Stepdaughters provide emotional testimony of abuse by Brian David Mitchell
Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Two of Brian David Mitchell's stepdaughters provided emotional testimony Friday in the trial of the man accused of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart.
"He wanted to be more powerful than anything else. He wanted to be God-like," said LouRee Gayler, Mitchell's stepdaughter from his marriage to Wanda Barzee.
Both Gayler and Heidi Woodridge, a stepdaughter from Mitchell's second marriage to Debbie Woodridge, took the stand as rebuttal witnesses for the prosecution. Each spoke of severe abuses they suffered during the time they lived with Mitchell. Both said Mitchell was very controlling and they did not believe he was mentally ill at the time.
Shortly after taking the witness stand, Gayler was asked to point out her former stepfather in a family picture projected on a screen.
"I had no choice in the matter," she said, commenting on their relation.
In 1986 when Gayler was 12, she moved in with Barzee and Mitchell. From the beginning Mitchell attempted to dominate both women, sometimes in physical ways.
"Sometimes my mother would scream at night, I didn't know what it was about, I was afraid to look," she said. "It seemed more like a struggle, like he was overpowering her."
Gayler said she was never allowed to use the phone or go out with friends or have friends come over. The only time she was allowed to leave the apartment was for church and work. She said Mitchell and Barzee made her get a job, and then took every one of her paychecks.
"They were greedy. There was nothing that was enough for them. They always wanted more," she said.
Gayler said Mitchell always had to be touching Barzee or herself, as if to show his dominance. Sometimes the touching was inappropriate, she said. But she was also afraid of his wrath and didn't want to do anything to get him angry.
Near the end of her stay with the couple, Gayler convinced Mitchell to allow friends over to watch "Grease" for her 14th birthday. Mitchell found the movie objectionable, however, and abruptly ended the party and threw everyone out. To get back at him, Gayler said she and her friends filled paper bags with feces, peanut butter and syrup and "bombed" her own home.
It wasn't long after that Gayler came home from work one day and was told chicken was being served for dinner. The next morning, Gayler went to feed her pet rabbit, "Peaches," only to find she was missing. She went to ask Barzee where her rabbit was. Barzee was laughing.
"She told me I ate her for dinner last night," Gayler said, choking back tears while recounting the story. "(Peaches) was the only thing that loved me unconditionally and was my escape."
A few times, when Gayler was forced to pray with Mitchell and Barzee at night, Mitchell would pull out a box from under his bed. In the box were clippings of naked women from magazines. Gayler said while Mitchell was praying and Barzee apparently had her eyes closed, he would nudge Gayler and make her look at the pornographic images.
Mitchell was very conscious of his appearance when he went out in public, she testified. "He would present himself in whatever form he wanted everyone to see him."
He also spent a lot of time reading books about convicted serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, survival books and how to get the upper hand on people.
"It was an obsession of his to always have the upper hand," Gayler said. "He thought people were his puppets in a way. He was very smart, he was almost too smart. He thought he had a lot of control over everybody."
Mitchell enjoyed playing games with Gayler's and Barzee's minds, she said. Mitchell would act one way in church as if putting on an act, and then another way once he got home.
"It was a complete 180, absolutely. I actually liked who he was in church. The image that was presented at home, there was nothing but torment and chaos," Gayler said. "Power was important to Brian and he could never have enough."
Before Gayler ran away from Mitchell and Barzee's home, he started referring to himself as a prophet, she said. It was when he couldn't get the kind of power he wanted in the LDS Church that he started taking matters into his own hands, Gayler said.
Gayler said she has a hard time even today calling Barzee her mother.
Earlier in the day Friday, Woodridge took the witness stand, appearing very nervous and timid during her brief testimony. She held a tissue to wipe away tears, especially when discussing abuse that she suffered. Woodridge lived with Mitchell from ages 9 to 12.
One day while she was taking a bath, she said she heard movement from behind a nearby linen closet.
"I turned around and (Mitchell) was taking pictures of me while I was taking a bath," she said tearfully.
On another occasion, Mitchell and Debbie Woodridge were in a heated "in your face" type of argument. "Sometime after, I heard her scream," she said.
Heidi Woodridge went into the kitchen to find out what was wrong, and saw dead mice had been put inside the burners of the stove.
"She was just upset, she was petrified of mice," Woodridge said.
Prosecutors called a total of seven rebuttal witnesses to the stand Friday.
The longest testimony of the day came from Daniel Peterson, a professor of religious studies at BYU and an expert in religious texts. Prosecutors used Peterson mostly in an attempt to rebut the testimony of Dr. Richart DeMier, a veteran psychologist who examined Mitchell at the federal prison in Missouri and testified Thursday he believed Mitchell was paranoid schizophrenic.
