Tohono O'odham With Love
Little Marshall Soto is glued to the TV this Friday morning in his dad's modest home just outside of Sells, Arizona, capital of the Native American Tohono O'odham Nation. He's not watching cartoons or Sesame Street or some new kids' show on Nickelodeon. Instead, he's focused on the image of a white hearse approaching a Baptist church in the Bahamas.
He looks up wide-eyed to his father, Johnny Soto, seated on a couch behind him. "Je'e?" the boy asks plaintively in his native tongue. Je'e means "Mother" in O'odham.
"Yes, mo'okwad," the child's dad replies sadly, using his pet name for the boy, meaning "tadpole." Johnny Soto then whispers something quick in O'odham, and Marshall turns back to the television, tears filling his blue-black eyes.
"I want mama je'e," he cries, as the news channel shows a mahogany coffin draped in pink, rhinestone-encrusted satin being removed from the hearse by pallbearers. "Mama je'e, is she in the box?"
"Mama je'e went to heaven, mo'okwad," Soto gently informs his son. "Mama je'e watches us from the sky. Like Peanut," he says, referring to a family dog attacked and eaten by a pack of coyotes months back.
"Peanut went bye-bye," the 5-year-old mutters, sniffling.
"Mama je'e is with Peanut now; they're playing together on the clouds," Soto tells the light-skinned, dark-haired boy, who favors his mother a little. "One day we go play with them too."
"Can we go and play now?" wonders Marshall.
"No, not now, mo'okwad," Soto says, beginning to cry himself, hiding his face in his hands. "You stay with 'o:gi [father, pronounced "awk" in O'odham] now. Your 'o:gi needs you."
Marshall runs to his dad, jumping up to embrace him on the couch, as they weep together. On the TV, the news switches from a helicopter shot of the funeral to video of Anna Nicole Smith in her platinum prime, throwing kisses to paparazzi, then a shot of her splayed out on a bed, then footage from her 2002 E! The Anna Nicole Show where she's much heavier than in the rest.
Since the tabloid goddess collapsed in her hotel room at the posh Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida, dying of causes still unknown as this article goes to print, the world has been riveted by the fight over her corpse, her daughter Dannielynn, and the potential half-billion-dollar bequest from the estate of J. Howard Marshall II. That's the Texas oil tycoon whom the former stripper wedded sans pre-nup in 1994, when the very senior citizen was a wheelchair-bound 89 and Smith was a 26-year-old Playboy Playmate of the Year. From the day her husband expired, about 14 months after their nuptials, Smith had been battling for her share of the old man's billion-dollar fortune.
Now that Smith has been laid to rest in the Bahamas, the war for custody of her infant daughter rages on, with Smith lawyer/confidant Howard K. Stern, her mother, Virgie Arthur, Smith boy-toy Larry Birkhead, and a number of other potential Dannielynn dads such as onetime Smith bodyguard Alex Denk, erstwhile boyfriend Mark Hatten, and Zsa Zsa Gabor's spouse, Prince Frederic von Anhalt all putting in their claim for the billion-dollar Dannielynn lottery ticket.
Smith's eldest child, Daniel, overdosed last fall at age 20 from a lethal mixture of antidepressant meds and methadone. Hypothetically, this would leave his sister, born just days before Daniel OD'd, sole heir to the Smith-Marshall millions. But now Johnny Soto and his son are poised to throw yet another monkey wrench into the surreal soap opera of Anna Nicole Smith's life and post mortem. According to Soto, his son is the result of a torrid love affair between himself and the 42DD femme fatale in early 2001, while Smith was vacationing at Paradise Valley's Sanctuary Resort and Spa. He has the birth certificate and other documents to prove it. If they hold up in court, and he's able to establish little Marshall's lineage through DNA, Soto, his son, and the entire Tohono O'odham tribe stand to cash in big time.
Indeed, little Marshall (named for Anna's dead oil-magnate hubby) may well become one of the wealthiest trust-fund kids in history. Even though, right now, all the tyke wants is for his pretty white mother to rise from the grave and take him in her arms.
"Don't worry, 'o:gi," promises the child. "I won't go to heaven 'til you come with me."
"Ay, Marshall," Soto sighs, kissing the boy. "What would 'o:gi do without you?"
Johnny Soto's a tall, ruggedly handsome man in his mid-thirties, with copper skin and jet-black hair, and the way he tells it, in his slow, laconic manner of speaking, it was Anna Nicole Smith who seduced him, not the other way around.
