Lives caught in orbit of devotion, deception

Baltimore Sun/March 5, 2000
By Dan Fesperman and Ann LoLordo

Charisma: A knack for attracting lovers, investors, admirers has helped Scott Caruthers enrich himself in ventures that led others to personal or financial ruin.

Long before leaving a string of broken families in his wake, long before co-founding a company that froze the investments of 12,000 stockholders and long before being accused of leading a cult in the suburbs of Carroll County, Scott A. Caruthers took aside a business associate to deliver the inside story on himself: He was a space alien who communicated to the mother ship through his cats.

The year was 1992, the occasion was an after-dinner conversation at Caruthers' home, and the business associate was Bob Bonnell III, who was trying to market a Caruthers idea that would eventually cost backers more than $2.7 million.

"He said that the mother ship was waiting for the right time," Bonnell recalled, "and that his role was to prepare the world, because everyone who was allied with him would be rescued before any calamity hit. ... All of that precipitated my saying, 'Well, you know, Scott, some people believe Jesus Christ is going to return to the world and save people.' And he said, 'Who do you think I am? Jesus Christ was great, but who do you think I am? And what do you think the mother ship is? Doesn't it say in the Bible, "When I return, it will come in the clouds"?' And then he winked at me and said again, 'Who do you think I am?' "

Who, indeed. It is the question at the heart of a vast and troubling riddle concerning Caruthers, 54, who until now has largely escaped public scrutiny, even while enriching himself with ventures that have led others to personal or financial ruin. Only recently have a handful of court cases and private inquiries begun prying open his past, and the bizarre disclosures have caught the attention of authorities including the Maryland State Police and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The record shows that Caruthers is a high school dropout and an Army washout, a rather ordinary-looking fellow who lives in a rather ordinary-looking home.

Beyond that the truth is elusive: Since age 17, Caruthers has fashioned a far more exotic version of himself. According to dozens of people who've met him over the years, he has posed as an astronaut, a war hero, an Air Force test pilot, a CIA agent, a clairvoyant and a space alien. By doing so, and by having a few creative business ideas along the way, he has displayed a charismatic, if unlikely, knack for attracting lovers, investors, admirers and valuable business connections around the world.

As a result, he controls offshore accounts, foundations and trusts that enable him to spend lavishly. In June, he threw a party costing more than $500,000 to launch his newest career -- as a cyberartist depicting aliens and their spaceships. He has hired a limousine to transport an ailing cat to a Philadelphia veterinarian. Excess also marks his personal life. Twice he has been married at the same time to two women, unbeknown to them. According to purported journal entries fished from his garbage by a private detective, he has five women devoted to his every need.

They are among a group of eight adults and four teen-agers said by detractors to be at Caruthers' command as part of a cult in Carroll County. Three of the adults live with him in a two-story brick colonial on a cul-de-sac north of Westminster; the others live nearby, and all but two met him through his dealings with an Owings Mills law firm, Gershberg and Associates.

Their motivation, according to their journal entries, is survival itself: In the coming years, the super-alien Caruthers will safely lead them through cataclysmic "Earth changes" to a reordered future.

The journals and other documents depict an existence dominated by themes that have long characterized Caruthers' life -- controlling behavior, extravagant spending, womanizing, a fascination with cats and, draped across it all, a lavish cloak of mythology. It is a fantasy world in which Caruthers is the dashing leading man, keeping a tight rein on followers while recruiting other prospects through the Internet; building up finances while scouting real estate listings for future compound sites.

The group's journal entries -- covering seven months and filling more than 2,000 pages -- prompted Carroll County Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. in June to remove four children, ages 4 to 9, from the custody of two mothers in the group, including a 9-year-old girl who was living at Caruthers' home. The emotional stakes of becoming one of his followers might best be described by Elaine Gershberg, the wife of lawyer Richard Gershberg. On July 4, 1998, she wrote in a journal entry she sent to Caruthers:

"I didn't want to pull out of my conventional life at first. It was comfortable and fun ... What started out for me as guilt and sadness and grief for something special that was lost, is now something I know to be necessary and even appreciated, for now I live the Truth. The most important thing is there will be no marriage or family unit like what currently exists ... I used to feel bad for my children because they are not leading a 'Normal' life like their friends, even though they still can have fun and enjoy themselves for the most part. I'm not sure what they think of my relationship with their father, but [I] have come to understand that they will appreciate and understand when the time is right. After all, it's for their survival and my own and that's what it's all about. I am teaching them and you are teaching me about following Command, and duty."

