From the fast lane to a prison cell

MALCOLM GRAY September 15 1986

From the fast lane to a prison cell

MALCOLM GRAY September 15 1986

From the fast lane to a prison cell


The Los Angeles Criminal Courts building is 16 km southeast of the Château Marmont Hotel on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard. But for 39-year-old Catherine Evelyn Smith that distance represents the journey from many years spent supplying entertainment industry stars’ demands for drugs and sex to her current status as the woman who was partially responsible for the death of comedian John Belushi. The rotund star of NBC TV’S Saturday Night Live died of a drug overdose in a secluded bungalow behind the luxury hotel on March 5, 1982. And last week U.S. Superior Court Judge David Horowitz sentenced Smith, a native of Burlington,

Ont., to three years in prison for supplying the fatal heroin and cocaine mixture. As Belushi’s widow, Judith, looked on from a front-row courtroom seat, Horowitz told Smith that the late comedian’s drug-dependent lifestyle could not absolve her from responsibility in his death.

Said Horowitz: “You were brought into the action with Mr. Belushi’s circle of friends be/ > 1$ ÄÄfÄWO cause you were the connection, the source of that poison.”

Smith, who did not contest a charge of in^ voluntary manslaughter and three counts of furnishing and administering dangerous drugs last June, sat impassively during the sentencing as defence lawyer Howard Weitzman unsuccessfully asked the judge to grant her probation instead of a jail term. Weitzman had argued that his client needed treatment at a drug rehabilitation centre and disclosed that Smith had relapsed into heroin addiction shortly after her June court appearance. That was the latest revelation in the saga of a woman who spent 20 years gaining access to the closely guarded inner circles of such hugely successful entertainers as the Rolling Stones. In return, Smith provided services which ranged from supplying drugs and sexual favors to members of the rock group The Band, to acting as a housekeeper for Stones guitarist Ron Wood in Los Angeles. Those skills—and in

particular her extensive and ingenious heroin connections—gave her access to Belushi only four days before he died.

As a result of that fateful meeting, Smith eventually found infamy in her own right. And documentation of her role in an episode that graphically displayed the seamy underside of show business appeared in publications as diverse as The National Enquirer and Wired, a 461-page account of Belushi’s self-destructive final days, by Bob Woodward of The Washington Post

But Smith contributed to her growing notoriety with her 1984 autobiography, Chasing the Dragon, a title which refers to a technique used in smoking heroin. Still, as last week’s sentencing sparked another round of media attention, friends and acquaintances who have followed her rollercoaster ride from a small Ontario community insisted that she was more than just a star-struck junkie who killed Belushi. One of them is Jim Hanley, a consulting producer for a one-hour documentary on Smith which aired last week on Toronto’s CITY TV. Declared Hanley: “She was a victim, a convenient scapegoat for what is wrong with Hollywood, with drug use.”

Certainly, Smith appeared to be little more than a tough, unpolished hanger-on to such celebrities as come-

dian Robin Williams and film star Robert De Niro, when they paid brief visits to Belushi’s bungalow on the night he died. Still, Williams was sufficiently disturbed by her dominating presence in Belushi’s garbage-strewn rooms that he later described her to his wife as “a tough, scary” lady. Smith was the last person to see Belushi alive, scrubbing his back and helping the 33-year-old comedian into bed. In Chasing the Dragon, she recalls that she left him sleeping while she ran some errands at 10:15 a.m. Two hours

later two of Belushi’s friends found him dead. But even though police investigating the death found a syringe containing traces of cocaine and heroin in Smith’s purse, they released her without charges after questioning her for several hours. And the Los Angeles county coroner eventually ruled that the comedian had died as the result of an accidental drug overdose.

But three months later Smith received continent-wide exposure when she described her involvement with Belushi to the National Enquirer— in exchange for a $15,000 payment. Under a headline which read Hollywood Drug Queen Confesses, the newspaper’s June 29, 1982, edition quoted Smith as saying: “I killed John Belushi. I did not mean to but I was responsible for his death.” The article led authorities to

reopen the case and nine months later a Los Angeles grand jury indicted Smith for second-degree murder and 13 counts of furnishing and administering drugs. Eiden Fox, the deputy district attorney who successfully prosecuted Smith, described the Enquirer’s taped interview with her as “the smoking gun” in the case.

As Fox argued successfully for a prison term,

Smith sat nearby at the defence counsel’s table. With her neatly coiffed hair, a smart turquoise blue skirt and matching print blouse, she appeared to be healthy and confident last week. In fact, Smith had spent the previous few weeks in a drug detoxification centre attempting to overcome her heroin habit. And defence counsel Weitzman said that it was doubtful that she would be able to remain drug-free if exposed to readily available drugs within prison. Declared Weitzman: “The solution to the tragedy that took place is not that Smith should be warehoused for what she did. Smith was a young woman who got caught up in a situation thousands of people in America would have

loved to be in: being in the shadow of a great star.”

Smith’s style of basking in reflected glory on the fringes of the entertainment world began in 1963 when a friend took her to a Hamilton, Ont., bar and introduced her to The Hawks,

a rock group which later achieved fame as The Band. That meeting initiated a sporadic association that lasted until The Band gave what it billed as its last performance in November, 1976. During that period Smith had a

child, later gave the little girl up for adoption before she was a year old and, in 1970, entered a stormy fouryear relationship with Canadian singer Gordon Lightfoot.

When they separated Smith did not want to leave an exciting environment of late nights, road tours and pulsating concerts. By then she had danced with Prince Charles at an Ottawa reception hosted by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, performed as a backup vocalist on Lightfoot’s 1973 album Sundown and met scores of the top U.S. and Canadian rock stars. In 1975 Smith shared a stage —and a bed —with country singer Hoyt Axton. And by 1978 she had met the Rolling Stones, embarked on a brief affair with lead guitarist Keith Richards and started using heroin. Smith was now in rock’s innermost circle but the band unceremoniously dropped her from its entourage in October of that year after using her to look after one of their houses. Said Smith in last week’s CITY TV documentary: “That’s the way they are used to working—you know, we don’t need you any more.” Added Canadian singer Murray McLauchlan, who also used Smith as a backup singer: “In retrospect, she had a lot of potential to do something good on her own. But for some reason she decided to take the path of least resistance, which was to garner her fame by hanging around with the famous.”

In the end, a career dedicated to drugs, sex and rock ’n’ roll did bring Smith lurid recognition—but only as the woman who aided a famous man’s drive to destroy himself. Belushi’s relatives clearly see her in that light— apart from his widow, who said that her spiritual beliefs prevented her from judging Smith’s actions. But Pamela Jacklin, Belushi’s sister-in-law and a Portland, Ore., lawyer, told the court that Smith should go to jail because she seemed to believe that “if you want to be with celebrities, the way to do it is with drugs.” And now, herself a figure of notoriety, Smith will have to withstand the same temptations that destroyed Belushi. One reason: according to film producer Hanley, who talked to her last week, inmates in a Los Angeles holding cell promised Smith that drugs would be easily available.