advocate for the homeless and poor, testified Wednesday that Mitchell and Barzee used to come to the Salvation Army in the late 1990s. She said Mitchell would never shake her hand or talk to her.

Others there who were homeless generally stayed away from the couple because they considered them extreme and were afraid Mitchell would preach to them.

A defense attorney asked Atkinson if she ever thought he was mentally ill. She said that while she doesn't have expertise to make such a conclusion, "At first I wondered, then I decided I was just observing this religious eccentric."

Mitchell was removed from the courtroom again on Wednesday for refusing to stop singing Christmas carols.

Smart, her father, Ed Smart, and mother, Lois Smart, watched Wednesday's proceedings from the courtroom gallery.

e-mail: preavy@desnews.com

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