Caruthers says that he and the group's writings have been misinterpreted, and in December he invited two reporters to his home to talk about it. Flanked by three of his supporters and a favorite cat, he sat by a computer screen during a three-hour interview, speaking in a soft voice. After decades of exercising and weightlifting, he is trim and muscular. But the first thing one notices are his eyes. A glittering gray-blue, they never seem to waver during conversation, widening with a sudden flash whenever he drives home a point.

The "journal entries" are anything but, he said: Some are forgeries concocted by his enemies, who wish to blame him for failed investments or broken marriages; others are the fruits of elaborate role-playing. He said the group members are his employees, and they send him their jottings as part of an effort to write science fiction.

Caruthers said he has never told anyone that he works for the government; nor has he ever claimed to be an astronaut, a CIA agent or a space alien, he said. He also claimed that he has been married only twice, although when confronted with evidence of three other marriages, he said he had simply forgotten about the rest, unable to remember events "that have no significance now."

As for the allegation that he leads a cult, he said: "To my understanding, cults are usually well-financed. They are usually effective in what they do, and they usually deal with problems, situations or issues -- whatever you want to call them -- in a different manner than we deal with things. Well, we obviously don't have deep pockets. We certainly don't have the power to do anything to anyone, nor do I desire to. And the reason for that is there is no cult. There never was."

Caruthers first publicly laid out his version of events in June, in response to the child-custody cases initiated by two men whose wives are Caruthers' followers. He enlisted the help of syndicated columnist and longtime acquaintance Jack Anderson, who signed an affidavit ridiculing the idea that Caruthers led a cult. Anderson, 74, said in the document that he and Caruthers were "collaborating on a science fiction novel."

But in a recent telephone interview, Anderson said that he only glanced at the affidavit before signing it. He said he doesn't recall Caruthers mentioning collaborating on a science fiction novel until the day he signed the document, June 25. That was 10 days after Caruthers learned that a private detective had obtained the journal entries from a fax machine cartridge left in Caruthers' garbage.

In addition, three people have verified that the journal entries describe actual events. One is a man who severed contact with the group last summer, Lewis Dardick. He said Caruthers encouraged his followers to type up important daily thoughts and fax the entries to his house. Dardick's wife, Amy, is still in the group, and Dardick has custody of their three children. But the information that most contradicts Caruthers comes from more than 40 people who know him, some since childhood. Their descriptions map the strange and circuitous path that led Caruthers to his current status, portraying him as a free-spending charmer with a quick mind and expansive imagination; someone who manipulates by flattering one second and threatening the next, and whose stories about himself grow ever more fabulous.

"Like the great impostor, that's what he's like," said his second wife, Una Crothers, who only recently learned that Caruthers was twice married to other women while married to her.

"He could get you to drink orange juice with arsenic in it. He just had a way of pushing people's buttons," said investor David Squier, whom Caruthers persuaded to kick in nearly $200,000 on a venture that went broke. "Very intense and very controlling," said Hollywood promoter Bob Williams, who was once sure Caruthers would become a million-dollar client, only to fall short by $950,000. "You've got [suicidal cult leader] Jim Jones all over again if you gave him the opportunity."

Those people, too, have misunderstood him, Caruthers maintains.

"I have shared my views openly and naively with a lot of people," he said, "and I guess that can get you in a lot of hot water if you don't know what their opinions are going to be."

Janja Lalich, head of the Center for Research on Influence and Control in Alameda, Calif., and co-author of "Cults In Our Midst," has neither met nor heard of Caruthers, but she described a typical cult leader this way: "They are people who are very cunning, charming; they are very quick on their feet. They're very skillful in knowing how to flatter you or turn the screws. They are persuasive. They are able to gather a little band of followers around them. It only takes one or two. And they go out and get the next batch, and the next batch. ... Often they lie and fabricate and embellish. And they seem to get away with it."

The embellishments of Scott A. Caruthers begin with his name. He was born Arthur Brook Crothers and grew up in Anne Arundel County on rural Tick Neck Road near Pasadena, the youngest of three boys packed into one bedroom in the modest home of B&O Railroad worker John Crothers.

Mom was "Doll," because that's what his father called her, and she always had cats, as many as 20 in later years. Dad was most often the source of tension for Caruthers, known then as Art.

