Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
If Stephen Smith had looked over his shoulder in August or September, he might’ve noticed that two people always seemed to be watching him. They peered at him while he typed on the computers at the Arlington County Public Library and tailed him as he moved through the library’s stacks and passageways.
These were Smith’s neighbors: Scott Springston and son.
Whenever the Springstons felt the need to check on Smith—who lived within a stone’s throw of their house in Cherrydale—they went to the library. “We’d go [there] to get books or videos and see if he was there,” says Scott Springston, 54.
Smith was a remarkable quarry. “It’s like he’s a secret agent in there,” says Springston. “He’ll be up there on the computers. He goes down, goes to the bathroom…and goes to another section. He’s going all around the place like he’s trying to make a good exit. Then he’d go out the back door. He’d go out and sit in the chairs and just talk to somebody. Then he’d come back in. Then he’d go out the front door and go sit. And then he’d come back in, go upstairs. And he just does this over and over, and it makes it very tough to follow him without getting seen.”
The Springstons don’t normally tail their neighbors. Until Smith, in fact, they didn’t really have neighbors worth tailing. The little Cherrydale neighborhood, which sits astride the intersection of North Arlington’s Lee Highway and Military Road, has always been tranquil.
The vibe hasn’t undergone much adjustment, despite a property boom sweeping over the area and leaving behind McMansions and housing developments with such names as the Bromptons. European cars are edging out Japanese brands, brown-skinned yard workers replacing once-brown yards. Crime concerns for the present remain on the back burner. Speeding cars, a homeless man rummaging through trashbins, the mischief-makers who stole the heads from Springston’s decorative lawn figurines—these are the things that define Cherrydale grit.
Smith was different. A dapper, 52-year-old dude, he had moved into Cherrydale more than a year ago—enough time for most people to get to know their neighbors. Yet Smith remained an unknown quantity. He dressed business-casual, smiled a lot, and didn’t reveal much about where he came from or other personal details. He did pass out business cards that ID’d him as a specialist in mergers and acquisitions. Springston saw him walking down the road once and asked him how it was going. “And he goes, ‘Workin’ hard…workin’ hard.’ Then I turned to him and said, ‘Well, what are you doing?’ And he looked back at me and gave me this look, like, Hmmm. ‘Oh, I’m working hard,’ he said.”
Suspecting…something, Springston went to the cops, hoping to look through their mugbooks. “I said, ‘I just want to know who this guy is. He could be anybody. Stephen Smith: Yeah, sure.’” But he says the cops shooed him away. That’s around the time when he and his son started up their program to infiltrate Smith’s private world. But they have little to show for their efforts. “We became private detectives and started following him,” Springston says. “And we went to the library. And he spent a great deal of time sitting at the library like a bum—these homeless guys just sit around the library.”
On one of the more interesting missions, they saw Smith pick up a stack of DVDs. That was odd, considering that his landlady claimed he didn’t have a working TV in his apartment. Then he went to a bench, set them down, and left. A moment later, a man in a business suit came over, put the DVDs into his business case, and went to another part of the library. Was it a timed drop? Or was it coincidence?
“I felt as if they were keeping tabs on me,” e-mails Smith. “I did see Scott following me one time I think.”
That might have been the time that the Springstons had gone to the library to borrow a book and see if Smith was in attendance when they ran smack into him. “Just as we were going in, here he comes out the door,” says Springston. “So we duck down in the bushes.” Smith kept walking away from the library. Springston and son cautiously followed.
They stuck on Smith for several blocks—hiding behind corners when they got too close, jogging to catch up when Smith got too far—until he disappeared into nearby Ballston Common Mall. Running inside, they re-established visual contact from about three stores away. Smith went into a pub. Then he came back out. Then he went in and out of stores, stopping, looking around. That’s when the spies sensed their cover had finally been blown.
“He ran out the door [going] the other way and disappeared,” says Springston, “so we were sure he thought we were following him.”
