"I don't give up very easily," says Stephen W. Smith. "No matter what, I keep making things happen."
Smith's claim is no idle boast. He is currently a resident of the Jefferson County jail, where he is awaiting trial on a potpourri of charges, including first-degree forgery, criminal impersonation, issuing a false financial statement and unlawful possession of a controlled substance. In addition, the State of California wants him for violating parole.
But Smith, jailed in Colorado since last July, has not wasted his time in stir. He has wangled special phone privileges that allowed him to write and co-produce a song he says he wants used in an antiviolence campaign. He's cajoled Denver TV stations into publicizing the recording of the track by a group of youngsters who had no idea the tune's composer had such an impressive rap sheet. And now he claims that he allowed himself to be arrested in the first place to convince Colorado authorities and businesses to install an antifraud computer software system he designed--and which he insists will prevent the very crimes he's accused of committing.
"I'm just trying to do something good for the community," he says.
If that is true, Smith, who uses a wheelchair and says he suffers from multiple sclerosis, has made some major changes in his life since his latest arrest. Between 1969 and 1987 there are 24 entries under Smith's name in the National Crime Information Computer/Colorado Crime Information Computer database, including several felony convictions. Since that time--and not including either the Jefferson County charges or three separate counts pending in Arapahoe County--Smith has been accused of seventeen more violations ranging from indecent exposure (four times) to second-degree burglary; he was convicted of the latter and sentenced to two years at California's Chino prison beginning in 1991. The 37-year-old Smith does not pretend that he's been a perfect citizen, but he says, "The convictions were fairly minor, and they were something that led me to understand the other side of the coin."
A relentless self-promoter, Smith contends that he has the experience--and a revolutionary piece of computer software (he calls it "UTC Protecto POS-ID")--to save government agencies and companies from white-collar crime. He declines to go into detail about the system, which he says was written for him by a software expert in California, beyond noting that it involves databases dubbed ACAs (authorized consumer agents) and universal transaction codes that consumers would use for all financial and personal data. "Department stores are losing tremendous amounts of money on credit card fraud," says Smith, who's accused of defrauding department stores, "and nobody knows how to stop it. Nobody but me."
The way Smith tells it, he spent two months working the phones but getting nowhere before deciding to take a bold step to bring his innovation to the public. "I wanted to be arrested," he says, "so that I would get into the major media and this issue of financial credit and data personal privacy would come to the surface." He adds that he chose Colorado to make his stand in because its agencies struck him as especially susceptible to fraud--an assertion, like most of Smith's other claims, that authorities dismiss out of hand.
Jefferson County sheriffs did oblige Smith by nabbing him at the Southwest Plaza Joslins store for trying to set up a credit account by using a Colorado driver's license sporting his own photo and the name David E. Dilley, a Lincoln, Nebraska, resident whose personal information is in a regional edition of Who's Who in America (a great source, Smith says, for criminals who need fake IDs). Subsequent checking revealed that Smith had used the Dilley moniker to buy items on credit from a number of other Southwest Plaza stores, including Sears and Weisfeld Jewelers, where authorities say Smith made off with a diamond ring valued at over $4,000.
Once in jail in Jefferson County, Smith, who says he has since returned all the items he purchased with false credentials, won the right to defend himself and began issuing a flurry of handwritten motions. Among the requests granted were permanent housing in the jail infirmary and access to a telephone on which he could call three authorized numbers without charge. If that was intended to prevent abuse of telephone privileges, it failed: One of the approved numbers rang an office where Smith had a receptionist in his employ make conference calls to any other line he chose.
In short order Smith contacted Jim Kinch, a local computer designer and consultant, and pitched him on a variation of his POS-ID notion that could be adapted to government use. Kinch, whose name Smith plucked from the Yellow Pages, agreed to design the system for a 10 percent share in a corporation Smith said he was setting up. "It's a revolutionary idea," Kinch says. "It consolidates all the different information from different government and state computers."
As Kinch worked on the new system, Smith got busy on other fronts. He claims to be a singer-songwriter/guitarist who several years ago put out an album entitled Drugs Are Out. "I only write songs about important issues," he says. Inspired by reports of violence and gang activity in the Denver area, he composed a series of uplifting tunes: "United We Live," "Lay Down the Gun," "The Children's National Anthem" and "Stop the Hurting, Stop the Pain." He then phoned Tony Thompson, the owner of Apex Productions, a local music firm, and convinced him to collaborate on the project, which Smith hoped would result in several public-service announcements. "I worked at a volunteer rate," Thompson says. "But it seemed like a good idea to me."
By Smith's reckoning, it took two months of phone calls to Thompson to complete the first number, "United We Live," thanks to a laborious process that had Smith humming melody lines to Thompson, who would then play them back on various instruments for their author's approval. In the meantime, Smith contacted Gayle Larsen, creator of the children's vocal troupe the Sunshine Generation, and asked her to select students to record the tune. Smith had told Thompson he was in jail, but he neglected to mention this fact to Larsen. "He did not relate that to us, nor did his secretary," Larsen says. "We just thought he was a very busy businessman."
Indeed, Smith was busy. He auditioned all of the children chosen by Larsen over the phone, telling neither them nor their parents about his current address. He also drummed up interest at local TV stations. KMGH-Channel 7's Lance Hernandez and KUSA-Channel 9's Cristina Mendonsa were promptly assigned to cover the recording session of "United We Live," which took place at Kerr Macy Studio on January 8. Aired later that evening, Channel 7's report--a puff piece about kids doing something positive to stop violence--did not so much as mention that Smith was in jail. The Channel 9 version, which aired the same day, showed Smith choked with emotion as he described his mission to save America's youth. But it also included a jailhouse interview in which Smith denied that there was anything unethical about not telling the singers or their parents that he was facing several years in prison.
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Other footage showed a Smith representative telling miffed parents that the songwriter was incarcerated. A parent who asked not to be identified believes that she was told Smith's true history only because Channel 9 staffers were about to do so themselves. Her disappointment is shared by Larsen. And by Thompson, who says he had told Smith to be up-front with the children and parents. "I'm really upset with him for leaving the kids open to finding out the way they did," he says. "I won't be working with him again."
Smith calls the Channel 9 coverage "unethical journalism," and says it led to the rescinding of his ability to make unlimited conference calls. But it hasn't soured him on the media, which he sees as the way to pass word of his computer breakthroughs to "the major people, the decision makers, the Roy Romers."
Smith, who has pleaded not guilty to the counts filed against him, is scheduled to go on trial in May. But he says that once governmental movers and shakers see his computer program in action, they'll so want to cooperate with him that the charges may be dismissed. Given the right deal, he adds, he might even consider providing the state access to the computer program without demanding licensing fees. When asked if this is a possibility, Jefferson County deputy district attorney Frank Oldham, who is overseeing Smith's prosecution and is familiar with claims of what the program can do, gives an answer that is eloquent in its simplicity: "No."
Smith doesn't appear fazed, saying that the world will soon be beating a path to his jailhouse door. "I've already got three-quarters of a panel together for the talk shows--they would be live in the studio and I'd be on big-screen TV," he enthuses. "After that, I have a feeling that justice will prevail.