Spielberg Story: A Self-Made Star Who Fell to Earth
By Tom Jackman and Peter Pae
Soon Spielberg began parking his flashy blue BMW coupe in the principal's parking spot or the visitors circle out front--a privilege unheard-of in school annals. The typical freshman doesn't even have a driver's license.
But Spielberg was no ordinary freshman. He said he was the nephew of filmmaker Steven Spielberg, and he played the role of celebrity teenager beautifully. He sprinkled his conversation with Hollywood names, handed out $10 bills to classmates and wore expensive clothing outside of school. He had a show-business air, classmates say, and frequently suggested his famous uncle might be giving money to the private Fairfax City school.
As the truth about Jonathan Spielberg slowly unspools--that he was born Anoushirvan D. Fakhran and changed his name 2 1/2 years ago, that he's likely in his late twenties, that he attended two Northern Virginia colleges before setting his sights on Paul VI--parents and students at the small Catholic prep school are left to wonder how he could have duped them and the school's faculty for more than a year.
Much remains to be learned about Spielberg's motivations and intentions, but authorities think his may be more than just a harmless adventure in theatre verite.
Fairfax City police are investigating his relationships with Paul VI students, among them a sophomore he dated. Federal authorities, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, have joined the probe, and Spielberg could be deported if convicted of the felony fraud charges he faces.
The known pieces of young Spielberg's life suggest a man with no shortage of money or time on his hands, who dabbled at both college and menial jobs to fill his idle hours, who smoked and sipped coffee at a bookshop while leafing through magazines about celebrities and British royals. Even when he became a "full-time" student at Paul VI last fall, he went to class sporadically.
The legal file on Spielberg is growing. Three times last month, police showed up at the Fairfax Square apartment he shares with his mother and arrested him on charges that include misrepresenting his age and background and possessing child pornography, a reference to a book police seized. He was released each time after posting bond.
As the inquiry expands, officials and even some of Spielberg's friends and former classmates are seeking answers to the riddle of who is Jonathan Spielberg, why did he enroll in high school, and how do he and his mother support themselves, including their $1,000-a-month apartment and his $24,000 leased BMW with the vanity license plate "SPLBERG."
In a brief interview last month, Spielberg acknowledged he isn't 16, as his school records reflect, but denied being in his twenties, saying, "I'm no older than 18." He said he enrolled at Paul VI "just for the fun, to get the experience I never had."
As for the other answers, Spielberg is no longer talking. Neither is his lawyer.
Rich and Quiet
He was born in Tehran, entering the United States from Hamburg, Germany, on a student visa in 1992 with his mother, according to official records and police. Members of a Fairfax family, also Iranian immigrants, that provided temporary housing for Mehri Fakhran and her son recall him as at least 16 at the time.
"We didn't know him well. He came home from school and then spent most of the time watching TV or playing video games. He was a quiet kid," said a female family member who requested anonymity. She said Spielberg's father wired him money from Tehran, adding, "His family is rich."
He spent two semesters at the English Language Institute at George Mason University, then enrolled at Northern Virginia Community College. During this time, he and his mother moved into their well-appointed two-bedroom apartment in the Fairfax Square complex.
"Neither of them, as far as we knew, appeared to be working," said Donald White, a neighbor. "But they're extremely well dressed; never seen a pair of blue jeans on him or the mother."
White and others said they frequently saw Spielberg smoking a cigarette out front or carrying out the garbage, a trash bag in one hand, a wine glass in the other.
Noting that Fairfax Square requires $30,000 minimum income to rent a one-bedroom apartment, White said he often wondered where his neighbors got the money "not only to live here but for the high-caliber lifestyle. For apartment dwellers, they are way out of [our] class."
Spielberg recently clerked at the Lord & Taylor store at Fair Oaks Mall and at the Bed Bath & Beyond shop at Fair City Mall. Neither job lasted long, managers said, but the work may have provided the walking-around money he liked to hand out at school.
"He used to give me lunch money all the time," said one 14-year-old freshman, whose parents asked that his name not be published. A 16-year-old sophomore said: "He gave me $10 bills. I'd ask him for money because he always told me how much money he had."
Taking a New Name
Spielberg's path to Paul VI began when he legally changed his name in August 1997. According to a court filing, he said Spielberg was his great-grandfather's name, but Fairfax City police Detective Michael Boone said he thinks Spielberg was motivated by his "fascination with Steven Spielberg," four photos of whom were found in the Fairfax apartment.