"She'd never slept with anyone who wasn't white before," explains Soto. "That's what she told me. She had what we call 'scarlet fever' [when an Anglo falls for a Native American man or woman]. When an Indian man goes for a white woman, it's called 'eating at the white man's trough.'"
Soto had fled a life of poverty and misery on the rez when he was 18 to join the U.S. Army, a move that led to his service in the first Iraq War as a gunnery sergeant, and a Bronze Star for valor when he carried a wounded member of his platoon to safety after they were ambushed by an Iraqi sniper patrol. Honorably discharged in 1993, he refused to return to the Tohono O'odham Nation, the second-largest reservation in the United States, which sprawls across the Mexican border and is nearly the size of Connecticut. His mother died when he was younger, after having both legs amputated because of diabetes. And while he was stationed in Kuwait, his father, an alcoholic, had died of alcohol poisoning after a weekend guzzling 12 bottles of pine-scented Lysol floor cleaner.
"The rez is dry, and he didn't have a car to drive to where he could buy beer," Soto relates. "Lysol has a high alcohol content, and it's easy to get in Sells. So it's the next best thing."
Soto drifted, working as an auto mechanic in Bisbee, then moving up north briefly for a stint as a janitor for Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. He eventually ended up in Phoenix, where he drove a taxi for a couple of years, and then finally landed a job as a handyman for the exclusive Sanctuary Resort and Spa on Camelback Mountain. Maintenance staff there work 'round the clock, tending to any problem a guest may have in one of the mountainside "casitas," furnished condo-like dwellings with magnificent views that are the resort's "rooms." In early 2001, one of those casitas was occupied by none other than the buxom Texas beauty who'd just been awarded $450 million by a California judge in September 2000. That cash remained tantalizingly out of reach because of battles in a probate court in Houston and later legal wrangling that's reached all the way to the Supreme Court and drags on to this day. All the same, at that moment, Smith seemed to be on a roll, and she was treating herself to a break from the spotlight and the jealous eye of her lawyer and sometime companion Howard K. Stern.
Like many celebs, she had journeyed to the Valley for anonymity, and cabined at the resort under an assumed name. But everyone knew who she was.
"We were told to answer calls from her first, before any of the other guests," Soto remembers. "Anything she wanted she got. And before you knew it, she wanted me."
Soto kept getting maintenance orders for Smith's casita. First the room was too hot, then too cold. The thermostat was busted, Smith insisted, even though Soto could find nothing wrong with the unit. Then there were problems with a patio door, then the icebox. This continued for three days, and the calls only seemed to come on Soto's watch. Smith flirted with Soto brazenly, and Soto, for his part, was flattered.
"I was a little shy at first," he admits. "I'd never been so close to a woman that looked like her. I mean, I had seen a couple of Playboy issues she'd been in, and now here she was right in front of me. Sometimes she'd wear this thick terry-cloth robe, and sometimes she was just in panties and a wife-beater. She smelled like rose petals, her whole body. Every time I got near her, I felt like I was drunk. When she brushed against me, my skin was on fire. But I didn't know if she was just playing or not. I couldn't believe a Playboy Playmate was acting this way with me. I guess I didn't know her very well."
At last, Anna upped the ante. Soto received the latest of umpteen work orders for her room. Something to do with a light in the glamour gal's bedroom. When he arrived at her door, Anna yelled for him to come in, but when he opened it and walked in she was nowhere to be seen. Her voice called him to the bedroom, that Texas drawl of hers dripping with honey. When he entered, he found her lounging stark naked on the king-size mattress, a fire roaring in the fireplace next to it. Soto couldn't resist, and there began a three-week session of lovemaking, with Soto calling in sick and finally taking all of his vacation time so he could spend it satisfying Smith's ravenous appetite for sex.
They rarely left the townhouse-style dwelling, having room service bring them champagne, oysters, steak, anything they wanted. At one point, Smith had a yen for fried chicken, so she sent her limo driver in search of a KFC. He returned with five buckets of Extra Crispy, and container after container of mashed potatoes with gravy a fave of Smith's. (At one point, she smeared potatoes and gravy all over Soto's privates and licked them off.) Soto noticed strains of racism in Smith's attraction to him, but he was having too good a time to refuse her demands.
"At first, it was all in fun," Soto details. "She'd call my you-know-what her 'tomahawk,' her 'wooden Indian,' or 'big wampum.' Sometimes she'd ask me to do a war dance naked with this feather from one of her dresses stuck in my baseball cap. I tried to tell her that the Tohono O'odham don't wear feathers, but she didn't care. She thought it was funny, and it turned her on, so I did it, though I have no idea if our people even have a war dance."
