Arts Desk

Into the Dark: The Life and Gruesome Death of Dirk Smiler


The license plate read "DOOOOM."

It was attached to an otherwise plain sedan that trolled for parking Saturday evening near a four-bedroom Annandale house, just outside of which a mostly black-clad crowd clustered along the concrete walk and around a metal heat lamp. Cigarettes blazed. Two bouncers guarded the door, arms crossed. Several people walked up carrying Tupperware.

A gruesome incident in the house five nights earlier had left one person dead, another checked into a psychiatric ward, and hundreds in mourning. From the outside, the wake looked spooky, and the atmosphere was electric, which is to say: It felt right.

The goths had come to send off their bard.

A mainstay of Washington’s goth scene since the early ’90s, Dirk Smiler, who was 37 when he died from a gunshot wound on Feb. 15, was a Falstaffian figure known for his raucous parties and intimate after-parties, his dramatic recitations of Shakespeare, Noyes, Kipling, and Carroll, his sartorial flair, an empathetic charisma, and his sometimes hedonistic joie de vivre. In a scene once centered on nightlife spots like Tracks, the Roxy, Fifth Column, and the Capitol Ballroom (which later became Nation); at the Bound S&M and fetish parties; at Renaissance fairs; at science-fiction, comic-book, and fantasy conventions; at Sisters of Mercy and KMFDM concerts; or at the annual Pennsic medieval war games, Smiler was ubiquitous.

"If you can stratify something as nebulous as the goth scene on a popularity scale, everybody knew him," says Smiler’s best friend, Skot "Rip-L" Braunfeld. "All the guys knew him, and all the girls had been hit on by him at least once."artsdesk_09-2

He was born Nathan Norman Smiler II and grew up in Northern Virginia, where he attended the gifted and talented program at Rocky Road Middle School and graduated from Fairfax High School in 1990. When he was around 10 years old, he met Jason Miller. "We were nerds among the nerds," says Miller, who fronts the popular Los Angeles industrial band Godhead, which emerged from D.C.’s goth scene in the 1990s.

After briefly attending college in Germany, Smiler met Braunfeld at a sci-fi convention in 1992. The two shared a birthday, a Celtic knot tattoo symbolizing family (several more of their friends have the same one), and a series of group homes, mostly in Virginia, to which they gave names like Pershing Projects and Perdition’s Gate. Their all-night fêtes were notorious within the scene. "He’d always liked to have places with a big fire pit," says Steve Hernandez, a longtime friend of Smiler. "It was just a really incredible time. It’s really tough to believe it’s ending."

Smiler worked largely as a waiter and most recently as the sommelier of the restaurant Bezu in Potomac. But while he sometimes earned decent paychecks, he was impractical with money. According to Braunfeld, Smiler left no will and no real assets besides his car.

His weakness, many of the people interviewed for this article said, was women. "He probably pissed off many boyfriends over the years," says Voron Xarya, a friend. "He was always the constant ladies’ man. Whether that was a positive quality, it was his quality. In our scene, we’re not—we’re not very prude in that way."

"His life was kind of a rolling party," says another friend, Richard A.D. "It makes it kind of difficult for a stable relationship. But then again, I can say the same thing about myself. He was not the meet, get married, put up a white picket fence, have kids kind of guy."

He had two daughters—one, now 14, whom he didn’t know about until years after her birth, and whom he recently met for the first time. Her mother, Sara Langsdorf (Xarya’s sister), sued Smiler for child support in 2000; according to Braunfeld, "He didn’t support his daughter at all; not a cent." He had the other daughter, now 8, with his then girlfriend, Cougar Akl.

When Akl became pregnant, Smiler tried to settle down. But around five months after his daughter was born, the relationship dissolved, and the child went to live with Akl’s parents. Smiler kept two souvenirs from the relationship: occasional visits with his daughter, and an antique bolt-action rifle, given to him by Akl’s mother.

Smiler started dating Cara Cottle about nine months ago. The former Marine sergeant had popped into the D.C. goth scene some months earlier after moving back to the area from North Carolina. Like Smiler, Cottle has two children, from her second marriage, which ended in separation in 2007. She and her husband, who has full custody of the children, divorced in 2009. "I only met Cara a couple of times," says Wesley Smiler, Dirk’s younger brother. "I didn’t have any distinct negative impression of her. They were not a typical couple. I’m not sure either of them wanted to be in that relationship. They just ended up in it."