"I guess it was a test of wills," said older brother Joe Crothers, 56, who hasn't seen Caruthers in more than 30 years.

His other brother, John Crothers, 58, who hasn't seen Caruthers since 1966, said Art "tested very high, 138 intelligence. He was into everything. He was just a go-getter."

When Caruthers was 12, the family moved to Oak Court in Catonsville. By his high school years, his older brothers were in the Air Force, a role he would later adopt for himself, complete with a blue uniform. But in reality, his military career was short and unsuccessful.

Dropping out of school after 10th grade, Caruthers enlisted in the Army on his 17th birthday. A month after reporting for basic training at Fort Gordon, Ga., the Army discharged him. The Army won't release the reason, but Caruthers' first wife, the former Kathleen E. Wimbley, said she saw the paperwork: "He got discharged as unfit for military service." Caruthers' explanation is more mysterious. He said the Army gave him a special battery of tests before offering him a discharge, "pending 'special circumstances' recall."

Wimbley, now Kathleen Mitulinski, began dating Caruthers the next spring, when she was 16 and he was 17. They met at the Seton High School prom, and he swept her off her feet with a patter smoother than any she'd ever heard, although sometimes it was frightening: "He said he was from another planet. [He] was very, very convincing, at least to a 16-year-old, that he had this spaceship parked on the hill in Catonsville somewhere. He picked up a glassy rock with gold on it. He said it was something left behind by the creature that was chasing him."

They were married in the summer of 1963. Eight months later they had a daughter, Fawn, who died at 4 months. To save money, the couple moved in with Caruthers' parents on Oak Court, but when his father died of a heart attack in 1966, the household went downhill fast. "The house reeked of urine, cat urine," Mitulinski said. The cats "were pretty much allowed to run free. The furniture was torn and dirty." His mother collected her husband's fingernail clippings and kept them in a jar. "She just loved to show them off," Mitulinski said. "Art never said anything."

The couple moved to Essex, but the marriage deteriorated. Mitulinski said she looked out a window on a spring night in 1967 and saw Caruthers dressed in a tux, standing next to a limousine. It was prom season again, but his date wasn't with her.

The next spring, Caruthers took a 17-year-old named Una to her prom. Although Mitulinski wouldn't divorce him for 19 months, Caruthers, then 23, eloped with Una that summer, just after her 18th birthday. He told her his first wife was dead.

Three years later, Una found Caruthers in a parked car with another prom date, 16-year-old Billi Gardner. Billi also waited for her 18th birthday before eloping with Caruthers, then 27. Billi divorced him two years later. By that time, he'd had a son with Una; six years later she divorced him, too. By then, he was 35 and had been living for five years with Rachelle Kern, 21.

When not changing women and homes, Caruthers was changing jobs. He was a salesman, florist, milkman, truck driver and security guard, and he always seemed to live beyond his means. "Art's the type, when he has $100 he spends $150," Una Crothers said. "He was bouncing checks left and right." He was also working out a lot, lifting weights and spending spare hours at health clubs.

Each wife suspected at times that Caruthers lived in a dream world. They said he wore an Air Force uniform and talked of doing top-secret work for the government. Often he traveled to Florida, telling Una that he was going to flight school and Billi that he was quitting his job as a government assassin to become a pilot with the Blue Angels. He rigged a car with extra antennas so people would think he was an undercover cop.

"It's like anybody who puts on a show -- deep down they're very insecure. I don't know how he keeps it straight," said Una Crothers, who one night found him sunk deep in depression.

"The house was pitch black," she said. "He couldn't talk. It lasted about three days. He didn't dress. He didn't shave." She said he promised to see a psychiatrist but never went. Somewhere along the way, he began calling himself Scott.

Caruthers told Billi, now known as Billi Equi, that he "came over here from Scotland when he was a young boy, and he missed the land so he wanted everyone to call him Scott."

He had a third child, a son, with Rachelle Kern in July 1983, according to her brother.

Kenny Kern said his sister discovered in 1984 that Caruthers was involved with a 23-year-old woman named Paula. Caruthers eloped with Paula that June, and their son was born a month later. But Caruthers was often absent, saying he was going on secret missions. Instead he was living in Glen Burnie with Randi Baverman, a 24-year-old teacher. Pushing 40 and still working at low-paying jobs, Caruthers seemed stuck on the same restless track. In reality, he had reached a turning point. He was about to meet the people who would become the nucleus of his group in Carroll County. They would launch him on a focused journey toward wealth and leadership in which millions of dollars would change hands, at least three families would break apart, and Caruthers would become known as the Commander, with a woman once known as Irmina Dzambo as his Queen.