Smith gushed that she found him so exciting in bed, partly because what they were doing was taboo. Being from the South, race-mixing was a no-no for a white woman, but Smith secretly craved crossing the color barrier. She told Soto that sleeping with him was "almost like sleeping with a black man." She loved his skin color and the smell of his sweat, which she claimed tasted different from a white man's.
"Sometimes I felt like I was being used, and it left a bad taste in my mouth," says Soto. "But I was just as guilty as she was. The only whites I'd ever had sex with were prostitutes, and I couldn't get enough of Anna Nicole. I fell under her spell. I did whatever she asked."
That meant enduring Anna Nicole's singing the un-PC Disney song, "What Made the Red Man Red," from Peter Pan, as they took a bubble bath together. Or complying with her insistence that he perform an "Injun yell," as she called it, when he climaxed. When he told her about the decadent deliciousness of Indian fry bread, she had to sample some. So he and Smith took her limo to the Fry Bread House at Seventh Avenue and Indian School Road. They pigged out on the honey- and sugar-topped fried confections in the car after the driver bought a mess of them for the pair. On the way back to Sanctuary, they gorged themselves, then made love behind the black windows of the limo.
Weeks turned into a month. The 2001 February issue of Playboy featured Anna Nicole on the cover as the "$450,000,000 Playmate." And Smith noticed that her period was late. Soto never used condoms with his voluptuous mistress, trusting in the "rhythm method" of birth control that she swore by. But a home pregnancy test soon revealed that Smith was pregnant with Soto's child, and she was fearful of how Howard K. Stern might react, or how it might affect several lucrative modeling and entertainment contracts coming down the pike, including negotiations with the E! Channel for what would become The Anna Nicole Show. Stern called her constantly to offer updates on business transactions, scheduling, and so forth, or to just keep tabs on her. Now each time the phone rang, Smith seemed rattled, fearful, and annoyed.
Soto suggested an abortion, but Smith was brought up Southern Baptist and would have none of it. She believed abortion was a mortal sin. However, she was afraid the sometimes Svengali-like Stern would force her to abort the fetus. In a panic, she began consuming mass quantities of ice cream, Twinkies, whole pies and cakes. Already, by the time she left for Los Angeles to see her Beverly Hills gynecologist, she'd packed on 10 extra pounds. During the limo ride to Sky Harbor International Airport, she wept mascara-streaking tears, like a much better-looking Tammy Faye Baker. She declared her undying love for Soto, and swore they would be together as soon as circumstances allowed.
"I was stupid and kind of believed her," Soto admits. "But once her flight took off, I felt like something had ended. On the ride to the airport was the first time I saw her take drugs a handful of Vicodin she washed down with vodka from the limo bar. She never did that while she was at the resort. I told her she had to be careful because of the baby, but she said it was just because plane flights made her nervous. Little did I know."
Anna Nicole Smith's ravenous lust when it came to both sexes was evident both on The Anna Nicole Show and off-camera, if we're to believe the gossipy tell-all pieces that run in the National Enquirer, People, and In Touch. The National Enquirer recently quoted former Smith personal assistant Nathan Collins as stating that "Anna loved sex with both men and women," and he told of Smith picking up male barkeeps, bodyguards and Marines for one-night stands. It's also been written that Smith had her way with more than one Chippendale's dancer while E! was filming an episode of her show in Las Vegas. Her trip afterward to a Sin City strip club with Stern and her then personal assistant, Kimmie, turned into a near-orgy, with Smith fondling the breasts of the nude dancers on camera. She was uninhibited and rapacious. Back in February 2000, the now-defunct New Times L.A. broke the randy tale of Houston lesbian Sandi Powledge and the love shack she kept with Anna Nicole as the white-trash bombshell serviced her octogenarian sugar-daddy-turned-spouse J. Howard Marshall II. And just weeks ago, Zsa Zsa hubby and Smith paramour Prince Frederic von Anhalt claimed in an interview that 20 to 30 men could lay claim to being the father of Anna Nicole's Dannielynn.
But only one man can lay claim to being Marshall Soto's father, and he has boxes of receipts and documents proving his assertion that his son is also the son of Anna Nicole Smith.
