BARRON — Elizabeth Smart couldn’t escape her fame.
Returning to her Salt Lake City home after she was abducted and held captive for nine months as a teenager in 2003, Smart was recognized by strangers at the grocery store and saw her own face on magazine covers. She’d survived horrors, but then she had to begin another journey.
“I thought I could just go back to who I was before I was kidnapped ... I didn’t know at that point in time that I would never be that girl ever again, and that was one of the hardest things coming home,” Smart told a crowd of about 1,300 jammed into the Barron high school gymnasium on Friday night — a community trying to understand how they could best support their own famous kidnapping victim, Jayme Closs.
Few other people in the world have any idea what it is like to be Jayme Closs, snatched at age 13 from her home outside Barron five months ago, her captor shooting both of her parents before dragging her into his trunk, her mouth, wrists and angles taped.
Closs escaped nearly three months later a cabin in Gordon when her captor left for a while and she ran outside and approached a neighbor walking her dog. Jake Patterson, 21, was soon arrested and is being held on charges of murder, kidnapping and armed burglary.
Smart, now a 31-year-old wife, mother of three and advocate for child victims, offered some insight to the community over a few days, capped by a speech that captivated the crowd. It was part of her broader effort to raise awareness and help child crime victims and their families through speaking engagements, books and her Elizabeth Smart Foundation.
Smart said she was inspired by the outpouring of support in Barron, and inspired by the strength of the girl they have rallied around.
It’s a time for reclaiming “all of your lives, because this has touched so many people,” Smart said.
She wanted people to understand what it was like to be a victim, she said, before telling details of her own horrific story. She was snatched from her bedroom, taken into a mountain camp and raped repeatedly by a man who proclaimed that she was his wife, while another woman stood by. Authorities found Smart and her captors walking on the streets of Sandy, Utah, after people recognized the couple from media reports.
At first, Smart said, she was terrified to even admit who she was to police, because her captors had threatened they would harm her family if she ever told.
After Smart returned home, she said, people asked her why she didn’t scream, why she didn’t run.
“I want to take a second and tell you you should never ask a victim a question that starts with the words ‘Why didn’t you,’ because they hear ‘You should have,’?” Smart said.
In reality, she said, whatever the survivor did was the right thing. They survived.
Smart gently offered other tips, too:
What should acquaintances or strangers do if they happen to bump into her in town?
“If you see her, it’s OK to smile, but don’t stare,” Smart advised. “If you see her, it’s OK to walk by and just let her go on her way. If you feel compelled to talk to her, write her a letter, and she can choose to read it whenever she’s ready.”
And as much as people want to keep publicly showing support for the girl throughout town, she said, it’s OK to take down “Welcome home, Jayme” signs that dot businesses and churches.
It was the kind of advice the community needed now, a couple of months after Closs escaped, said Barron School Board member Dan McNeil. “We have to give her space,” he said. “Give her support, but do it in a respectful way.”
Patterson is scheduled to appear in court on March 27. He wrote in a letter to a KARE 11 television reporter recently that he intends to plead guilty.
“I’m not glad that this happened, but I’m so glad that she has you,” Smart told the crowd. “All of you have come out tonight because you care so much.”
Smart said Jayme Closs “will reclaim her life. She will go on to become an extraordinary woman. Whether she ever decides to tell her story publicly or not, that is her choice.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.