Two years before her headline-making 2002 kidnapping, Elizabeth Smart connects with her passion, the harp – which she’s played since age 5. “She’s the most well-mannered child you’ll ever meet,” aunt Julie Smart gushes of the young musician, who later says playing the harp helped her cope with tragedy.
On June 14, 2002, Smart is taken at knifepoint from her bedroom in the Salt Lake City, Utah, home she shares with her parents, Edward and Lois, and her five siblings. Smart is held captive for nine months by self-avowed prophet Brian David Mitchell and wife Wanda Eileen Barzee, adopting the name Augustine and forced to wear a white robe and veil in public. They initially live in a hillside campsite four miles from her home before relocating to Lakeside, Calif., and returning to Salt Lake City.
After nine futile months, the search for Smart ends happily, thanks to Salt Lake City eyewitnesses, who, on March 12, 2003, recognize Mitchell as the suspect “Immanuel” from an America’s Most Wanted segment. “I’m still walking on cloud nine,” AMW host John Walsh says of Smart’s reunion with her family. “Miracles do exist,” Smart’s uncle Tom says. Mitchell, 49, and Barzee, 57, are charged with aggravated kidnapping, burglary and sexual assault.
With her parents looking on, Smart applauds President George W. Bush, who signs the Protect Act, a bill to create a nationwide Amber Alert system for abducted children, in the White House Rose Garden in April 2003. “No family should ever have to endure the nightmare of losing a child,” President Bush says. “Our nation will fight threats against our children.”
“I feel so fortunate that I was able to come through this unscarred. I want to tell other people, ‘Don’t give up. Miracles do happen,’” Smart, now 20 and a junior majoring in music performance at Brigham Young University, says in a June 2008 PEOPLE cover story. She adds, “I’m not sorry this happened to me anymore, because it made me grow up.”
Smart, who contributed to a Department of Justice pamphlet for young survivors of abduction, is recognized as one of four winners of PEOPLE’s 2008 Heroes Among Us Award. “I want people to read what I wrote and hopefully feel inspired to move on with their life. It’s very hard to live through. A kidnapping is very hard. I’m just trying to do what I can, hopefully, to make a difference.” In 2011, she establishes the Elizabeth Smart Foundation to focus on protecting children from falling victim to kidnapping and sexual crimes.
In October 2009, Smart, 21, testifies in a Salt Lake City courtroom against her kidnapper, whom she says drugged and raped her as often as four times a day during her abduction. Brian David Mitchell is found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. At his 2011 sentencing, Smart faces her kidnapper, saying, “I don’t have much to say to you. I know that you know what you did was wrong … You did it with full knowledge. But I want you to know that I have a wonderful life.”
Smart turns her tragedy to triumph, helping other kidnapping victims and their families as an ABC News contributor, focusing on missing person and child abduction cases. “I am thrilled to be working with ABC,” Smart says. “I think there’s a real power in partnering up. I really believe we can do some good together.”
In January 2012, Smart’s father, Ed, announces his daughter’s plans to marry “a very nice man,” whom the family declines to identify. “She’s going to be very public in her child advocacy work, but has decided she wants to keep her personal life private,” the father of the bride tells PEOPLE. The Salt Lake Tribune later reports that online wedding registries reveal Smart’s groom is Matthew Gilmour, a Scotland native she reportedly met while serving a Latter-day Saints mission in France last year.
Smart, 24, exchanges vows with Matthew Gilmour, 22, in a private Feb. 18 ceremony on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. “Matthew, I love you so much,” the beaming bride says at her reception. “I couldn’t be happier. I am so grateful that everyone is here to be with and support us on this beautiful day. I love you so much.” The couple plans to honeymoon at an undisclosed location before returning to Salt Lake City to begin their newlywed life together.
“That is my greatest aspiration – to be a mother,” Smart tells PEOPLE in 2014. Now, that’s a reality: She and husband Gilmour welcomed daughter Chloe in February, her father, Ed Smart, confirmed in May 2015. And though she’s become a notable activist for causes such as underage sex trafficking in the years since her 2002 kidnapping and subsequent rescue (a story she shared with the world in her 2013 memoir), he said his daughter, now 27, won’t bring this part of her life into the limelight. “It is totally private,” he says. “This is something she is keeping to herself and not trying to have out there.”