Friends toast 'eccentric hedonist' fatally shot in Annandale

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dirk Smiler was the Toastmaster. The Gourmand. The Poet. The Goth King.

The 37-year-old Northern Virginia native spent his evenings as a sommelier in Potomac but his nights as a voracious, constant presence on the D.C. club scene -- dancing, drinking, chasing women and hosting countless after-parties after last call. When news of his shooting death Monday night in Annandale rocketed around the Internet, tribute Web sites erupted with page after page of remembrances and smiles and raised toasts to a widely loved personality in the sometimes intersecting worlds of the Goth community, the restaurant industry, science fiction and Renaissance fair lovers, and dedicated night owls everywhere.

"He was an eccentric hedonist," said his friend Brendan J. Sheppard, one of hundreds to write online tributes to Smiler. "He was one of the most vibrant and enthusiastic people I've ever met." Countless photos of Smiler -- always smiling, usually hugging someone -- have been posted on the Web. In the 24 hours after his death, a tribute Web site said it had visitors from 39 states and 12 countries.

Smiler lived with several roommates and his girlfriend in a house on Little River Turnpike in Annandale near Northern Virginia Community College. Police think that on Monday night, he had an altercation with his girlfriend, and the two went downstairs to his bedroom.

In that bedroom, numerous sources familiar with the investigation said, Smiler was shot once in the head with a bolt-action rifle. The girlfriend, identified by acquaintances as Cara Cottle, 31, then ran upstairs and told her roommates that Smiler was dead, the sources said.

Cottle, a former Marine sergeant, has not been charged. She has checked herself into a psychiatric hospital, sources close to the case said. Her family could not be located for comment Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the mourning for Smiler grew deeper.

"He was very outgoing, charismatic and creative," said Skot Braunfeld, one of his closest longtime friends. "We'd throw huge parties. He'd hit on everything with two legs. He just wanted everyone to be happy and be loved, have fun and live for the moment."

Nathan N. Smiler was born in Northern Virginia, the oldest of two boys, and graduated from Fairfax High School in 1990. But even before that, he was a devotee of outrageous fashion, wearing three-piece suits and eyeliner as a teenager and making countless new friends at science fiction conventions and Renaissance fairs, his friend Jonathan Wolk said.

After high school, he began waiting tables in numerous Washington area restaurants, including Old Ebbitt Grill, Clyde's of Tysons Corner, Zola, Legal Sea Foods and, most recently, Bezu in Potomac, where he'd been sommelier since it opened in 2006.

He was heavily tattooed and sometimes had his hair in a ponytail, and Bezu owner Eddie Benaim recalled saying, "You want to work for me?" But he said Smiler knew his wine, knew how to work the room and was loved by customers.

Although he didn't finish college, he read widely, quoting Shakespeare, Chaucer, assorted poets and Dr. Seuss, his friends said. Roommate Chablis Owens said he once recited a poem while sky diving.

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