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Abduction survivor Smart tells conference that trafficking ‘happens everywhere’

Elizabeth Smart-Gilmour speaks Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, in Sioux Falls, S.D., during a news conference prior to addressing a conference on human trafficking. U.S. Attorney for the District of South Dakota Brendan Johnson and Deb Fischer-Clemens, senior vice president of public policy for Avera, also are pictured. Mary Jo Hotzler/Forum News Service

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- Kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart-Gilmour cemented a message that was threaded throughout Wednesday’s events at a violent crime and human trafficking conference in Sioux Falls: that these crimes can happen anywhere and to anyone.

Smart-Gilmour said, in a way, she’s grateful for what happened to her because it’s given her a voice for the cause. Since her rescue and recovery, she has worked with the Department of Justice, given speeches and started a foundation, all in efforts to raise awareness of the dangers of abductions and trafficking and to work with victims.

“I’m grateful because it helps me help break a mold, to help break ideas that have been so set -- that kidnapping, that human trafficking, that violence doesn’t happen in our neighborhoods,” she said.

Her speech punctuated a day of panels and speeches of experts often mentioning a similar message, of how trafficking and other crimes against children happen in every corner of America.

Wednesday was the second day of a three-day conference hosted by Avera Medical Group and the Dakotas’ U.S. attorneys. Panelists discussed the Internet’s role in crimes, South Dakota’s experiences with trafficking and its presence in western North Dakota’s Bakken region. About 600 public safety, health care and victim services professionals were in attendance.

In her speech, Smart-Gilmour recounted her time in abduction -- frequent rapes, being chained to “camp,” and interacting with police but not escaping -- with the overarching message that she never thought she would be the kind of girl to be kidnapped.

“I remember thinking, no, there’s just no way, no way a human being could do that to another human being,” she said. “At least, not me. I wasn’t out walking in dark alleys. I didn't live on the wrong side of the tracks.”

She mentioned how her abductors took her from her bed while she was sleeping, in a Salt Lake City neighborhood, where her best friends lived close by and where she would walk to the bus stop.

“Certainly for me growing up, I didn’t think anything would ever happen in my neighborhood,” Smart-Gilmour said.

Known as Elizabeth Smart at the time, she was abducted from her home while sleeping in a room she shared with her sister in June 2002. She was rescued nine months later. The story rang throughout the country, hitting headlines after her rescue.

“I felt like my parents were very big on security, but the one thing they never would’ve taught me (was) … what to do if I was ever asleep in bed and someone woke me up with a knife at my neck and told me to go with them,” she said.

When the abductor, Brian David Mitchell, told her he was marrying her the night she was taken, “that’s what broke it all,” she said. From a makeshift camp in a grove of trees not far from her Utah home, she screamed.

“I just remember him looking at me and saying if I ever screamed out again he’d kill me and it just didn’t matter what I said or did, he’d kill me,” she said.

Echoing speeches at the conference about the use of coercion in trafficking crimes, Smart said the threats against her and her family were stronger than any physical restraints placed on her.

She connected her story, and her own realizations, to the fight against crimes today.

“Human trafficking, kidnapping, abuse -- it happens everywhere,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you live on the wrong side of the tracks or the right side of the tracks. It doesn't matter who you are or what your last name is.”

She applauded the conference for its efforts to honor victims’ needs.

“When I was recovered, our system was a bit broken. It wasn’t streamlined,” she said. “... There wasn’t necessarily a protocol put in place. I did go to the hospital, I went through a physical, I went through a rape kit, I went home and I had just an onslaught of people and different organizations and hospitals,” she said.

In a news conference before her speech, Smart-Gilmour said the sooner people begin to open their eyes, the sooner communities can fight violent crimes.