Their relationship was open, according to their Facebook pages and friends of Smiler. "She was very excitable, and he was very himself," Braunfeld says. "They both claimed they wanted to do their own thing and be annoyed with the other for doing it."

The couple lived together with three and sometimes four others in the house in Annandale (the lease is in Cottle’s name). They had "precipitating issues," Braunfeld says. On Feb. 14 this year, Smiler posted the following status update to Facebook:

"Ah, I love St. Valentine’s day! Let there be massacres!"

According to a source familiar with the events surrounding Smiler’s death, Cottle also posted a Facebook update that day (Cottle’s Facebook page was taken down the day after Smiler was killed): "I love you Dirk, even if I want to kill you sometimes."

Valentine’s Day ended tensely, according to two people with knowledge of what happened the next day. Smiler and Cottle spent some of the day arguing about finances; he and his housemates owed her money for rent and bills. By that night, the house had reached a tentative peace.

The next day, while Cottle was at work, Smiler hung out with two of his roommates, Chablis Owens and Bryan Bruner. Smiler lived with Cottle in the basement, while the rest of the housemates lived on the first floor.

Cottle returned home from work around 6:15 p.m.; around 7:30 p.m., a sometimes-roommate named Magnus (three people who knew him personally don’t know his last name) arrived, and along with Owens and Bruner, he asked Cottle for a ride to CVS so they could buy insulin to treat Bruner’s diabetes. Cottle went downstairs to grab her keys; she read a text message on Smiler’s phone and became enraged.

Cottle emerged from the basement screaming, "You son of a bitch, lying motherfucker! We’re done, we’re fucking done! She just wants to be my friend just so she can fuck you. I hope your dick falls off!" She hit Smiler three times, once in the face. "Can we talk about this?" Smiler said to her, and they went downstairs. Owens, Bruner, and Magnus left to walk to CVS.

They returned about an hour later, and around 9:45 p.m., Cottle emerged from the basement to retrieve a pack of cigarettes she had flung while enraged. Magnus left between 9:30 and 10 p.m. Bruner briefly sat in front of the TV with another roommate, Stephen Balázs, before heading to his room. Meanwhile, Owens read a book in her room, which, like Bruner’s, is directly above Smiler and Cottle’s.

At around 10:30 p.m., Balázs, Bruner, and Owens heard and felt a bang, followed by what seemed like 10 seconds of silence.

Then they heard a scream, and the creak of a door opening.

Cottle emerged from the basement naked and screaming, covered in blood and what looked like brain matter and pieces of skull. She collapsed. "Help me, help me, help me, call 911," she said.

She said she shot Smiler in the head.

"He told me to do it," she said. "He is dead, he is dead, he is dead."

At 10:32 p.m., Balázs ran outside to call 911. Around the same time, Cottle said, "I’ll never see my kids again, I’m going to be on death row, I need help, I need help, I need help."

The police came at 10:37 p.m. Balázs, Bruner, Owens, and Cottle all got in separate cruisers. Paramedics wheeled out Smiler, who was pronounced dead at the scene, on a stretcher.

Police took the housemates to the Massey Building in Fairfax, questioned them, and released Balázs, Bruner, and Owens early the next morning.

As of last week, Cottle had checked into a psychiatric ward. According to Officer Bud Walker of the Fairfax County Police Department, detectives are still deciding whether to rule the incident a homicide or an accidental death. Because of an autopsy and firearm analysis, that could take more than a month.

Smiler kept the gun unloaded, the sources familiar with the incident and friends of Smiler said. The sources said Smiler had several boxes of rounds in the house.

"I know Dirk wasn’t suicidal, I can tell you that," Hernandez said. "He had such a love for life."

More than 400 people attended the wake. Friends of Smiler from New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Argentina, Iraq, and elsewhere watched "Dirk-Con" via a Web feed. Friends offered toasts and sang songs. "We tried to create a place where everyone could mourn without being edited in any way," Braunfeld said. "Yelling, laughing, crying—it embodied everything Dirk would’ve wanted."

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Dirk Smiler reads "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes to his younger daughter. Friends of Smiler found the recording in his home in the days after his death.

