We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Caralee Cottle received a seven-year jail sentence on a charge of involuntary manslaughter in the death of notable local goth figure Dirk Smiler today in a Fairfax Country courtroom, following a dramatic and emotional two-hour hearing. Judge Michael F. Devine, who issued the ruling, suspended three and a half years of the jail sentence.
Smiler, a flamboyant bon vivant whose hedonistic parties were well-known in the region’s goth scene, died at age 37 last Feb. 15 of a gunshot wound to the head in his Annandale home. Those gruesome events were again recounted at today’s hearing, where following testimony from members of Smiler’s family, Cottle’s ex-husband, and a co-worker of Cottle, attorneys made their cases for sentencing. In February, counsel for both sides negotiated an “Alford plea,” which allows a defendant to avoid admitting guilt but recognizes the evidence would be sufficient for a conviction. Cottle faced a maximum jail sentence of 10 years.
Cottle’s attorney, Peter D. Greenspun, argued that forensic and anecdotal evidence could not account for what, exactly, happened inside the bedroom of Smiler and Cottle on the night that he died. Devine didn’t quite agree, and didn’t allow for the suspended imposition of Cottle’s sentence that Greenspun argued for.
“When that gun was placed at Dirk’s head, I believe were at the other end of the trigger,” said Judge Devine. “You killed him.”
Update | 8:19 p.m.
Easily more than two dozen members of the local goth scene filled the courtroom. Before the hearing started, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Mark D. Sullivan asked supporters of Smiler and then supporters of Cottle to raise their hands; the former outnumbered the latter several times over.
Cottle, a former Marine, entered not long after 2 p.m., and remained silent and still-faced until the final moments of the two-hour hearing, when she read a statement before her sentencing. She described her remorse over causing Smiler’s friends and family so much pain, as well as her own despair. “No matter how hard I try I cannot escape it,” she said. She said she wishes she had died and not Smiler. “I loved and still do love Dirk.”
Cottle, whose drug abuse was acknowledged in court, and who has faced numerous personal tragedies including the automobile-related death of her first husband, said she hoped to help others avoid her mistakes. “I hope to one day teach women about my experience,” she said.
Describing his deliberations over Cottle’s sentencing, Devine said the “evidence is overwhelming that this was manslaughter,” and that because of Cottle’s history of troubled personal relationships, he did not consider it an aberration.
He cited two psychological reports on Cottle that were included in a pre-sentencing report—-one conducted before Smiler’s death, in 2009, the year Cottle and her second husband, Ray Cottle, divorced; and the second after she was charged with second-degree murder in Smiler’s death. Reading from the reports, Devine described Cottle as egocentric and dependent on others for attention and acceptance, and given to depression, anger, and irrational thinking when she perceives a loss of security. He cited Cottle’s “emotionally deprived upbringing.” She has both overcome and succumbed to her problems, he said: Some of her personal relationships—-as with Smiler and Ray Cottle—-have been disastrous, but she has been an admirable employee and friend to others.
Without speaking to whether Smiler initially held the gun, a World War II-era bolt-action rifle, to his own head—-as Greenspun argued—-Devine said that in a moment of high emotional stress, Cottle gave in to anger and irrationality and pulled the trigger.
He said he believes Cottle to still be prone to instability and violence (Cottle has undergone psychiatric observation and completed programs for domestic violence and drug abuse since Smiler’s death). “You’ve made a good start,” he said, but Smiler’s death still demanded retribution.
He read his sentence—-which also includes probation, mandatory drug counseling, and covering Smiler’s funeral expenses—-as a gasp ran through the room. Members of Cottle’s family were reduced to tears.
They weren’t the only ones who cried during the hearing.
Called by Sullivan to testify, Smiler’s mother Vivi Smiler Arnett broke down as she spoke—-as did much of the room. “When Cara shot and killed my son she also killed a part of me,” she said. “I beg you to make her accountable for this crime in a meaningful way.”
Smiler’s brother, Wesley, and his step-father, David Arnett, were also called to testify by the prosecution.
So was Ray Cottle, who lives in North Carolina and was married to Cara from 2003 to 2009. Ray, who has physical custody of their two children, described a once-happy marriage that dissolved as Cara’s behavior became more erratic following the dissolution of an “adult daycare center” she ran. “You can’t tell how she’s going to be from one moment to the next,” he said. He described incidents in which Cottle hit him while he was driving. He said he cut off contact with Cara in 2009 because he worried she was a danger to their children; the two separated in 2007.
Greenspun asked Ray about his job during his marriage to Cara, and Ray said he worked as a warehouse manager. Then Greenspun asked if Ray’s employer knew he was a coke user.
Ray said that he and Cara both used cocaine during parts of their marriage, but that she was always the first one high, and that he was never high in front of their children.
The other side of Cara Cottle that Devine alluded to came out in testimony from Kathleen Patten, the president of American Target Advertising, the firm founded by conservative direct mail pioneer Richard Viguerie. Cottle’s mother works at American Target Advertising, as has Cottle for the past three years. Patten described Cottle as truthful and trustworthy. “On a personal level I believe [Cottle] has a good heart,” Patten said.
Finally, Sullivan and Greenspun made their cases to Devine. Sullivan, echoing comments from David Arnett, described Smiler’s large personality. “He wasn’t a saint by the church term,” Sullivan said, but was still caring and full of laughter. He described Smiler as “an entertainer to his core.” After Smiler’s death last year, his friends recalled Smiler’s elaborate parties, recitations of song and poetry, and erudite interests. Smiler largely worked as a waiter, and was the sommelier of the Potomac, Md., restaurant Bezu at the time of his death.
Sullivan said that Cottle has not expressed remorse for Smiler’s death. He asked for the maximum sentence.
Greenspun also praised Smiler as brilliant and eccentric. “He wasn’t a saint,” he said. “Nobody in that house was a saint.” There was drug use in the house, he said; meanwhile, he said, only Cottle held down a regular job. As he did at earlier hearings, Greenspun described the evening of Smiler’s death: After Cottle returned from work with a gift for Smiler, she and Smiler got into an argument over a text message he received from another woman, with whom, Greenspun said, he may have been having a relationship outside of his and Cottle’s open relationship. Cottle punched Smiler, and they then retired to their bedroom; the whys and whats of what happened next aren’t clear, he said. He read police testimony from Smiler and Cottle’s roommates that suggested Smiler held the gun to his own head. He said there is no evidence regarding who loaded the gun. After the other residents of the house heard a loud noise, Cottle emerged from the basement bedroom naked and covered in blood.
Asking the judge to suspend the imposition of the sentence, he described Cottle as remorseful and not dangerous. “She is a terrific young lady,” Greenspun said. “She has been through hell.” Then Cottle spoke.
Devine acknowledged Cottle’s treatment following Smiler’s death and said he did not think she shot him with malice. But by killing Smiler, she had “shattered countless lives,” Devine said. “They are not responsible, and you are.”