The Man Who Would Be You

One of Orange County’s most prolific identity thieves shares his secrets with candor, calculation, and maybe a little self-delusion. Remorse? Actually, not so much.

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Robin Marc Smith had just ordered a shrimp cocktail at his favorite Del Mar steakhouse when the police closed in. He’d visualized the moment many times in the past decade and a half as he’d toured the office buildings and banks of Orange County. Now, as five plainclothes officers surrounded him, he barely had time to react. They pushed him against a piano, yelling that he was under arrest. Even as they slapped on the cuffs, he already was planning his escape.

The thing about credit cards, Smith later explains, is that they’re there for the taking. Sitting in some guy’s jacket pocket on a coat rack, or in a desk drawer, or in his briefcase, they virtually beg to be grabbed, along with his driver’s license and anything else of value. It’s all just too easy. And so Smith did lots of grabbing, mostly inside the expansive glass office buildings of Irvine, Costa Mesa, and Newport Beach.

His expedition lasted 14 years, from 1993 to 2007, and netted him millions of dollars from countless victims. In the end, he lost everything he loved.

Before all that, though, he was a boy in Canada, where his cross-continental dash began. Born in London, Ontario, Smith was the fourth of six children and learned early to jostle for attention. His dad was the manager of a printing company while one of his brothers played professional hockey. For Smith, the road to success veered in a more felonious direction: He became the king of shortcuts.

In high school he got by with little effort, cheating whenever he could. After graduation he worked briefly for Ford Motor Co., but quit out of boredom. He lived on the streets, and hung out in bars with fellow would-be thieves. That’s where Smith discovered his true avocation.

Loitering at a hotel one day, he came across an unguarded wallet in the first of many jackets he ultimately would plunder. Instinctively, he emptied the billfold. No one noticed. And that’s how he hit on his life’s central strategy: Pick victims carefully, assume their identities long enough to get some cash, and be gone before they know they’ve been robbed.

For a time it worked well in the towns and hamlets of southwestern Ontario. Then Smith was arrested for fraud. He served eight months of a 3½-year sentence at Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ontario, got out on a three-day pass in 1991, and decided it was time to relocate. So he rented a vehicle, evaded suspicious cops following in a car, and, after knocking around Canada for a couple of years, headed for the U.S. border.

Locked in the cage of a Newport Beach courtroom in 2007, and wearing a carrot-colored jumpsuit, all the fight went out of him. He was overcome by a sense of peace. He knew it would be a long time before he could taste another glass of fine wine, eat at a quality restaurant, or take his wife on a South Coast Plaza shopping spree. And yet, shackled hand and foot, dangling at the precipice of a bleak future, that’s not what occupied his thoughts. As he sat waiting for the judge to sentence him to five years, he mostly felt free. For the first time in three decades, he wasn’t being chased. He knew then that this was a turning point.

The fugitive identity thief had discovered Orange County in 1993. It was a fluke, really. He was driving north from his home in San Diego, took a wrong turn onto the 405 Freeway, and landed somewhere near Jamboree. “I saw all those shiny big office buildings in Irvine and thought, ‘Wow, this is the mother lode,’ ” he recalls.

By the time he made that wrong turn, he had a wife, Dottie, and a daughter, Amanda Nicole. In Southern California, he and Dottie worked out a daily routine: Leaving home at 7 a.m., they’d drop Amanda—then 9—at school, and be in Orange County by 8. After selecting a target, they’d park several blocks away. Then, dressed in business attire, Smith would saunter into the building, often past a reception desk not yet staffed, while his wife waited in the car.

Acting as if he owned the place, he would walk around glancing into glass offices until he spotted someone broadly resembling himself. Eventually the man would leave—perhaps to attend a meeting or visit the restroom—and Smith would dive in. Generally, he says, people leave their wallets in one of three places: the pocket of a jacket hanging near the door, the left top drawer of their desk, or a briefcase tucked underneath.
He quickly would find it, taking credit cards and ID. Then he would search the billfold for clues to a personal identification number; perhaps a child’s birthday, phone number, or Social Security card. It’s amazing, he says, how many people use the last four digits of their Social Security number as their PIN. Always, he would replace the wallet and be gone within 30 seconds.

Back in the car, he and Dottie would sometimes test a suspected password at a gas station. Then it was on to a bank, arriving by 9 a.m. He would always show the driver’s license first, followed closely by the card. Nine times out of ten, he says, the teller would look at the license instead of him. Then he’d make up a story explaining why he needed the largest cash advance he could get. One of his favorites: He was moving into a new place that required several months’ rent in advance.

If they had a PIN, the couple’s next stop would be an ATM that would spit out more cash. Then they’d head for South Coast Plaza or Fashion Island. Using the stolen credit cards, they’d buy brand-name clothing, TVs, fine wines, and expensive sporting goods—some of it to keep, some to sell. By noon they’d discard all the incriminating documents and start back home, arriving in time to pick up Amanda from school. That was the best part of his day.