 Photos courtesy of Wesley Smiler

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  • GillianIvy

    I am covered head to toe with goosebumps reading the bonechilling details of that fateful night. Anyone who loved Dirk and wishes to speak with me has permission to contact me. Anyone wanting to discuss stupid debates of whose girlfriends Dirk may have stolen or how irresponsible he was, I do NOT want to hear it, I'm well aware of it. Have respect and cease posting your negativity on places where his family and friends who love him and mourn him are going to read your inappropriate careless remarks. Air your ill remarks elsewhere. This belongs to his family and loved ones. Dirk is greatly missed and forever loved.

  • Sean R.

    I lived with Dirk for two years, and would have lived with him until the end had I not left town for school, and I take serious exception to the idea that his post about Valentine's Day was in ANY way related to his death. The St. Valentine's Day Massacre was a major event of 20th century American history, and some of us happen to be old enough that we can recall a time when having a sense of irony was not seen as a sign that you were a danger to yourself or to others. I wouldn't even read anything prophetic in what Cara posted. The events that occurred were tragic and painful enough that there is no need to sensationalize jokes or offhand comments. Thank you for your otherwise reasonable, and detailed, article. Dirk Smiler was deeply loved by people who knew him very well, and will be deeply missed.

  • Jenn

    I hope this is the last of hearing about Dirks death, for a while. His family and friends deserve time to mourn. Seriously, the guy was loveable, fun, magical at moments . We all realize he is irreplaceable, and as tragic of a storey as his death is, reality is enough already. Dirk was a wonderful guy, who hooked up with someone who was submissive, and leave it at that. DAM, no body needs to know that Cara was naked, had brain matter on her, I am sorry but its apparent that she wasn't all there. Whether it is accidental or intentional, only one person will ever truly know, because the other, met a ill-fated departure. He was a nerd, who knew how to have fun, and be himself, leave it at that please, and give people time to heel, rather then opening the unstable can of worms that include Cottle, okay, let people mourn Dirks Death with peace please...........
    The person writing this stuff is worse then a GOTHIC DRAMA QUEEN!!!!!!!!!

  • 2501

    Mr Fischer, I'll grant you that this is a very compelling read, and if this were a year from now, I'd say you told a tragic story in a very blunt way, highlighting good and bad things about Dirk's life in equally unfiltered ways. For instance, I read your recollection of the line about "let there be massacres" as simply an example of Dirk's sense of humor that, like Cara's statement, was sadly ironic, rather than portentous.

    But, the account of the events of the night of his death tells me that covering this kind of news is not normally your thing, because on the one hand it is probably inappropriately soon to be giving such gruesome details (though that is at least a subjective judgement), but more importantly, given that there is still an ongoing police investigation and that people are still very upset and angry, you should not be stating things as fact without also attributing the sources for your information. If the specific individuals have asked to remain anonymous, then you should at least be saying, "according to one person present in the home," or "according to the police", because there is a great deal different to be read into some of the statements attributed to Cara if they are being reported to you by a) one of the people who was there, b) someone else who heard from someone who was there, c) (probably unlikely but) Cara herself, or d) a police investigator. It's also very important to know if this is all based on one person's account, or if you spoke to multiple people with direct knowledge (though there really are only a total of four people with that knowledge).

    Depending on the source and interpretation, some of the statements come off as both damning and exonerating (to some degree, especially if a lawyer is trying to make a case) and if you aren't careful you could unintentionally be injecting yourself into the legal side of this incident.

    I am not trying to condemn you, rather I'm saying you should speak to reporters who cover these kind of things for a living and listen to their advice.

  • Kate

    This article seems to more salacious that factual. I knew Dirk in passing since the late 80's. He was a warm, kind, funny man who did not deserve any of this.

  • Scott

    Are you done now? Have you gotten every last bit of ink out of our grief? If so, leave Dirk's memory alone and do the work you were meant to. TMZ might have an opening.

  • YupYup

    Yes, it may be hard for some people to read this, but it's HONEST. It doesn't candycoat Dirk's life, as so many have chosen to do in the days following his death. It doesn't portray him as an angel or a saint, because he wasn't. He had flaws, he had problems, and he didn't always make the best choices in life. That doesn't make him a bad person, nor does it make what happened any less senseless, any less tragic. It's simply an acknowledgement of what happened, which is a step towards processing it and moving forward.