Irmina Dzambo and Robert Kuhn had been married three years when she introduced him in 1985 to her new friend at the Holiday Health Spa in Glen Burnie. His name was Scott Caruthers.

Kuhn and Dzambo were 25. She was born in Germany, where her father was stationed in the Army, and had moved to Maryland at age 3. He was studying at Towson State University to be a teacher; she was a nurse's aide. Their new friend Scott was something else altogether.

"He was passing himself off as being in the Air Force, even as far as to say he was an astronaut," Kuhn said. "He seemed like a decent guy, very friendly."

It wasn't long before Kuhn felt a twinge of worry. Caruthers had a pretty girlfriend, Baverman, but he seemed to be getting a little too interested in Dzambo. Sometimes he drove her home from work. Once he dropped by their place for a few laughs and sat on the patio playing footsie with her, all the more awkward because the couple lived with Kuhn's parents. But Caruthers also elicited sympathy, such as the night he came to their doorstep in tears.

"They were doing a test mission and he had accidentally shot down one of his partners," Kuhn said. "I can still see him, sitting there at the table talking about it, dropping his head and his eyes filling up with tears, saying, 'The missiles weren't supposed to fire, but they did.' " Kuhn's mother, Virginia, didn't buy it. Dzambo's sister scoffed, too, saying, "Astronauts don't live in Glen Burnie." But Dzambo believed it, and Kuhn's uneasiness peaked one evening at their friend's apartment when Caruthers put on some music, dimmed the lights and gazed at Dzambo. "This is getting strange," Kuhn thought. "I said, 'Let's go.' "

His wife's reply floored him:

"I'm not going. I'm not strong enough to tell you what's happening right now, but I will."

Soon after, Virginia Kuhn recalled: "She went off to exercise one morning, and she never came back. All she took with her was a pillow and a cat." Dzambo moved into Caruthers' apartment near Glen Burnie. Kuhn got a letter two months later. "It said, 'Don't try to find me. I don't love you anymore, and I hate what all of you have done to me.' And that's the statement I'll always remember," Kuhn said, "because I had no idea what it meant." >From then on, he knew her whereabouts only by charge card receipts that trickled in before he could cancel their accounts. The bills came to nearly $10,000 for clothes and housewares -- the makings of a new life with Caruthers. Baverman was also using her credit cards then on Caruthers' behalf, according to her father, Noel, who has barely spoken with her since. Such habits landed her in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in 1986 with debts of more than $31,000.

Dzambo's family wouldn't see her again until 1998. But they heard from her soon enough. In gaining her trust, Caruthers had helped Dzambo confront the most painful ordeal of her past after she told him she had been sexually abused by her father from age 12 to 17.

Anne Arundel County police detective Wayne M. Marshall reported how Dzambo confronted her father: "During the week of 5/26/85 the victim contacted her father by telephone with a Mr. Scott Caruthers overhearing the conversation in which the defendant admitted to said abuse."

Another family member verified the allegations, and a county grand jury indicted Dzambo's father on seven counts of sexual assault. The family prepared for a wrenching trial, but without warning Dzambo dropped the charges. By then she had a new name, Dashielle Lashra.

She also had a new life story, courtesy of Caruthers, who told people that she, too, worked for the government. Caruthers began boasting of living in a threesome, acquaintances say. He, Lashra and Baverman "were joined at the hip," said E. David Gable, who sold them a car while a sales manager at Motion Dodge in Bel Air. Meeting Gable was pivotal, too. He would become a valued business partner, cutting the deal that would make Caruthers a millionaire.

As for Paula Crothers, left alone in Towson with an infant, the few visits from her husband were often unpleasant. When she laughed at him for implying that he was from another world, she said, he shoved her head into a window. Although they wouldn't divorce until 1995, she generally only heard from Caruthers through Lashra, who would telephone as an employee. "She would say Scott was on a mission, and she was depositing money into my account," Crothers said.

That, at least, was a change from earlier marriages, when the wives said they paid most of the bills. Caruthers, it seemed, was beginning to make some money.