If Smith seemed a little out of place to the folks in Cherrydale, it might’ve been because Cherrydale wasn’t Smith’s kind of place. He’s lived in swanky Venice, Calif., according to recent divorce papers, and on the exotic Rue du Rhône in Geneva. Most recently he was staying in a grand town house on Massachusetts Avenue NW. His neighbor: the Embassy of Burkina Faso.
Yep, Cherrydale was a big step down. Smith tried to make the best of the small-town experience, though. He came out to watch the annual neighborhood parade last October, for instance, where he impressed Springston with cordial comments on the local “feel.” Springston later recounted this happy conversation for all to read on the Cherrydale Citizens Association’s Yahoo group.
“One of our new residents of Cherrydale said that one of the main reasons he moved here was that everyone he talked too [sic] said Cherrydale was like Mayberry,” Springston wrote. “As he was standing watching the Cherrydale parade go by, he said with a big smile on his face, ‘Boy, this sure is like Mayberry’!!”
Smith’s first Cherrydale residence was a room in a brick bungalow on North Quebec Street. He didn’t have a car or much of substance, but he did obtain a mattress from somewhere and, his landlord says, claimed furniture that had been sitting outside his room. It was a Spartan setup. But for what Smith was doing, he didn’t need property—he needed brains.
Smith was engaged in financing the Worldwide Lottery. “Long story shorter, Jordan Gerberg is the founder of Worldwide Lottery. Go to www.worldwidelottery.com to see it,” e-mails Smith. “We need about $20M to launch it.” That’s quite a pile of change, which the Worldwide Lottery—motto: “Betting for a Better World”—matches in vision. The game BillionBall, according to the Web site, will have “a high profile celebrity drawing conducted on New Years Eve at 12:00 midnight GMT.” The winner’s jackpot, representing bets from all over the world, “will exceed a BILLION Euro over time”—which will then partly fund global literacy, clean air, and disaster-and-poverty-relief efforts.
That might sound like pie in the sky, but that’s Smith’s claim to fame: He has the ability to see money where most people see nothing.
“He’s a smart guy,” says Hunter Jenkins, president of the venture-capital firm Venture Forth. Jenkins handles Smith and several other money hounds on a contingency basis out of an Old Town Alexandria office. So far, he says, Smith’s made the company between $10,000 and $12,000. “He’s working on a couple [of projects now]. We did one here about nine months ago, getting some funding for a computer-based company.”
One of the signs of genius, it’s said, is the ability to synthesize seemingly independent concepts. Smith’s résumé suggests he has that knack: He lays claim to crossbreeding grocery-store coupons and credit cards, celebrities and restaurant franchises, clocks and pacifism. And when he recognizes similar genius in other people’s ideas, he runs after it as if it were his own. Years ago, he was involved in the development of a plasma generator—a yet-unmarketable device that transforms garbage into energy with very little pollution. That effort, he says, yielded a couple of “soft letters” from Al Gore.
“To share a slice of my biz life,” e-mails Smith, “I created the Electronic Coupon, called Automatic Coupon Transfer, back in 1984. Whichever food market or pharmacy store you currently shop at probably has the ‘Club Card’. It was also a consumer information system. Long story very short, I developed it for about 2 years, had the A. C. Nielsen Co. and others very interested in it. Then…a professor at UCLA, acting as liaison for Citicorp, met with me and offered me $5M to buy me out. I asked for $20M and the next thing that happened was they stole it from me and I didn’t get paid a dime.”
Smith’s other projects include a sit-down eatery featuring Hollywood memorabilia, an idea that somebody else later developed into Planet Hollywood. He’s also chasing down funds for “The Time for Peace Project,” a sweeping architectural statement on the International Peace Movement. That project, along with his plasma-generator work and the Worldwide Lottery, are characteristic of the types of challenges Smith likes to take up: efforts big enough to benefit humanity down the road. If that seems a little touchy-feely for a mergers-and-acquisitions specialist, well, Smith does have a sensitive side. A poetic side, even.
