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Elizabeth Smart is speaking out following Gabby Petito's death. The 33-year-old advocate, who was kidnapped at age 14 from her Salt Lake City home, joined the latest episode of Red Table Talkto discuss Petito's case, the missing people of color who don't get media attention, and her own experiences.
"I was alive. I came home," Smart said of her rescue, nine months after her abduction by Brian David Mitchell. "Her [story] tragically has not ended that way. But knowing what it's like being on the other side and potentially what may have happened and what may have led up to her final moments and understanding probably a lot of what she was feeling, it's heartbreaking."
Petito embarked on a cross-country road trip with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, earlier this year. Laundrie eventually returned to his parents' Florida home without Petito in tow, and her parents soon reported her missing.
Petito's remains were found in September, and the manner of death was determined to be homicide. Her cause of death was later revealed to be strangulation. Laundrie has been named a person of interest in the case, and a federal arrest warrant has been issued for him. The search for Laundrie is ongoing.
As Smart recounted her own "pretty dark times" in captivity, Adrienne Banfield-Norris got choked up thinking about the then-teen's experience, along with Petito's and that of many others whose stories aren't publicly known.
"I cannot imagine what it would be like to have your child go missing, and then feel like you are not getting the help that you need to find them," Banfield-Norris said.
Smart agreed, telling Banfield-Norris and Jada Pinkett Smith that her own parents, Ed and Lois Smart, "always said that the worst part of having me gone was not knowing if I was alive and out there or if I was dead."
"When I was being taken up into the mountains that first night that I was kidnapped, I asked him if he was going to rape and kill me, and if he was going to do that could he please do it fairly close to my house, because it was important to me that my parents find my body and know that I hadn't run away," Smart shared. "When I think of Gabby Petito, when I think of all of these other victims, I feel like they still deserve every bit as much to be found so that their stories have an ending as well."
Banfield-Norris continued to emotionally react to Smart's story, saying "it's too much" as she paused production to gather herself.
Smart's appearance on the Facebook Watch series came after Petito's father, Joe Petito, encouraged the public to give "the same type of heightened awareness" to other missing cases that his daughter received.
"I thought that was such a powerful message. What I have to give them props for is, in this devastating moment for their family, they had strength, courage, compassion to think about others who are going through the same thing who didn't have the same attention as Gabby," Pinkett Smith said of the Petito patriarch's call to action. "They're using the memory of Gabby and this opportunity to shine a light for everyone."
"I have to be honest with you," she added, "I don't know if I lost one of my children in that way if I would have the wherewithal to do that, so when I saw that it really touched me."
Throughout the episode, the information of missing people, many of whom were of color, were shown at the bottom of the screen. The women also spoke to the parents of Daniel Robinson, a 24-year-old geologist who went missing in the Arizona desert.
"When I think of all of the people, so many, so many, whose stories never see the light of day... someone is missing. Are they any less worthy? Has any less of a hole been left because they're gone? No," Smart said of lesser-known missing people cases. "They're somebody."
"It breaks my heart to think about how many people, how many children, are wondering, are they enough for somebody to look for me?" Laura Coates, a former federal prosecutor, agreed. "... You can imagine all the people who try to exploit the idea that no one's going to look for you. Women of color in particular, who if there's not the coverage, if there's not the attention, if no one thinks that anyone will look for you, you become a target. Now you are somebody's perfect prey because they think no one's going to look for you, no one's going to miss you."
People did continue looking for Smart, and she was eventually rescued after multiple individuals spotted her and her captors in Utah. The rescue, though, wasn't something Smart initially trusted.
"Initially I didn't just respond and say, 'Yes, I am Elizabeth Smart. Please help me. Please save me,'" Smart recalled of when police first approached her. "... I didn't immediately yell or scream or admit who I was, because for nine months no one could protect me from them. Because for nine months, he raped me, chained me up, did whatever he wanted to do to me, and there was never anyone there to protect me."
"I didn't know these police officers. I didn't know what they were capable of. I didn't know if they could protect me. But I did know that my captor was standing so close he was physically touching me. My other captor was so close she was physically touching me. I knew they were capable of killing me. They threatened me with that every single day," she continued. "I didn't immediately scream out. My goal was to survive and I didn't know if I said something if I would. But I knew that if I did what they told me to do, that there was a chance for me to survive."
Smart added, "Even in the moment when it looks like, 'That's so easy,' that was nine months of manipulation and grooming. It wasn't that easy. It wasn't until I was separated from my captors that I was able to admit who I was."
When Smart did share who she was, she was immediately believed, something that isn't afforded to every survivor or the families of the missing.
"Nobody has ever questioned whether I was kidnapped or ran away. No one has ever really questioned, 'Did bad things happen?' Everything that I've always said has been accepted," she said. "How many victims, how many survivors, are not believed? I think that honestly makes the difference between being able to move forward with a healthy life or bottling inside you and then being on a different trajectory."
The trajectory Smart landed on was a good one. She tied the knot with her husband, Matthew Gilmour, in 2012, and has since welcomed three children, Olivia, 2, James, 4, and Chloe, 6. While she admitted she's "overprotective" of her kids, she has made it a point to be honest with them about her experiences.
"Someone told me [that], as soon as your child starts asking questions, that's the right time to start talking to them," Smart said. "When one of my captors was coming up for parole, and I was supposed to go to prison that day to go give a victim impact statement, my oldest daughter, she didn't really want me to go. She kept asking me, 'Where are you going? Why are you going?' That moment, I was just like, 'Dang it. I guess I have to take this advice now. She's asking questions.'"
"I started talking to her, but it's not in graphic detail. 'When Mommy was younger, there was a man who broke into my home and hurt me. Now he and his wife are in jail and I am going down there to make sure they stay in jail,'" she continued of Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee. "That led us to talking about having the right to defend yourself."
While Mitchell received a life in prison without the possibility of parole sentence for his crimes, Barzee was released from prison in 2018.
"I think it also helped me have a greater appreciation for how many victims never even have a smidgen of justice," Smart said of Barzee's release. "Their perpetrators walk every day free. At least I got something. How many more haven't?"