It was only a sketch, a crude drawing on a restaurant napkin, and it looked a bit like a snail shell. But for Scott Caruthers it was a blueprint for success. His idea was to build a dumbbell that could be raised without gripping. He said he thought of it in 1984, two years after injuring his left hand in a climbing accident, although acquaintances don't recall any such accident.

The sketch on the napkin was of a weighted, curling chamber. One could slip a hand inside and lift, not needing to grip -- a more efficient way to lift weights. He called the idea Strongput, but he needed money to make and market it. Soon, the smooth patter that had attracted all those prom dates began wooing investors.

Caruthers came to the attention of attorney Richard Gershberg in June 1985 when a client who had invested in Strongput asked him to check the paperwork. The paperwork was lousy, Gershberg told him. Word made its way back to Caruthers, who asked Gershberg in early 1986 to help. The idea was intriguing, Gershberg said, and so was its inventor. "He was very eccentric," he said of Caruthers. "He struck me as being brilliant." Law partner David Pearl was impressed, too: "He is probably the smartest man I've ever met in my life."

Gershberg and Pearl were 31 then, former classmates from Milford Mill High, nurturing a young law practice and even younger families. They were active in their community and synagogues, and friends knew them as devoted husbands and loving fathers. So, when Pearl began telling neighbors about a great investment opportunity, they often responded with cash.

Some were wowed by Caruthers. Prince George's County businessman David Squier poured nearly $200,000 into Strongput, which incorporated in 1987 with Caruthers as chairman, Baverman as president and Lashra as executive director. The three principals also had leading roles in DAR Products, the company set up to hold Strongput's patents.

Squier found this was no ordinary corporate hierarchy when he went to their home for Thanksgiving dinner. "He would brag that they were his and his alone," Squier said. "Dashielle worshiped him."

Squier, too, fell under Caruthers' spell: "I believed in him, in his ability to make things happen. Partly by the way he presented himself and the way he talked about his connections."

The connections supposedly included the CIA, and investors who asked about the "climbing accident" were treated to stories of a mission gone bad. Caruthers also told investors that he'd met Lashra as a young orphan in Germany when he was in the Air Force, that he took her in and raised her until she came of age and they fell in love. Sometimes he told the story with Lashra present. She would nod in affirmation.

Bob Bonnell III was a marketing man looking for a new project when he heard about Strongput in 1988. Almost from the beginning, he said, Caruthers talked of his connections to the CIA's "Black Ops division [in] the Lens Program. ... He said they had 160 operatives worldwide and that he was the Babe Ruth, the Hall of Famer, of all operatives. ... I was thinking he might be real and he might not be. But I was impressed with the product." In 1991, the company enlisted the help of Richard E. Matz, who replaced Baverman as president. An engineer, he knew enough about business to be shocked by what he found.

Investors, some of whom wrote checks payable to Baverman, had pitched in about $1 million, Matz said. "There was no business plan. They had no list of who put the money in. ... No stock certificates," he said. "I spent a month trying to get a list of what they spent money on." Matz said Caruthers and Pearl traveled at company expense but that he "never even saw the bills." He wrote a business plan but said Caruthers "changed all the numbers to make it bigger and better."

The public launch of Strongput came at the 1992 Super Show in Atlanta, one of the world's largest trade shows. Along the way, Caruthers made another contact for his inner circle when a Glen Burnie man, Steve Rainess, printed T-shirts for Strongput. Rainess is now a bodyguard living at Caruthers' home.

Strongput was the hit of the Super Show, attracting favorable publicity in publications including the New York Times and GQ. "CBS This Morning" co-host Harry Smith gushed, "The gyms all over the world are going to be filled with these things."

Not long afterward, Caruthers invited Bonnell and Camille Easley, who would become Bonnell's wife, to his house. After dinner, Caruthers and Lashra took them to an office, quickly shuffling some papers marked "Eyes Only" that he said were their CIA files. And then:

"He said, 'You know, Dashielle and I, we're not from this planet. In fact, we have our own language.' And as I stood there," Bonnell recalled, "they began to speak in, as best as I can describe it, something like Swahili. There were nicks and knocks, clicking noises. ... They were supposed to be hooked up to the mother ship, connected through the cats."

That was when Caruthers stated that the mother ship would rescue the world from "Earth changes" and that he, like Jesus, would come "in the clouds," Bonnell said. Caruthers then described Strongput's role in this plan, saying the product was "a commercial design for a futuristic device called the inertia-less lever, which would be used by NASA."