Aside from a birth certificate from Burbank's Providence Saint Joseph's Hospital listing Anna Nicole as the mother of one Marshall Black Deer Soto, there are numerous boarding passes for round-trip flights from Phoenix to Burbank. Smith would ensconce Soto at the Safari Inn Motel on Olive Avenue, close by the NBC studio where the Tonight Show's filmed. Being pregnant made her horny for Soto, as she told him. No one else would do.
"I knew we weren't exclusive, that she was having affairs," says Soto. "But I wanted to be with the mother of my child."
Smith had rapidly begun to put on weight, even more than the average expectant mom, in what she told Soto was an attempt to hide the pregnancy from Stern. Smith's height (5 feet, 11 inches in her bare feet) and her big-boned Texas frame also helped. The pregnancy was kept secret from the press for fear of the ramifications. Stern was already afraid of losing the E! deal, a major money-making proposition since Smith's cut of the J. Howard Marshall II pie was still tied up in the courts. So Stern was kept in the dark about the pregnancy until about a month before the delivery, for fear he would flip out.
For the child's delivery in 2001, Soto persuaded Smith to fly out a tribal elder from the Tohono O'odham reservation, who smeared yellow clay on the faces of both the mother and the child in a traditional ceremony. The medicine man then fed Soto, the child, and Smith a small portion of the clay, and, as is O'odham custom, gave tiny Marshall a name that had emerged from his dream about the Smith-Soto union: "Black Deer." As mentioned above, the Indian name was listed as Marshall's middle name on the birth certificate.
Since E! was to begin filming in late 2001 or early 2002, Smith had no time to be a mother. She granted Soto custody of the boy, with Smith agreeing to deposit $10,000 a month in Soto's Wells Fargo account for care and upkeep of the child. Soto returned to Phoenix, quit his job at Sanctuary, and began devoting himself full-time to raising the infant. Smith promised that they would one day marry and live as a family, and Soto has numerous hand-written notes and letters from Smith stating those intentions.
One reads, "Oh, my brave Injun-man, how I long to be with you and feel your red manhood. Look after my little paapoosie [sic], and soon I'll be your squaw again. I love you, kemosabe, Anna."
Smith, by then anywhere from 60 to 100 pounds overweight, continued to fly them out so that she could spend time with them on weekends. She began to develop profound post-partum depression, which she salved with drugs such as methadone, Demerol, Zoloft, and Phenergan. Her weight gain also fed her melancholia, leading to her oft-bizarre and seemingly drug-addled behavior as cameras rolled for the E! reality show.
"I saw her go deeper into the drugs," states Soto, who himself has had issues with alcohol, but now says he only occasionally drinks Jack Daniels when he's overcome with the reality that little Marshall will never again spend quality time with his mother. "She got more and more wild, and I was afraid for Marshall to be near her. The reality show was an embarrassment. She had become a different person, so I called her and told her I was taking Marshall to the rez, where she couldn't find him, and that I didn't want her around our child. It broke my heart, but I had to do it. I thought, 'What if I meet her in Los Angeles and she tries to steal him from me with her bodyguards and those other stooges she has working for her? How would I get my boy back?' Look what happened to her other son, Daniel. See how he ended up? The same thing could have happened to Marshall.
"She was angry, of course," continues Soto. "She called me all these names. 'Basket weaver,' and, the worst, 'Indian giver,' because I had taken Marshall from her. That one really hurt. I don't know if she was just being mean and racist to try to needle me, or whether she was so ignorant and high on drugs that she didn't know she was being offensive. Sometimes she'd answer the phone, 'How!' when she knew it was me because of the caller ID. But I didn't let it stop me from protecting my boy, by surrounding him with our kin."
Nowhere could've been safer for a half-Indian child than the reservation. As the offspring of a full-blooded O'odham father, Marshall easily met the requirement of a 50 percent blood quantum for membership in the tribe, even though Marshall has decidedly Anglo features. Any tussle over custody would have to be decided by tribal courts in Sells, according to the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, a law passed to deal with the odious legacy of a once-common practice of kidnapping Indian children and raising them in Anglo homes.
"Because of such past history, Native American courts jealously guard children against removal to white households, whatever the reason," observed Professor Stone Applewhite, Chair of Native American Studies at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. "In a case like this one, there's no way that a Caucasian mother with Smith's sort of past could reassert her parental rights. Unless, ironically, she was able to steal the child back from the father."