DeMier said Mitchell's religious delusions were bizarre, meaning they weren't plausible.
But based on his readings of Mitchell's "Book of Immanuel David Isaiah," Peterson said he believed Mitchell's religious beliefs had many similarities to mainstream LDS teachings. Rather than rambling nonsense, Peterson called the books well-written.
"It's absolutely full of quotations, particularly from scriptural sources," he said. "(It) makes sense. He was never lost."
Mitchell's writings are full of scriptural references to the point that Peterson said he does not believe they contain a lot of information that hasn't already been said or written by someone else. The two volumes of books were written like a student term paper, lifting passages from many other sources, he said.
"One thing that strikes me about the (Book of Immanuel David Isaiah) is the barrenness of it. It just doesn't have a lot of ideas," he said.
Mitchell seemed to borrow from the Book of Mormon, the Old Testament, speeches from LDS prophets and even some Hebrew writings to form his manuscripts.
To say there was no cultural explanation for Mitchell's beliefs, therefore making them bizarre as DeMier testified, was wrong, Peterson said.
Concerning revelations, Peterson said Mitchell's ideas were very similar to those of practicing members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "His view of inspiration he describes is no different than, say, a mainstream Latter-day Saint would describe."
One difference, however, was that some of Mitchell's revelations lasted more than a year, which Peterson said is an idea and not a revelation.
Mitchell's idea of the Second Coming and the establishment of Zion is also based on mainstream Mormonism.
DeMier said Mitchell's "revelation" that Barzee, who had a hysterectomy, would be the mother of Zion and her womb would bear a child, was a bizarre delusion. But in a cultural context, Peterson said in the resurrection, you get everything back — a typical Mormon belief.
There are also many groups who claim to have a "one mighty and strong," as Mitchell has claimed he is, even if such groups don't have a following, Peterson said. He said he knows of a single family who has no followers but also claims to have a "one mighty and strong," which is taken from Mormon scripture.
"There is a crowd of the 'one mighty and strong' out there," Peterson said.
As for Mitchell's use of archaic language, Peterson said every Mormon is taught to use reverent language in prayers and blessings. Mainstream LDS Church members also believe they will be gods or goddesses one day. Ideas of repentance and forgiveness mentioned by Mitchell also come from mainstream LDS culture, the BYU professor testified.
At times, Peterson's testimony sounded more like a lecture on religious studies than court testimony to determine insanity, going over stories about Nephi and Noah.
If Mitchell were to be considered delusional because he found meaning in what most would consider everyday coincidences, Peterson said there would be a lot of other people who would be considered delusional.
Mitchell told Smart during the nine months she was kidnapped that she needed to sink below all things in order to rise above them. Peterson said that reference also came from a scripture. But in common religious terms, the scripture meant Christ experiencing temptation and weakness so that he could understand it. The scripture was not a "blank check" to go out and commit as much sin as one wanted, he said.
Paul Mecham was Mitchell's LDS stake president in Salt Lake City when Mitchell was married to Debbie Woodridge in the early to mid-80s. Mecham testified that his first impression of Mitchell was a clean-cut, soft-spoken, good-looking man. But Mecham said he saw a very different person when confronted with allegations of "improper behavior."
"The first sentence that included the word 'improper,' there was an explosion. This mild-mannered young man stood, shouted and denied any, any, any improper action of any kind," Mecham testified. "He then stormed out, and I have not seen him since."
When Mecham later learned Mitchell had been granted a recommend to enter a Mormon temple, the former stake president said he felt "dismay, almost unbelief." Outside the courtroom, Mecham described Mitchell as a "master manipulator" who likely deceived his church leaders to receive a recommend.
Mecham said he often witnessed Mitchell interact with other church members. He would be animated to some and more calm to others. "It dawned on me he was playing to his audience," he said.
Mecham also noted it was interesting that sacrament meeting was the one meeting that Mitchell never attended, but his wife and children did.
When asked whether there was ever an indication of mental illness during the time he knew Mitchell, Mecham said, "No."
Another prosecution witness Friday was psychologist Randall Oster, who conducted a mental evaluation of Mitchell when the defendant wanted to put his two children from his first marriage up for adoption. Oster, who worked for Sugarhouse Mental Health when he did the evaluation in 1983, said Mitchell was mentally fit to relinquish custody of children."
"In my opinion, (Mitchell) did not show evidence of a severe mental illness," Oster testified.
Mitchell's former brother-in-law also testified he did not believe Mitchell was mentally ill. "I didn't see anything that would make me think that he was," said Scott Dean.
Next week is expected to be the final week of the trial.
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