A key player in one of Utah’s most notorious crimes will get out of prison next Wednesday in an unexpected move announced by Utah’s Board of Pardons. Wanda Barzee has spent more than 15 years behind bars for helping to kidnap Elizabeth Smart.
The parole board initially denied Barzee an early release date in July, declining to include her eight years in federal prison as time served on state charges and setting a new hearing for 2023.
Smart said Tuesday’s reversal by the Utah Board of Pardons left her “surprised” and “disappointed.”
In explaining the board’s decision, Greg Johnson, the director of administrative services, said, “Upon further review and advice from legal counsel, the board must count time spent in federal custody toward Ms. Barzee’s state sentence.”
The woman has admitted to helping her husband, Brian David Mitchell, kidnap then-14-year-old Smart from her Salt Lake City bedroom at knifepoint in 2002.
Barzee testified at her husband’s trial that Mitchell told her God wanted them to kidnap seven young girls to become plural wives as a way of restoring the true church to Earth during an end-of-times battle with the Antichrist.
Mitchell raped Smart almost daily during nine months of captivity, which included a journey to California and back to Utah. Smart was rescued — and Mitchell and Barzee arrested — after the three were spotted on a Sandy street in March 2003.
In a statement Tuesday, Smart said she plans to speak publicly once she has a better understanding of the situation.
“It is incomprehensible how someone who has not cooperated with her mental health evaluations or risk assessments and someone who did not show up to her own parole hearing can be released into our community,” Smart said Tuesday. “I appreciate the support, love and concern that has already been expressed and will work diligently to address the issue of Barzee’s release as well as to ensure changes are made moving forward to ensure this doesn’t happen to anyone else in the future.”
Barzee, 72, did not attend her June parole hearing. She has refused to meet with a psychiatrist at the Utah State Prison, a board member had said — a mandatory requirement for parole after Barzee pleaded guilty but mentally ill to the attempted kidnapping charge.
Barzee has been behind bars since the couple were arrested in 2003, spending time in a county jail and at the Utah State Hospital before pleading guilty to federal charges in late 2009 and state charges in 2010. She was sentenced to prison that year and was given credit for the seven years she had spent in custody up to that point.
She was released from a federal prison in Texas in 2016 after completing her sentence in Smart’s kidnapping.
But she also had pleaded guilty in state court to attempted kidnapping in connection to a plot to kidnap Smart’s cousin in July 2002, about a month after Mitchell and Barzee kidnapped Smart. She now is serving a one-to-15-year sentence on that charge.
When calculating a release date in state prison, the parole board counted credit for time served in jail and the state hospital before she was convicted, Johnson said, but did not include the time spent in federal prison.
Later Tuesday, Johnson said Tuesday’s decision did not amount to an “early release.”
“The Board of Pardons and Parole does not have legal authority to hold Ms. Barzee beyond September 19, 2018,” he said.
The parole board in July had initially set another review hearing for Barzee in January 2023 — just one year before she will have served her maximum sentence of 15 years in state prison.
Smart’s father, Ed Smart, said Tuesday that their family began hearing about the possibility of Barzee’s release just last week.
“We’re certainly surprised,” he said.
Scott C. Williams, who was Barzee’s trial attorney, said after Barzee’s parole hearing that he was concerned that the plea deal they had agreed to wasn’t being followed.
Williams said Tuesday that he had submitted documents to the parole board before Barzee’s hearing arguing that the board must count time spent in federal custody toward Barzee’s state sentence. He also argued that the plea agreement made with state and federal prosecutors did not include any further time behind bars after Barzee was released from federal custody.
“It speaks for itself as to what the board did,” he said. “To their credit, they were willing to look further and reconsider the law in light of the facts, and when convinced, changed their mind.”
The attorney said Barzee will not be on parole with the state system once she is released next week, but will still be under federal supervision.
That supervision will last for 60 months, according to court documents, and includes restrictions on firearms use, visits from a probation officer and work requirements. Barzee will also be required to comply with sex offender registry requirements and must participate in a mental health treatment program, the 2010 sentencing documents state.
At Mitchell’s 2011 trial, Barzee called him “a great deceiver” who used religious blessings and revelations to gain her cooperation.
Mitchell is serving a life sentence in federal prison.