Some news stories are hard for us to believe; others we would rather not believe. When news appeared earlier this May about the escape of Amanda Berry from an unassuming house in Cleveland after 10 years of imprisonment, many of us had both of these reactions simultaneously: How could this happen for so long with no one noticing? and How could someone do this to another person? It is, indeed, difficult to fathom not only how episodes of kidnapping and abuse could go unobserved for such a long time but also how a publicly friendly neighbor could be so privately inhumane.
Amanda Berry and her fellow prisoners Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight now face the task of rebuilding their lives and coping with the traumatic nature of their experience. Sadly, their situation is not entirely unique. Over the years, there have been other instances where young women have been kidnapped and their lives altered by forces beyond their control—sometimes by a disturbed individual, sometimes by a misguided organization, and sometimes by even a family member. We recall a few of the more notorious cases below.
Elizabeth Smart. In Salt Lake City in 2002, while she slept in the bedroom that she shared with her sister, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped at knifepoint. She was dragged into the Utah woods and held prisoner by Brian David Mitchell, who referred to himself as Immanuel, and his wife, Wanda Barzee. Mitchell starved the girl, force-fed her drugs and alcohol, and raped her daily in an attempt to brainwash her into believing that he was a prophet. Mitchell and Barzee roamed Utah and California for almost nine months with Smart in tow before they were discovered and arrested.
The key to breaking the case was Smart’s sister. Terrified, she had stayed still during the kidnapping, but she saw the man and recognized him as a former handyman hired by the Smarts. Police identified Mitchell, and his photograph was shown on the TV show America’s Most Wanted. Less than a month later, Mitchell and Barzee were caught and Smart was returned to her family.
Despite her harrowing experience, Elizabeth Smart quickly picked up her life where it had left off. She finished high school, attended Brigham Young University, and worked as a bank clerk. She also became an advocate for kidnapping survivors and helped to author the United States Department of Justice’s 2008 handbook for kidnapping survivors, You Are Not Alone.
Jaycee Dugard. In 1991, Jaycee Dugard, only 11 years old, was kidnapped outside of her home in South Lake Tahoe, California. Her stepfather witnessed her abduction and immediately contacted the authorities, but Jaycee could not be located. She had been transported almost 200 miles away to the town of Antioch, where she was held prisoner by a convicted rapist named Phillip Garrido and his wife, Nancy. For the next 18 years, Dugard would be their prisoner and would end up bearing two children by Garrido.
Like Brian David Mitchell, Phillip Garrido felt he had religious justification for his actions. “The Creator has given me the ability to speak in the tongue of angels in order to provide a wake-up call that will in time include the salvation of the whole world,” he wrote. While distributing fliers related to his new church, God’s Desire, on the University of California campus at Berkeley, campus police asked him to register his organization. They soon discovered Garrido’s criminal record, which led them to Jaycee’s rescue.
Jaycee would reunite with her family and attempt to reclaim her life. In 2011, she published the memoir A Stolen Life, a wrenching account of her years of captivity.
Patty Hearst. The University of California at Berkeley was the site of Phillip Garrido’s capture; it was also the site, 35 years earlier, of the highest profile kidnapping in American history. Except for the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, no other case has inspired as much media attention and commentary as the abduction of Patty Hearst.
Granddaughter of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Patricia Campbell Hearst was 19 when she was kidnapped at UC Berkeley by revolutionary activists the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) on February 4, 1974. While held by the SLA, Heart was indoctrinated into their radical ideology, eventually adopting it as her own in taped messages to the media. She renamed herself Tania and was seen taking part in a bank robbery in San Francisco and a shoot-out at a sporting goods store in Los Angeles.
The FBI pursued and finally captured Hearst on September 18, 1975. She denied joining the revolutionaries, saying that she was drugged and coerced; nevertheless, she was found guilty of participating in the bank robbery and sentenced to prison. President Carter reduced her sentence in 1979, and President Clinton pardoned her in 2001, granting her official absolution. However, Hearst remains a controversial figure, and some critics still consider her not entirely blameless in the crimes committed by the SLA.
Kyoko Chan Cox. Yoko Ono is most famous for being the wife of John Lennon, but before she met Lennon, she had been married twice before. Her second marriage, to filmmaker/musician/art promoter Anthony Cox, resulted in the birth of her daughter Kyoko in 1963. Kyoko became the subject of an intense custody battle, and subsequent abduction, in the early 70s.
Yoko Ono and Anthony Cox divorced in 1969 and fought for two years over custody of Kyoko. (Ono wrote a song about the situation called “Don’t Worry, Kyoko.”) In 1971, the court ruled against Cox, and in violation of the order, he took Kyoko and disappeared. He joined the Living Word Fellowship, a cultish Christian group known as “The Walk.” Kyoko, renamed Rosemary, lived an underground existence throughout most of the 70s, until Cox left the church. Kyoko, primarily raised by Cox even when her parents were together, admitted that “it was painful losing my mom,” but that she loved her father and chose to stay with him.
In 1980, Cox contacted Ono to express condolences for Lennon’s death. Ono admitted publicly that she would not seek to prosecute Cox for violation of the court order. It wasn’t until 1994, however, that Kyoko, newly married herself, was reunited with her mother.
Elizabeth Fritzl. Kyoko Chan Cox’s abduction by her father, although unfortunate, is benign compared to the story of Elizabeth Fritzl, the victim of one of the most horrifying cases of abuse and imprisonment by a family member on record.
Sexually abused by her father Joseph from the age of 11, Elizabeth was lured into a specially prepared cellar in her house in Amstetten, Austria, at age 18. Joseph Fritzl locked her in the cellar and held her captive, telling police that his daughter had run away from home to join a cult. For the next 24 years, Fritzl physically assaulted Elizabeth and impregnated her eight times. Three of the children were raised “upstairs,” while three others stayed with Elizabeth in the cellar in semi-darkness as part of the “downstairs” family (the other two children died).
On April 19, 2008, when one of the “downstairs” children underwent kidney failure, Joseph Fritzl was forced to seek medical attention. Elizabeth was allowed out of the cellar; at the hospital, authorities began to question Joseph Fritzl’s information. Eleven days later, Elizabeth told her full story to the police, and her father was arrested and imprisoned. He was sentenced to life in 2009.
Today Elizabeth Fritzl lives under a new identity in an undisclosed location in Austria. Reportedly, she is adjusting to life above ground, and against all odds, her “upstairs” and “downstairs” children are uniting into one family.