In 1987, Smith says he was honored to see his poem, “The Great Effort,” read by Walter Cronkite and later ensconced in a time capsule at the Bicentennial celebration in Philadelphia. A more recent poem, “Creation, Again,” reveals more about why Smith chooses to raise funds for the projects he does. “So find the time to look into yourself,” the poem advises, “And discover that treasure/Of inner wealth/For we are here from a higher plain/To fulfill our mission/Creation, Again.”
Smith dresses in jeans, sports jackets, and hip, laceless shoes. His speech is not tolerant of errors in grammar, slips of pronunciation, or time-and-money-wasting pauses. Like a true go-getter, he drinks canned espresso from Starbucks, which he jokes is “liquid crack.” Considering all these muted signals of accomplishment, Springston was surprised in early August when he came upon a queer message regarding Smith on the civic-association Yahoo group.
It was from Linda Horton, Smith’s second landlord in Cherrydale.
“There is a man in our neighborhood going by the name of Stephen Smith,” Horton wrote. “I met him several times while out gardening in my front yard. He is around 50 with short, brownish-grey hair and looks and speaks professionally. He asked if he could rent a room in my house for two weeks at the end of May and I have not been able to get rid of him. I have had to go to the sheriff’s office and cannot do anything until a court date three weeks from now. He has approached other neighbors of mine trying to move into their homes. Beware!!…He is living under my roof (because of my stupidity) rent-free and I have to simply deal with it until we go to court.”
Linda Horton moved to Cherrydale because her last home—in post-Katrina New Orleans—had become too depressing for her. She picked up the lease on a friend’s place on North 17th Street, a cute little house with comfy sofas, an often-used fireplace, and a forest-rimmed backyard.
Horton had met Smith a few time out in the front yard and had talked about New Orleans. When Smith broached the subject of renting a room, she told him he could crash with her for a short time. “He said he had this job opportunity in Geneva, Switzerland, and that he was supposed to be leaving in two weeks,” she says.
Of course, there was something else in her mind that helped seal the deal. “Geez,” she recalls thinking, “maybe he would be somebody I could go out with.”
Smith moved into Horton’s place on June 3, arriving in a car with a roommate from his North Quebec Street bungalow. The roommate helped carry in his mattress and then took off, leaving behind Smith and a small contingent of personal items. Smith walked downstairs to claim his room, which was next to Horton’s in the basement.
Before Smith arrived, Horton had planned to renovate the room into a sewing/guest room. Either designation would’ve elevated it from its eerie title of “The Room Under the Stairs,” as Horton liked to call it. It’s a cramped space, with faint natural lighting coming through two small windows, and with just enough floor for a restless tenant to walk in small circles.
Once settled, Smith got about his business, which at that point involved keeping his VC skills sharp by practicing on his neighbors. A woman on North 17th Street says he asked her husband for a loan of several thousand dollars. (Unsuccessfully.) Down the road, the proprietor of a wine shop reports Smith took him aside and requested a cool thou. (Again, unsuccessfully.) This odd method of fundraising struck a chord with Springston, who was hit up for an advance himself before he started tracking Smith. “It is true,” e-mails Smith, “that last Dec. I asked to borrow $2K from Scott to get home for Christmas to see my son.”
Springston proved to be a Grinch. “[Smith] says, ‘Well, I’ve got this big land deal going. I’m real close to closing on it. And big money’s coming in right after Christmas, but right now I’m sort of hurting,’” says Springston. “I said, ‘I haven’t got two cents to give you, much less two thousand, and I wouldn’t if I had.’” The sticking point, he says, was that Smith said Ted Turner was involved in the land deal. “It’s like, ‘Come on. Yeah, and I’m in touch with Shatner, too.’”
Horton also recalls Smith bringing up Turner—and famous acquaintances such as Steven Spielberg, and Joe Walsh, and Sting. “I went, My god. What am I dealing with?” she says. After a couple of weeks, Horton asked for a progress update on Geneva and got no firm answer. She asked again after the one-month mark and recalls him replying that these things take time. “Then my antenna went up,” she says, “and I said, ‘What happens if you don’t get the job in Geneva?’” Smith said he’d enact Plan B.