Bonnell and Easley left, wondering what to do next. Having put so much time and money into Strongput, they decided to stick it out.

For lawyers Pearl and Gershberg, Caruthers seemed to inspire only loyalty. Pearl, who'd begun working for Strongput, wrote in a company newsletter in 1992 that "our fearless inventor" had "constantly challenged me to spread my wings to see a larger landscape. Like a commander on the Starship Enterprise, when faced with overwhelming circumstances, he would repeat the challenge, 'Make it so' ... He said, in so many words, 'David, you will soar to a whole new understanding of purpose.' "

Squier noticed that Pearl "started to act like Scott." Investor George Robinson detected an unnerving level of hero worship when he and Pearl visited the York Barbell Co. to pitch a manufacturing deal. Pearl "was preaching like [Caruthers] is Jesus or God or something," he said. "And I came back and said to my wife, 'You know, it sounds like this guy could be a cult leader.' "

About that time, Gershberg's sister, Debra Hackerman, went to work for Strongput as a fitness consultant. Tim Hackerman, then her husband, said she began leaving the house several nights a week to meet the boss.

Caruthers continued to make important contacts, including Jack Anderson, whom he met at a Washington speakers forum. Caruthers claims the columnist as a close friend; Anderson said recently that he doesn't know Caruthers "all that well." Anderson also said he had heard the CIA stories, so he checked his agency sources, finding "they hadn't heard of him."

Anderson's son-in-law, Peter Bruch, introduced Caruthers to Barry Marvell, a corporate matchmaker in offshore-manufacturing deals. Strongput sought a cheaper work force to lower its price, so Marvell hooked the company up with McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Co., which was looking for a product to make in South America. In August 1992, the Caruthers entourage traveled to the company's headquarters in Arizona, then toasted an agreement at a reception attended by oil sheiks and international businessmen.

Soon, Hollywood entered the mix. Bob Williams, vice president of marketing for Premiere Entertainment, placed Strongput into scenes in TV shows and movies. Tickling Caruthers most was an appearance in a "Star Trek" movie. Caruthers made grandiose plans for $1 million worth of business with Premiere, Williams said, but paid only $50,000. Williams also heard CIA stories; he says he has a fax Caruthers sent with the logo "United States Confidential Assignment." Caruthers denies sending it.

The McDonnell Douglas deal fell through. So did other manufacturing plans. Bonnell was nearly broke, but he said Caruthers kept him working by promising riches and by warning cryptically that, if he quit, "The black van could show up at any time."

By then, Caruthers had called on an old acquaintance for help -- car dealer E. David Gable, who tried engineering a string of deals to infuse Strongput with cash by placing it in a publicly held company. One arrangement after another collapsed until May 1996, when Gable, Caruthers and others formed a new publicly traded company, Carnegie International Corp. Within a few years it would have 12,000 shareholders and be listed on the American Stock Exchange.

Strongput and most of its 224 investors were left in the cold. Carnegie picked up DAR Products, the holder of Strongput patents, but not Strongput itself. DAR's few owners -- Caruthers and Pearl among them -- got $3 million worth of Carnegie stock as part of the agreement. A handful of Strongput investors also got Carnegie stock, but most got only a plea for more money from Pearl on Nov. 24, 1997. Nineteen days later, Strongput folded.

Bonnell and Easley lost their homes in the fallout. Other investors refinanced loans and took their children out of college. Pearl, Caruthers, Lashra and Gershberg say they lost plenty, too, but the Carnegie deal eased their pain.

Caruthers became a founding director, and a financial statement to the SEC on Oct. 28, 1998, showed that he held 792,500 shares. Pearl, who became Carnegie's corporate secretary, had 645,000 shares. At $6.88, the last price per share before the SEC halted trading April 29, the worth of their total holdings was $9.89 million. Gable, Carnegie's chairman, had 1,748,000 shares, or about $12 million at the last traded price. His brother Lawrence, who had also sold cars to Caruthers, became a Carnegie vice president with 50,000 shares ($344,000).

With money no longer a worry, Caruthers was free to turn his full attention to his circle of followers, and by late 1997 their friends and relatives noticed worrisome signs of withdrawal from old loyalties and passions.

For Scott A. Caruthers, the cast was assembled. The wealth he had always wanted was in place. And by 1997, all that was left to gain from those around him was a loyalty of such intensity it would wrench apart friendships, lifestyles, marriages and religious beliefs.

