7 Mar 2009
Demons, voices hounded man before Crystal Cathedral suicide
Pictured is Steve Smick, the man who shot himself at the Crystal Cathedral on Feb. 18, 2009
STILL TAKEN FROM VIDEO PROVIDED BY ROBERT SHANE BEAL.
Steve Smick didn't think he was mentally ill. He thought he was a prophet for God, and he thought he was possessed by spirits.
The Orange County Register
The demons that haunted Steve Smick came out at night sometimes, black and shadowy figures that circled his room or hovered over him in the darkness.
They spoke to him, he told his friends, their voices male and female. They snickered at him in his moments of weakness. Once, they told him to breathe the water from a swimming pool, and he nearly drowned.
He would curse them, the veins in his neck bulging as he shouted to the heavens: "Deliver me!" In his darkest hours, he would drive his head into a wall, praying for relief from the chattering spirits and demons that filled his world.
(To see the breaking-news story on the suicide, click here.)
He did not believe he was mentally ill, and he did not believe that doctors or drugs could chase away the voices that hounded him. In his mind, he felt the grip of something far more evil. He thought he was possessed.
And so, in his last moments, broken and desperate, with a loaded handgun in his backpack, he found his way to the foot of a golden cross inside the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove.
Police and news reports of what happened last month inside the cathedral's glassy sanctuary explained the actions of Smick, 48, with two words: mental illness. That may have perfectly described Smick's condition. It didn't come close to depicting the nightmare he had lived for years.
A psychiatrist reading Smick's file – the drug use, the voices, the messages from God – could find a case study in psychosis. His symptoms are often associated with schizophrenia in particular; but Dr. Rimal Bera, a psychiatrist and professor at UCI Medical Center in Orange, cautioned that a number of other conditions can also produce voices and demons.
If it was schizophrenia that tormented Smick, then he was not alone. About 1 percent of the population lives with some level of schizophrenia, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. At that rate, some 30,000 people in Orange County might know firsthand what Smick was going through.
His surviving family – a sister in Oregon, a nephew in California – could not be reached to provide more insight into his mental history. Mental-health officials in Orange and Los Angeles counties said they could not say whether they had ever had contact with Smick, citing federal privacy laws.
But many of his friends didn't think he was mentally ill at all. They watched as something very powerful and very real ripped apart the man they knew as Lucky Dog, and concluded that he was right. He was possessed.
"He didn't own his mind any longer," said Danny Garcia, one of his closest friends.
He was charming, sweet and so good looking, with just enough bad-boy attitude to make him interesting. That's how Julie Brenner remembers Smick, the long-ago friend who used to sit with her on the beach and talk for hours about nothing at all.
He was, Brenner said, a "vibrant, happy person." But she moved away and lost touch with him long before the drugs or the demons got a hold of him.
He grew up in Whittier and went to work as a craftsman at his family's steel-fabrication plant in East Los Angeles. Friends say he could make almost anything from steel. What he chose to make in his off hours were sex chairs, which he marketed as Love Racks and sold for a few thousand dollars each.
He was a drug addict for much of his adult life, several of his friends said, and was so heavy into cocaine by the late 1990s that dealers knew him by name. That may provide a clue to what happened later: Psychiatrists believe drug abuse can trigger psychotic symptoms in some people with mental illnesses.
"He did enough drugs," longtime friend Robert Shane Beal said, "that he should have been dead."
Smick inherited a $250,000 payout when his mother died about seven or eight years ago, according to his friends; but he lost the family business and always blamed unscrupulous attorneys. The loss of his mother prompted him to quit the cocaine, cold turkey.
That's when the voices awakened.
Later, he would tell his friends this story: He was at an adult-entertainment convention, marketing his sex chairs. A pale man in a dark suit approached and promised to make him rich. Smick refused the man's business card and said he didn't need his help.
That was the moment, he would say. That was the moment when God chose him as a messenger.
The voices came and went, seizing Smick's mind without warning. He could be hanging out with friends one moment, and then chuckling at an unheard joke the next. Or raging against invisible voices until his face was purple.
He said he could hear their voices in his head as clear as a conversation. They told him he was one of 11 messengers sent to warn the world of God's wrath. They told him he would deliver his message – about the sins of pornography – this year, at the end of a three-hour, high-speed police chase.
His friends urged him to get help, and they say that he did go see doctors. But he refused to take the pills they gave him. He thought he was possessed by the demons he heard; and, as his closest friends watched him struggle, they were inclined to believe him.
"What he was going through, it was real, something was real," said Garcia, his old friend. "Where's the fine line between crazy and evil?"
His friends took him from church to church, looking for help, looking for someone who would attempt an exorcism. Smick left his money in the offering plates, they say, and never found the help he was looking for. "He tried so hard to get help," said Greg Bowman, who considered Smick his best friend.
Not long ago, two of his friends decided to interview him on video, thinking they would capture images of a possessed man. "It's like this," he tells them on the tape, speaking with the contained intensity of a good professor, over an order of chicken wings at a T.G.I. Friday's. "I have a gang of spirits. And they're with us right now. All right? And I communicate with them all the time."
He holds up a Bible. God, he explains, has sent him as a messenger – as a sacrifice. "I'm a dog, all right? Lucky Dog. All right? He sends in the dogs first, all right, get it? He sends in old scrapper Lucky, you know? And he's gonna get killed. Get it?"
Smick had talked about suicide before. He feared the demons and, as his inheritance money began to run out, he feared living on the streets. His friends told him suicide was no way out, and assured him that he always had a home with them.
He had been living in Lake Havasu, Ariz., in recent months, in a rental home near the beach. But just before Christmas, he decided it was time to return to California, to try to get back the money he thought he was still owed from his mother's estate. He sold his furniture, packed his truck and hit the road.
A few weeks later, a 69-year-old woman named Rita Swift left a Walmart in Brea with a new television set. A man with long hair and a tired face rushed over to help her with the bulky box. She recognized him later, when his face was in the news: Steve Smick.
He told her he had run out of money and was living in his truck. He hadn't eaten in two days. She gave him $20 to buy dinner. "He was so nice. He was so sweet," she said. "He just looked like someone who had run 100 miles."
Smick drove to the Crystal Cathedral on the morning of Feb. 18. He walked to the altar and knelt on one knee in front of a golden cross. Then he sat back on a pew, rummaged through his backpack, and pulled out a semi-automatic handgun.
He fired a single shot into his head.
"People want to call it mental illness," said Mike Vercruse, another longtime friend. "You can call it what you want. He spent his life battling demons."
Staff writer Eric Carpenter contributed to this report.
Contact the writer: 714-704-3777 or firstname.lastname@example.org