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Elizabeth Smart On 'Heartbreaking' Gabby Petito Case And How Others Missing Deserve 'Every Bit As Much To Be Found'

“Are they any less worthy? Has any less of a hole been left because they’re gone?" kidnapping survivor and victim’s advocate Elizabeth Smart said of other missing persons cases in the wake of Gabby Petito's disappearance and death.

By Jill Sederstrom
Elizabeth Smart Gabby Pettito G Ig

Elizabeth Smart—who was kidnapped, raped and held hostage by her captors for nine months before escaping—called the search for Gabby Petito and the case’s tragic end “heartbreaking” during an appearance on Red Table Talk.

“In Gabby’s case in particular, I was alive and I came home and hers tragically has not ended that way,” Smart said. “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.”

Smart discussed her own harrowing story, the parallel aspects her case may have had to Petito’s and the countless missing persons cases that do not get as much media attention with the show’s hosts Jada Pinkett Smith and Adrienne Banfield-Norris.

Smart was rescued nine months after being kidnapped at the age of 14 by street preacher Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee by police officers on a street in Sandy, Utah after eagle-eyed witnesses spotted the teen and called police, she said.

Her 2002 kidnapping sent shockwaves across the country and dominated national news, much like Petito’s disappearance in late August. Petito disappeared while on a cross-country road trip with boyfriend Brian Laundrie, who later returned home to Florida in the couple’s converted camper van without her.

Investigators in Petito’s case would later find her remains in the Grand Teton National Park. Dr. Brent Blue, the coroner in Teton County announced in a press conference earlier this week that the 22-year-old had been strangled to death.

Although the search for Petito had a tragic end, Smart emphasized the need to investigate and publicize the search for all missing people.

“My parents always said the worst part of having me gone was not knowing—was not knowing if I was alive and out there or if I was dead and actually when I was being taken up into the mountains that first night that I was kidnapped, I asked (Mitchell) 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,” she said. “So, when I think of Gabby Petito, when I think of all these other victims, I feel like they still deserve just every bit as much to be found so that their stories have an ending as well.”

She echoed comments made by Petito’s father, Joseph Petito, during a press conference on Sept. 22 where her family urged the media to bring awareness to other missing persons cases that don’t receive the same attention.

“This same type of heightened awareness should be continued for everyone ― everyone," Joseph Petito said at the time. “It’s on all of you, everyone that’s in this room, to do that and if you don’t do that for other people that are missing, that’s a shame, because it’s not just Gabby that deserves that.”

Smart—who is now a vocal advocate for victim’s rights—said the media attention surrounding her own case is what led to her rescue, after she was spotted with Barzee and Mitchell by concerned witnesses. The same type of publicity, she said, should be given to other cases.

“Are they any less worthy? Has any less of a hole been left because they’re gone? No, like, they’re somebody,” she said.

After reviewing body camera footage from Moab Police officers of a domestic violence stop of Petito and Laundrie just weeks before the 22-year-old disappeared, where Petito is seen crying and insisting she had been to blame for the heated argument, Smart also addressed her own experience with the police.

Although she had been raped, chained and held captive for months, she said when she was first approached by police officers in Utah, she didn’t immediately admit her identity, in part, because of the conditioning and fear Barzee and Mitchell had instilled in 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,” she said. “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.”

Petito’s death remains unsolved. Authorities have named Laundrie as a person of interest in her disappearance, but he vanished himself last month.

At the end of last year, according to the FBI, the National Crime Information Center had 89,637 active missing persons records.

“It is a massive problem. I mean, every 90 seconds a person disappears, a person goes missing,” Smart said.  “Just in the time that we’ve been sitting here chatting, there’s people who have already gone missing.”

"The Murder of Gabby Petito: Truth, Lies and Social Media" will air on Oxygen on Monday, January 24 at 9/8c. It's also available to stream on Peacock now.