Such devotion would also mean abandoning homes and neighborhoods, and Caruthers led the way. He and companion Dashielle Lashra moved from the lowlands of Anne Arundel County to a two-story colonial amid the hills of Carroll County, in an isolated subdivision near Westminster. According to documents and interviews, the move to higher ground was part of a long-term plan to survive cataclysmic "Earth changes" predicted by Caruthers. In that context, even his new address seemed like a portent: Scott Drive.

Not everyone in Caruthers' inner circle had stayed the course, and not all of his ventures had been a success. Longtime girlfriend Randi Baverman moved to North Carolina, where she is married and a vice president for Bank of America. She refused requests for an interview.

Commercially, Caruthers' invention of a no-grip dumbbell failed, and the company that collected $2.7 million from investors to market it, Strongput, went broke. But a deal negotiated by a business partner helped Caruthers emerge from the wreckage with a directorship in a new company, Carnegie International Corp., and stock worth millions.

The new household on Scott Drive included Irmina Dzambo, who'd left her husband, family and past identity in 1985 to become Dashielle Lashra; and Steve Rainess, a T-shirt maker from Glen Burnie who had severed ties to his parents and become Caruthers' bodyguard. Soon joining them was Debra Hackerman, a fitness trainer who'd helped write Strongput's exercise manual. She had divorced her husband, Tim, and moved in with their 8-year-old daughter. Later she changed her name to Dulsa Naedek.

David Pearl, Caruthers' longtime lawyer and business partner, moved with wife Susan and their two teen-age children to another house nearby. Pearl's former law partner, Richard Gershberg, also involved in Caruthers' business ventures, later moved to the area with wife Elaine and their two teen-agers. A new couple entered Caruthers' orbit when Lewis Dardick, 37, left his job in the Baltimore City auditor's office in 1997 to join Gershberg and Associates in Owings Mills. He and his wife, Amy, 34, had known the Gershbergs for years.

Dardick soon noticed Caruthers and Lashra around the office and thought they seemed odd. "Then one day I see those two kind of glide by my window outside, and I said, 'I don't know what it is about those people, it's like they're from another planet.' And [Gershberg] said, 'You've been skirting around this for months. I've been waiting for you to ask the question you finally have, and there's a protocol to follow.' "

"What the hell are you talking about?" Dardick asked.

"This is serious," Gershberg answered. "Pearl is involved. A lot of people are involved. And you know that I'm not a stupid man and I don't accept things easily and I ask a lot of questions. I have to make a phone call, and I'll get back to you."

Over the next few weeks, Dardick said, Gershberg implied Caruthers and Lashra had connections in the intelligence community and were bearers of a vital message. A meeting was arranged at a Fourth of July party at the home of a business associate in Bel Air.

"We were standing around chatting like you would at a party, kids running around," Dardick said. Caruthers "must have talked to me for an hour straight without a breath. He told me that I had some higher degree of intellect and that I understood the truth, that there were Earth changes taking place in the near future, basically to the point that the Earth's crust was going to shift. ... And the ultimate result would be that life as we know it on this planet would be changed, in chaos, and that they were preparing for this."

Caruthers told him he knew all this because of inside information from the intelligence community. He said compounds would be built to protect those with proper "training," but "only people with certain attributes would be qualified to be trained into a program of higher awareness," Dardick recalled. "The weird thing was that three black helicopters came over the house during the meeting, and he looked up kind of matter-of-factly and said, 'Oh, they're checking on us.' It kind of made me think, like, 'My God.' I think on the way home I said to Amy, 'You'll never believe what I just found out.' She started laughing when I told her."

After that, Dardick said, "I started asking Gershberg and Pearl all kinds of questions, and they told me they were both in training for about the last 10 years. ... They told me they had visited Caruthers in the hospital after he was wounded [on a CIA mission]. They were preaching things like, 'We're about truth and goodness and love.' "

In the conversations that followed, an acronym emerged: BDX, or Beta Dominion Xenophilia. In the group's context, the Latin words meant roughly "Next World Alien Lovers."

"BDX is the 39th level of intelligence organizations above the president," Dardick said Caruthers explained. "Scott claimed that the alien that controlled him was the commander of 'The League,' Scott was the commander on Earth and Dashielle was the queen."

Lashra flies the colors of the organization openly: "BDX ONE" is on the tag of her Lexus.

