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."
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."
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