  • Cyber

    What a scumbag you are Jonathan L. Fischer, you try to sensationalize the article with your so called 'sources' to build a story. You must really be an amateur from the way you laid things out, do you even have an editor to help your paint by numbers approach to reporting? You try to add body to your article by passively attacking people with your entry level reporting by using sources that are not viable. Mainly by acquiring information from both sides and writing about it without saying who said what, heard and saw what & when in a scrambled up mess? There are two sides in this case: the first is "Dirk" & family, friends & the like being the victim (The main suspect wasn't allowed to the wake, or the funeral), and the second "Alleged Main Suspect & family" who are trying to save her ass from Death Row. You definitely miss more than you hit because you scrambled both sides together, I guess you'll print anything that the public would gobble up no matter how contorted it is. I suppose if your sources say Jimmy Hoffa's cigar was in the basement you'd print that too but add more bs to the body of your story to accompany it, as you've done with every other item of importance here. Another scumbag thing is taking shots at people that are mourning for no other reason than to disrespect them and last but definitely not least to take words out of context from the main person taking care of Dirks last wishes, shame on you by trying to grab attention in this way. By your slimy style of filling the page with out of context conjecture with confusing & conflicting sources, isn't worth the paper it's written on. Your maybe 10% correct in your attempt to report the news about our Dirk in this article, the rest is disrespectful codswallop.

    What do you do? Get all your information from phone calls... do you even know who your talking to? No doubt your career wont advance from your job at the City Paper if you don't clean up your act.

    You sir, are an ass hat.

    My source for "ass hat"

  • Melissa Chen

    Hi, the 3rd picture (the black and white print) is my art. I gave it to Dirk a number of years ago, and I never gave permission for it to be published. Please take it down.

    Melissa Chen

  • kaijabat

    i really hope this is the last of your articles about our friend Nathan/Dirk. i think that those of us who knew him are "over" reading your commentary about him. and those that *didn't* know him probably stopped reading about him 2 articles ago. please, find another less painful and new situation to use as a headline grabber.
    (AND, i strongly agree with what 2501 said! good advice!)

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  • Kathryn

    You could have reported on the wake and a few observations from friend and left it at that.

    But, no, you had to delve into unproven 'facts' and gruesome speculations about a situation that is currently under police investigation. Even for the City Paper this is awful reporting.

  • Voron Xarya

    Sigh. You mangled my words and took them out of context. You asked me if everybody liked Dirk or if anybody had issues with him and why? Then I said that "he may have pissed off a few boyfrends over the years." And I said he was the "consummate ladies man". Also, I said "Whether or not [his love of women] was a good quality is irrelevant, it was HIS quality, and he was never anything but himself." (the part about not being prude is correct).

    Another error: He first knew he had a daughter within a few weeks, maybe a month or two after her birth. He didn't just meet her. She saw him once when she was about 5 yrs old.

    Also, I agree with others that the Dirk's Facebook comment you cited, while ironic, is sensationalistic. A statement of that sort was typical Dirk. Clubs around the country (and world) regularly have "St. Valentines Day Massacre" parties.

  • dane strother

    Jonathan Fischers' City Paper article was about as fair and balanced as Fox News. There is a reason Dirk was mourned so publicly and by so many. He was kind, he was caring and he was loyal. Bon Vivant could be defined as loving life and living it fully. And he did and he did. His energy and passion and brilliance were a beacon for those around him whether they habitually wear black or like me own no black.

    Dirk had a gift of memory and could recite hundreds of poems completely and in character. It was performance art. Indeed his life was performance art at some level but his core was solid and his intellect keen and his moral compass straight. He reveled in the absurdity of the norm and was not bound by convention. He was not judgmental and only asked to not be judged. That was all a bit tough to gather from the article.

    RIP Dirk, there is a reason you were loved by so many. We should all hope for the same.

    Cheers my brother,


  • for the love of

    i don't know how religious you are fisher, but when YOU die, the gates of heaven shall open for you and Dirk will be on his knees........READY to PUNCH YOU IN THE DICK. Ass.

  • Anon

    WAY too soon dude...

  • nousefor

    Friends of Dirk's AND Cara's need to stop talking to the press and need to stop posting about his philandering on facebook and other websites and guestbooks - this all becomes public record and a route for civil and criminal lawyers to pursue.

    It's in both parties' best interest.

  • NoWay

    Sitting in silence and refusing to talk about things that happen is exactly how murderers get away with it. I've seen it happen before, too.

  • Ebony Optima Prime

    Tomorrow I'll be at the Fairfax County General District Court for The Sentencing, in honor and memory of my friend, Dirk... Watching, listening, and praying for Justice...or what's left of it. Dirk was the most welcoming and genuine person I've ever meet. Thank you, Dirk.