Administrators at Paul VI say they first heard of Jonathan Spielberg in September 1998 when a woman called to say that Steven Spielberg's nephew would be in the area filming a movie and wanted to study high school life firsthand. Paul VI officials sent an application, which was returned in Jonathan Spielberg's name, listing his birthdate as Jan. 2, 1984.
The Rev. John Lyle, Paul VI's principal, allowed Spielberg to attend part time and waived tuition, according to Spielberg and a lawyer for Lyle's order. Lyle did not return phone calls seeking comment.
From the start, the new student had spotty attendance, sometimes showing up just for his girlfriend's classes. "He was in my English class," said sophomore Charles French. "He just came in and chilled. One day, he came in on a test day and got a 32. I'd say once every three weeks, he'd come to class. He told me he met Tyra Banks. He had us all fooled."
Joe Baber, a senior, said Spielberg came to his classes occasionally. "When the teacher told him he was going to get an F, he'd say, 'You can't do this to me.' "
Gradually, Spielberg became part of the Paul VI scene. Some students liked him, some didn't. Some believed his story and references to "Uncle Steven," but others did not. In a typical school prank, his apartment building was "egged" a few times, neighbors said. White said he occasionally observed young men going into Spielberg's apartment, and once saw a seemingly angry parent retrieve his son.
After school, Spielberg was a regular at the nearby Borders, sipping cappuccino and flipping through fan magazines. Sometimes his girlfriend or other students dropped by, all enjoying the carefree life of upper-middle-class suburban teens.
But Spielberg wasn't a teenager. His 1998 driver's license listed his birthdate as Jan. 2, 1973, the same date he gave at George Mason in 1992; his current driver's license has an Aug. 24, 1979, birthdate. With his high-pitched voice and clean-shaven appearance, he could easily pass for 20; unshaven, he appears more like the 27 he originally told police he is.
Things Fall Apart
Last May, Paul VI received a transcript from the "Beverly Hills Private School for Actors" listing stellar grades for Jonathan Spielberg. One problem: The school doesn't exist. A law enforcement official who has seen the transcript describes it as "a work of art"; Spielberg, who does not have a home computer, said he knows nothing about it.
Based on that record, Paul VI admitted Spielberg last September as a full-time student and started billing him. Spielberg didn't show up any more frequently than he had before, and no tuition was ever paid, according to the lawyer for Lyle's religious order. When the school requested payment, it got a response on letterhead that appeared to be from DreamWorks SKG, Steven Spielberg's production company. The letter, purportedly from the moviemaker's sister, said the family was paying for a private tutor for Jonathan, which hampered them from paying Paul VI as well.
"We are trying to make a deal with her [the alleged tutor] so Jonathan can be a full-time student at Paul VI," the letter said, adding that "making friends and being in public is very important to him."
As Spielberg's absences mounted, a Paul VI official tried to reach the family through DreamWorks. The call was routed to Steven Spielberg's security consultants in Los Angeles. Kevin Berman, the head of the firm, alerted Fairfax City police to the ruse and later flew to Virginia to help with the investigation, Boone said.
On Jan. 10, Boone arrested Jonathan Spielberg for the first time, charging him with forgery and submitting false documents to the high school. Police removed videotapes, books and photos from Spielberg's apartment.
Two days later, Boone arrested Spielberg again on a charge of forging a public document by allegedly misstating his age on his name-change petition. The following week, he was arrested a third time, on a misdemeanor count of possessing a book that police said has pornographic images of young boys.
There have been no evidentiary hearings, and both Spielberg and his lawyer said they do not know what materials led to the pornography charge. Spielberg also said he does not know who provided the phony documents to Paul VI.
Unraveling exactly who Jonathan Spielberg is and what he was up to has proven daunting even to veteran investigators.
As the story broke, Lyle, Paul VI's principal, left town on church business and didn't speak with police for two weeks, although Boone said other school administrators have been helpful.
But some Paul VI parents and students have closed ranks, possibly to protect the reputation of the 1,300-student school, which was recently accused of athletic recruiting improprieties.
"There are students and parents who do not want to cooperate with police," Boone said. "We're trying to encourage [them] to speak with us."
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company