From the yard on the roof of the Orange County Jail, he could see the building in which he’d made his biggest score. During daily recreation periods while awaiting a transfer to state prison, he would stare at it, thinking of where he’d been and all that he’d done. It was as if someone were playing a trick on him. The taunting view was a constant reminder of why he was there.

In a span of 50 minutes, he’d made $24,000 on three credit cards stolen from that building. It was a suite of corporate offices that recently had been remodeled. Inside he had lifted a driver’s license, Visa, MasterCard, and Platinum American Express from a guy whose password, it turned out, was indeed the last four digits of his Social. At the bank, Smith got a cash advance of $1,800. Then, moving quickly among ATMs at various other institutions, he got the rest in $20 bills delivered in stacks to his wife.

One of his most brazen acts, Smith says, was walking into the new Laguna Hills City Hall in 2004, shortly after municipal officials had moved in, and pilfering a small strongbox while the building’s occupants were at lunch. In it, he says, were about a dozen newly issued staff credit cards with PIN numbers attached. His score: about $10,000 in purchases and cash.

Don White, the assistant city manager, remembers the incident, but differently: a petty-cash box containing one general-use city card without a PIN. And the loss, White recalls, was more like $1,000, an amount eventually covered by the bank. “There were a lot of workers on the site at the time,” White says, “and we always assumed it was one of them.”

Another time, Smith says, he made $16,000 from three credit cards and a driver’s license retrieved from a backpack at Google’s Irvine headquarters on Jamboree Road. And, in a later foray, he says he got about $6,000 from an office directly above the Lake Forest sheriff’s station.

At the time of his 2007 arrest, police estimated that Smith had made more than $1 million in fraudulent purchases during his Orange County sprees. Smith, with an apparent tendency to exaggerate his exploits, puts the number at between $3 million and $4 million cash, with another million or two in goods.

A lot of that was golf equipment, mostly balls and clubs, which he sold at a “discount” for extra cash. It also helped maintain his cover as the owner/operator of a home-based sporting goods company called K&M Golf. To the people who knew him, Smith seemed like an honest businessman. But it all came crashing down after one recognized him in a bank surveillance tape shown on TV.

Smith had just begun serving five years for burglary, criminal conspiracy, and credit card fraud at California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo when, in 2007, a social worker delivered some bad news. Dottie, who suffered from lupus, had died at age 57. Though she also was charged in the crimes, Smith had made a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty in exchange for her freedom. By then Amanda was 23 and living on her own, and while the couple had carefully prepared her for the potential incarceration of her parents, they’d never imagined that one of them would die so young. Smith felt numb; it was the beginning of a depression that would go on and on.

After his release in 2009, he was sent back to Canada to spend 16 months in prison to finish the term from which he fled in 1991. Finally, in June 2011, he was paroled in Kingston. He moved to Toronto where, for six months, everything went well. Determined to make an honest living, he worked at odd jobs, eventually landing a position at a warehouse. He also started doing volunteer work with inmates and sent money to his daughter, who intended to join him north of the border. Six months later, it all fell apart.

He was buying cigarettes in a grocery store on the way home from work one day when his cellphone rang. It was a police lieutenant calling from Pompano Beach, Fla., where Amanda had moved to be near relatives. “I hate to tell you this,” the officer said, “but your daughter is no longer with us.”

Just 10 days short of her 27th birthday, Amanda had been riding in the Jeep of a friend who later was charged with driving under the influence and possession of drugs, specifically Xanax. Careening off a concrete median into a police cruiser, the Jeep partially ejected the young woman before rolling over and pinning her underneath. She died at the scene.

Smith ended the call and slowly walked out to the parking lot before collapsing to his knees. “I was finally doing the right thing,” he said later, “until somebody decided that I needed another kick.”

He went home feeling suicidal. That’s when Heather Bennett knocked on his door. After a string of relationships that had gone sour, she’d met Smith a few weeks earlier at a victory party for liberal political candidates he had supported. They’d hit it off. The pair had gone on a couple of dinner dates. His sister, concerned about his state of mind after Amanda’s death, had asked Bennett to check on him.

He credits Bennett, 55, with saving his life that day. She gave him the sympathy he needed and, within weeks, they were living together on her elderly mother’s farm. The 40-acre spread is just outside Tweed, a small town about 120 miles north of Toronto where Smith’s past made him somewhat of a local celebrity.

His isn’t the only legend in that remote part of Canada. The town also is famous for its Elvis sightings, which residents have turned into a cottage industry with an annual Elvis festival. And the village’s other notorious personage is Col. David Russell Williams—otherwise known as the Tweed Creeper—who was the subject of a recent television film, “An Officer and a Murderer.” A cross-dresser and once one of Canada’s top military commanders, Williams now is imprisoned for serial rape and murder.

It was in this unusual setting that Smith landed just before Christmas 2011.

About 6,000 people live here and almost all of them seem to know Smith. Hanging out at a local pub he orders a bottle of Labatt Blue, Canada’s best-selling beer, and greets everyone at the bar. “I forgot a few days of my life on this stuff,” says Smith, now 55 and finally off parole. He likes to brag about the famous people he claims he met while on the lam, including Joe Biden, Mel Brooks, and Bill Clinton. And he seems to take a perverse pride in the unwieldiness of his past. “I’ve got nothing to hide anymore,” he says. “I am what I am.”