“To clarify with Linda,” e-mails Smith, “when I moved in I did so with a job pending in Geneva which I had a really good chance of getting….I used to live there during 2000-’01. I told her that I should have a definitive answer within 2-6 weeks since that’s what my potential employer, the International School of Geneva, told me.” But when, after the maximum six weeks, he got an official letter stating he didn’t get the job, he was in a bit of a pickle. “At that time I was fully paid-up with Linda for my rent. Then, since I did not have the money to move out, I was stuck.”
Horton refused Smith’s offer to keep renting the room, and after that, rent money stopped changing hands. She talked with her landlady, who advised her to present a letter to Smith notifying him of the need to depart. Horton did, to no avail. And as the days rolled by, she was dismayed to see Smith adopting the habits of a rent-paying roommate. He’d go into the laundry-room fridge and Bogart her last beer—not unheard of among renters, but “it’s more annoying when it’s somebody you don’t like and that you don’t want there,” says Horton. Also, he’d turn off her stereo when she stepped out of the room.
Life under Plan B proved to be a drag. Smith returned home after Horton and her other tenant, 33-year-old design student Louine Wailes, had gone to bed. Sometimes he knocked on Wailes’ window if he’d misplaced his key, and Wailes once met him “on the porch howling, kind of like singing at the moon or something,” he says. “And I go on out there and say, ‘What are you doing? Are you making that noise?’ And he goes, ‘I dunno. Maybe.’”
The morning sun occasionally broke over empty beer cans resting on a table in the backyard. Once, Horton baked a blackberry pie and set it on the stove. “And he took a huge spoon and just spooned into the pie until he’d eaten the pie, and just left it on the stove with the spoon in the [empty crust],” she says. “He is so gross.”
After several drinks one evening, Horton went into Smith’s room, picked up his belongings, and threw them out to the curb. But police officers came and made her take the stuff back in. And when she was digging in a desk to show them her eviction file on Smith, an officer looking over her shoulder noticed a marijuana bowl in the drawer.
“So I got busted for possession” of drug paraphernalia, Horton says. “Isn’t that lovely?”
Horton may be naive when it comes to choosing tenants, but with Smith, at least she has company. Like Smith’s landlord from the Burkina Faso town house, an elderly lady who says she asked Smith to leave after he didn’t pay rent. Or like Smith’s landlord from the bungalow, a 20-year real-estate vet who speaks on the condition of anonymity.
“He said he needed a room; he needed to move in as soon as possible. He claimed he was living in a historic building in Washington, D.C., and they were closing down the building,” says the landlord, who recalls Smith mentioning Turner and the Worldwide Lottery. He thought Smith worked for the State Department. “You believe it all, and then you turn around and look at your checks a month later, and he’s bounced his deposit, and he’s bounced his rent.”
After one boot-out attempt, which the landlord says Smith dashed by giving him money donated by a church and a county eviction-prevention program, Smith stopped paying rent again in the spring and was actually evicted sometime thereafter. There were significant intervals between the filing of the eviction papers and Smith’s scheduled eviction dates, because Virginia housing code entitles tenants who don’t pay rent to room and board until the courts rule in a landlord’s favor. That process can take months.
In fact, it was partly his outrage over this housing provision that encouraged Springston to start tracking Smith. Virginia law endorsed the establishment of a boarderocracy, and Smith was an omen of a very different, future Cherrydale: one where strange men with suspiciously generic names bled a helpless populace dry. Springston contacted beat cops and the Arlington County detective’s office to try to get somebody to do something about Smith. Nobody jumped to help.
“This to me is the real issue here, not so much that this guy is mooching on [Horton]….The real issue to me is that the police are hapless to do anything about it,” says Springston. “[The police] said, ‘When he does move, we can assist him in moving.’ Well, he’s not going to let the police assist into moving [in with the next] person he takes advantage of.”