But Soto was careful, very careful. As Soto's records attest, the deposits to his bank account continued unabated, and the letters from Anna Nicole grew more desperate in tone. Soto finally relented and allowed Smith to see their son, but only on his own turf usually at one of the Desert Diamond Casinos operated by the Tohono O'odham near Tucson. Soto required that Smith arrive without her entourage, save for one person (usually Howard K. Stern), or he would cease all contact. Smith accepted the conditions, and she would usually visit with Marshall as he got older in the Casino buffet, bringing him toys and toddler clothes. She called Marshall "my little brown one" and swore that she would cut Marshall and Soto in on her millions once all the legal jousting was over. Still, Anna Nicole's attitudes toward race often resulted in insulting moments.
"I remember, one time she met us close to Christmas and gave us presents while Stern played slots in the Casino," Soto recalls. "She gave Marshall an Indian play doll, with a teepee and a horse. That was okay. But then she gave me an old Cher CD. Remember that one from the '70s, Half-Breed? She said it was one of her favorite songs, and could I play it for Marshall. I kept thinking, 'How dumb is this woman?' She also tried to get me to fuck her again, in the Casino restroom while Marshall played with his toy. By this time she was so fat, she could barely fit in the stall. Ultimately, I couldn't go through with it. She kept saying she wanted me to use my 'bow and arrow' on her 'ax wound.' I told her that was no ax wound, it was the Grand Canyon! She got so pissed, she almost left in a huff, but then came back when she realized she hadn't hugged Marshall goodbye."
By all accounts, Marshall adored his famous mom; he kept a picture of her on his chest of drawers and always kissed it goodnight before Johnny turned off the little boy's lamp. Every time Anna Nicole appeared on TV, the stripling would cry out, "Mommy je'e!" But as Smith's career took an upswing with her weight loss and the TrimSpa spokesmodel deal, Soto and his son saw her less and less. As phone and bank records demonstrate, Smith continued to call and send the wire transfers. Also, Smith remembered birthdays and holidays, having a gleaming electric blue, child-size mountain bike delivered to the Soto household for Christmas of '06.
"The last time she called in January, she didn't sound right," Soto recalls. "I knew she was again back on the drugs. Her speech was slurred, and she was saying crazy stuff about how there were rats under her bed trying to eat her feet, and that the Mafia was out to kill her for her money. Before I heard the news, I got a letter in the mail from her, written in lipstick, with a photo of her shaving Howard K. Stern's butt. I thought maybe she needed to be institutionalized. Obviously, the birth of Dannielynn and Daniel's overdose it was just too much for her."
So when Smith shuffled off her diamond-studded coil on February 8, Soto was devastated, but far from shocked. He'd felt something bad coming, and had even discussed it with his medicine man, but he had no idea it would be death. He tried to reach Howard K. Stern, but was rebuffed by handlers and hangers-on. The wire transfers soon ceased. Soto was met with unsettling silence and impersonal phone machine messages whenever he attempted to reach someone, anyone. He and the boy had savings, but he was afraid to burn it all up on a trip to the Bahamas. A sitting Tohono O'odham supreme court judge attempted to assist (he asked that his name not be used, as private practice is forbidden for those on the court) but got nowhere. Soto says he needs a high-profile lawyer to take the case and fight for Marshall's rights, someone like Wyoming attorney Gerry Spence or former O.J. Simpson attorneys F. Lee Bailey, Robert Shapiro, or Barry Scheck.
"Do you know how to get hold of [former Arizona attorney general and now trial lawyer] Grant Woods?" he asks, after Marshall had cried himself to sleep following a wrenching day of watching his mom's funeral. "We're not greedy, but Marshall's older than Dannielynn, and I want him to have what's rightfully his. That's one reason I decided to go public. I didn't know where else to turn. Right now the tribe is helping me, and if we win, I'll make sure they get half of whatever Marshall inherits. I want him to grow up on the reservation, to learn our language and what we call the O'odham 'himdag', the O'odham way of life. But we can't do it by ourselves. This is the white man's law, and we need someone who knows the white man's law to help."
Whatever member of the bar takes his case, one thing is sure: Should Soto's boy obtain his inheritance from his dead mother, carving a chunk off the gazillions that languish in the estate of J. Howard Marshall, the Tohono O'odham Nation now beset with the ravages of drug trafficking, poverty, and diabetes would overnight become the richest Indian nation in the southwestern United States. These "people of the desert," as Tohono O'odham translates, once known as the Papago, or "bean eaters," might become the children of paradise, their rugged land possibly transformed into a Sonoran El Dorado.
And all because Anna Nicole Smith had an itch only tribesman Johnny Soto could scratch back in 2001.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.