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.

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Charles Tatum