“Nobody can win here,” he says. “Somebody is going to get stuck with this jerk, thanks to the system and the laws.”
Horton started the eviction process on July 26. Now that she was satisfied the gears of justice were turning, she could turn her attention to something she probably should’ve handled long ago: the vetting process.
She turned to her neighbors for information. Actually, her next-door neighbor first turned to her, after getting an e-mail from Smith. “[He] e-mailed her and told her that there were things going on in the neighborhood and that he thought it’d be a good idea for him to house-sit her house,” says Horton. Alarmed that her eviction of Smith might only push him 30 feet to the east, Horton told the woman to reject the deal.
On one September weekend, Horton pays a visit to Smith’s previous home up the road. Driving over a single hill, she pulls up next to the bungalow. She knocks on the door and is soon talking with Smith’s old roommates, student Toru Saitoh, programmer Joe LeBlanc, and programmer Luke Samad.
“He seemed to hang around the house a lot,” says LeBlanc, 24. “It seemed like he was doing something, but it wasn’t real regular.”
“I shared a phone [bill] with him,” says Saitoh, 33. “He owes me.”
“He told me he had a job in construction. I loaned him $150,” says Samad, 29. “I didn’t expect it back, because I knew he was down on his luck, and I do all right.”
The young men recall hearing Smith crying. He occasionally got money wired to him, but the bulk of his funds existed solely in his imagination: Great piles of cash were always just out of reach. Samad says he showed him CareerBuilder.com and Monster.com, hoping to turn him on to a stable job. But the pull of the Worldwide Lottery was too strong. “He’s a decent guy—he’s just trying to hit a home run,” says Samad. “So after loaning him money and everything, I just gave up. I said, ‘OK, well, he’s out of our house.’”
And into Horton’s. Samad was the one who helped him carry in his mattress. “I’m sorry. Yeah, I’m sorry,” he tells her. “I didn’t want to say anything when he was moving in there.”
“I’ve always been blessed, or should we say cursed, with the creative gene,” says Smith. “It’s a double-edged sword….You have to ignore other things—like rent.”
On the day before Smith’s Sept. 16 eviction, Horton’s house is on lockdown. There’s a padlock on the laundry-room door to prevent water-and-beer thieving and a new lock on Wailes’ door. Both purchases were inspired by Smith.
He’s staying out late this night. So Horton crashes on the basement sofa outside his room with a wrench in her hand. She also has a hammer by her bed, which gives her a formidable toolbox with which to battle her boarder. “You can’t imagine how incredibly stressful this is,” she says, “not knowing what he’s going to do….Is he going to lash back? Is he going to slash me up?”
The sewing-room occupancy, which is in its 13th week, has been tough on all involved. When Smith found out that Horton had inherited her lease from a friend after he died, he took the opportunity to point out how fortunate she was. That would make her “lose it.” “He used to torment me: ‘You’re so lucky. After you get roommates, you won’t need to pay rent,’” she says.
Smith would apparently lose it himself whenever his roommates brought up the issue of squatting. “He would get so angry,” Wailes says, adding that Smith told him he’d like to meet him “on the street.” “[He] would be like, ‘Trust me. I want out of here as much as you want me out of here. I know this person, and I’ve done this, and I’ve been here, and you don’t know’—and how hostile to him we are or just how unworthy we are. It was really heavy-handed. It was like, ‘OK, you know what? This isn’t helping—this is just making us hate you even more! Just stop talking.’”
Eventually, everyone did, preferring to walk silently past one another to their respective rooms.
It’s after midnight when Smith finally comes home for his last night on North 17th Street. He asks to talk with Horton, which she refuses to do, and then retreats into his room. Horton remains troubled. If Smith actually does leave in the morning, she thinks, that might be the last she’ll see of him. She’ll never know why he chose to spend his summer with her. Plus, she doesn’t want to fall asleep and let down her guard. So she gets up, pours a gin for Smith, and goes into his room.