David Demurjian, who prosecuted Smith in 2007 and is a former member of Orange County’s White Collar Crime Task Force, has to be prodded to remember the case. In an area where identity thieves are common, this one doesn’t particularly stand out. “Smith was going for small-ticket items,” says Demurjian, now practicing law in Corona del Mar. “That’s why he was able to get away with it for so long.”

One reason the crime keeps growing, Demurjian believes, is that law enforcement tends not to take it too seriously. “You stick up a liquor store and within 30 seconds you’ve got cops there with guns,” he says. “Rob somebody with a credit card and it’s not considered sexy enough to pursue.”

About 7 percent of U.S. households—8.6 million in all—experienced some sort of identity theft in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. That represents nearly a two-point increase since 2005. One study suggests a 13 percent increase in 2011 alone, much of it attributed to the rise of computer hacking, social media, and smart mobile phones.

The proliferation of cyberfraud has altered the landscape of credit card crime since Smith first entered it in 1993. Experts estimate that at least 11 percent of identity thefts now occur electronically. Yet far from making him irrelevant, Smith believes the change helped him fly under radar:

“My MO was always quaint and old-fashioned. That was the key to it: keeping it simple. I had an unassuming presence and personality, an ability to blend in, and a generic innocence that got me through doors.”

The success of such simple schemes often motivates identity thieves to continue, says Manny Tau, a San Clemente-based clinical and forensic psychologist specializing in criminal profiles. Though Tau has never met Smith, he recognizes the type; sociopathic with a sense of entitlement.

“There’s a disregard for convention and a high degree of self-focus,” Tau says. “It’s all about them; they do what they do not just because they can get away with it, but because it makes them feel good.”

Tau believes it’s probable that a criminal like Smith will never change. All of which, of course, raises the question of whether Smith’s current candor is just another scheme. He swears it isn’t.

The reason he’s going public now, he says, is to earn honest money, and “clear up any misconceptions of my wife’s involvement.” He’d eventually like to write a book, and perhaps make his living consulting on prison reform. “I’d like to get paid,” he says, “but you’ve got to get your name out there.”

Bennett, for one, believes he’s telling the truth. “He’s always been very forthcoming and genuine, and I’ve never felt like he was evading anything. I haven’t found that in a relationship since I was a teenager.”

Yet, despite his protestations of remorse, Smith has never given back a penny. Though he and Dottie spent most of the money on high living, he says some of it is still unaccounted for. That includes $500,000 he gave his wife for a condo she never bought; $45,000 cash stuffed into the shafts of nine missing golf clubs; and $55,000 cash left in a briefcase stored in Del Mar.

After his release, Smith says, he was able to retrieve 13 cases of vintage Opus One wine, which he sold for $32,000 to a guy in California. And he’d like to get his hands on $228,000 worth of Dottie’s stolen jewelry he believes is being held by a friend.

“Sure it’s ill-gotten gains,” Smith concedes, “but it’s my money. I’ve done the time.”

Idling on the farm these days sometimes feels a little like doing time. So Smith stays busy handling whatever maintenance and improvement projects need to be done. He also spends considerable energy baling hay in the barn and caring for Heather’s three horses. During the town’s annual Elvis festival in August, he mans the barbecue at the Royal Canadian Legion on Victoria Street while competing Elvises perform inside. And at least once a week he hangs out at the legion hall’s bar to drink and cavort with the crowd.

Demurjian doesn’t share Smith’s assessment that the missing money is his. Because the original sentence required restitution, the lawyer says, the court theoretically could come after him for it.

Smith says he’s not worried. In fact, he says, he regularly drives past the scenes of his crimes in Canada to test whether any criminal instincts remain. “I don’t feel a thing,” he reports with pride. “My moral compass is straight.”

Yet he remains furious at many people, including the former friend who turned him in, his parents who he says treated him like a “black sheep,” the Canadian parole officer he believes unnecessarily delayed his release and, most particularly, cops and prison officials he considers incompetent and corrupt. He’s also angry at himself. “I let everybody down,” he says often, “especially my wife and daughter. I let myself down, too.”

Mostly, though, he just feels sad. Raised Catholic and once a regular churchgoer, he stopped attending services after Amanda’s death. And though part of him believes in karma, he can’t help feeling that his payback has been unfairly harsh.

Sauntering through a field near the house outside of Tweed one early fall afternoon, Smith sees a perfect rainbow arching over the farm. It is of truly rare quality, its vibrant colors plunging to the Earth at each end. For a moment he’s flabbergasted, barely believing his ex-con eyes. “Hey, Heather,” he calls over his shoulder, “you gotta come out and see this!” She does, and for a moment the two stand in awe. “People used to say I had a pot of gold stashed at the end of the rainbow,” he finally says. “Hell, I used to think so, too.” To Smith, it doesn’t matter that the gold wasn’t his.

IIllustaion by Jason Holley

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