“I just tried to understand,” Horton says the next morning. “I just said, ‘Do you need antidepressants? Do you need mental-health care? I mean, what is going on with you?’” And Smith, she says, replied, “Why do you hate me so much?” After a while, Horton went back to the sofa, still disturbed. Around 9 a.m., a cab arrived outside the house. Horton jerked awake. “I’m like a spring,” she says. “I just got up and started drinking again.”
Smith carried his clothes and some boxes upstairs, cleaned his room, and left. He beat his scheduled eviction by an hour.
Horton tried to follow the cab in her car but lost it after the taxi driver pulled a series of illegal turns in the Cherrydale hinterlands. (“I stopped [the chase] from happening,” e-mails Smith.) The only trinkets she had to remember Smith by would soon be disposed of: scribbled-on pages from the Washington Post, a stratum of cigarette ash on the windowsill, and a plastic container with yellow droplets in it that Smith left by her sink. She digests it all while sitting on her front porch, philosophically sucking on a cigarette.
“This morning, he was nice,” she says. “He shook my hand and thanked me.”
A couple of days later, Smith sits at the bar of Caribbean Breeze, a froufrou Nuevo-Latino restaurant in Arlington. He’s sipping his second mojito—courtesy of this reporter’s expense account—and talking business.
He’s got a couple of things going. The historic Chateau Saint-Roch in the heart of French wine country is for sale. He’s courting an investor who thinks it might be a good location for a five-star hotel. But the big project of the moment is Time for Peace.
As Smith explains it, he was sitting outside the Virginia Square Metro station earlier this year when he happened to notice a nearby clock tower. In Smith’s hand was a newspaper opened to an article detailing the latest Israeli/Lebanese fracas. He got to thinking about how long warfare has plagued the earth, then about how society treats that blood-soaked timeline—by erecting immense sculptural signifiers such as the Arc de Triomphe and the National World War II Memorial. There are monuments and memorials to war, Smith thought. I want there to be one to peace.
As Smith described his final conception in a letter to the Swiss Swatch company, a potential financer:
“The basic idea of the Time for Peace project is that there will be a four legged, four-sided, vertical, steel structure, a unique in design sculpture, which will stand approx. 2-3 stories high, and on each side (n,s,e,w) there will be about 8-10 large sized clocks, each representing the time in each capital city of the country facing in that particular direction,” he wrote. “I want to approach the UN with this idea in having these structures in each of their 191 member nations; and introducing it as a special global peace initiative via a new UN Resolution. If the UN is not interested in being involved, we will approach each nation individually.”
The Swatch communications department recently called to talk about the project, he says. He hopes the idea’s going up the ladder. “I don’t have any money behind it. I don’t have anything but myself,” he says. “I need an angel right now—a financial angel to say, ‘OK, let’s take this to the next level.’”
Smith doesn’t really want to talk about his stay in Cherrydale. He guesses that he owes Horton about $600. “I’m the bad guy. I admit it,” he says. “But I’m not ‘a bad guy.’ I just need money.”
As the night progresses, Smith becomes more and more charming. He cries, “Mazel Tov!” when a female patron accidentally breaks her martini glass, and at another point he runs across the room to chat up a waiter he hasn’t seen for a while. The night ends with him sharing his newest idea: scoring tickets to Pink Floyd. He hopes this newspaper will be able to help with that. “Pink Floyd!” he shouts outside the restaurant, heading in the opposite direction as this reporter.
Later, he sends a follow-up e-mail: “A friend of mine told me that he spotted 2 VIP Section tickets in the Wash. Post yesterday, both for $300…not bad actually, considering that the face value prices range from $119.50 to $500 per.”
And then: “You are aware that Roger [Waters] is going to be doing the entire Dark Side of the Moon album, right? And that this will be epic, right? Bloody well right! Let’s do this.”
The day after the concert, Smith writes to say he obtained a last-minute ticket from a connection at 94.7-FM, “The Arrow.” In response to a query about his current residence—the location of which he won’t divulge, except that it’s outside the Cherrydale boundaries—he reports: “The new digs are just ok.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Robert Meganck.