Dardick soon found himself in a predicament common to people recruited by cults, facing seemingly unbelievable assertions made by trusted friends. In fact, nearly everyone in the group had known each other for years. Debra Hackerman was Richard Gershberg's sister, and she, the Pearls, the Gershbergs and the Dardicks had all gone to Milford Mill High School and were active in their synagogues. They shared vacations and holidays, weekend sailboat rentals and birthday celebrations.

So, when Pearl and Gershberg insisted that Caruthers had CIA connections, Dardick believed it, even if he couldn't quite swallow the alien business. And when they told him not to share any more of the information with his wife, warning of a life-threatening pitfall called "cross training," he was inclined to listen.

In a few weeks, Amy Dardick also got to hear the message. She wasn't laughing anymore.

She was upset, her husband recalled. Then she began going to Scott Drive, joining conversations with Caruthers and her trusted friends Susan Pearl, Elaine Gershberg and Debra Hackerman. One of them would cook an elaborate dinner tailored to Caruthers' tastes and bring it to the house, and then they would chat, often until dawn.

In the meantime, Lewis Dardick said, "They told everybody to keep a journal. Pearl and Gershberg said they were. ... Pearl told me I should keep a 'high points' journal of significant things and send it over [by fax] to Dashielle."

Physically, he said, "training" suited him at first. Like the others, he was losing weight by exercising and eating health foods recommended by Caruthers. Less agreeable was when his wife brought home cats. Caruthers thought every home needed them, and Dardick was allergic.

Beyond the world of Scott Drive, longtime friends and relatives began to wonder what was going on. People mentioned the weight loss. They saw the Gershbergs and the Pearls less and less. A bar mitzvah for the Gershbergs' son in spring 1997 was one of the last events where many outsiders were invited, and some were puzzled by two of the evening's honored guests, Caruthers and Lashra.

The next year, when it was time for the Gershbergs to bat mitzvah their daughter, they instead held a "celestial event" at a Comfort Inn in Westminster. The few outsiders invited said it was eerie, like something out of an episode of "The X Files," which was playing on videotape during the party.

Susan Pearl quit her job as a speech and language teacher. Richard Gershberg stopped coaching youth soccer, something he had done for years. When friends questioned Amy Dardick's recurring evening trips to Westminster, she cited "national security" considerations. She later quit her job as a vascular technologist.

In August 1998, the Dardicks moved to Westminster with their three young children. Lewis Dardick maintained an edge of skepticism, sometimes catching Caruthers lying or altering predictions, he said. Others in the group had few such doubts, based on purported journal entries from the summer of 1998 that were later found in Caruthers' garbage by a private detective. But the writings do hint at discord in the ranks, particularly regarding Richard Gershberg, who was described as being a "potential RAD," a term for a BDX enemy.

In June 1998, Hackerman wrote of the problems that her brother had caused the group on a trip to the Bahamas and suggested frightening consequences if he continued:

"Throughout the assignment, Rick did not follow Command Protocol, instead continued to follow his ego in how he conducted himself. Essentially, he has failed, period, and will never again be allowed to go on anymore trips. It was he who repeatedly sent up flares for the RADS, from telling people in his office that he was taking 'his wife' on a trip to a specific location, to delaying the plane on the departure just because he wanted to buy a piece of pizza. The point being, he did not display any level of integrity or honesty, only selflessness [sic] and personal wants, all of which constantly placed Command in the line of fire. If it were a IC [intelligence community] assignment, the second he left the beach on the rented Jet Ski, a BDX Operative would have followed him, waited for the correct moment and shot him in the head, leaving the body in the middle of the ocean." A month later, Elaine Gershberg wrote of being upset by one of Caruthers' new teachings, concerning what might happen to her son after the "Earth changes."

"Scott mentioned that most males would not make it, not be able to survive. ... All I remember is automatically thinking about [my son] and the fact that he fits into this category. Scott instantly picked up on my dismay, and knew that I was getting very upset and emotional with the thought of [my son's] potential death. ... I have been very good at handling a lot of the concepts, precepts, teachings and all that will be occurring in the not too distant future, but the thought of my son not making it, just because he is a male and will become a Man, really got to me. I have finally adjusted to the idea of Rick [not] following his path and possibly not surviving, but I have never put [my son] into that realm."

She went on to describe how Caruthers comforted her: "The sun came up and no one really slept. Scott and Deb ended up leaving the room and Sue and myself went to sleep. Scott returned several hours later and climbed in between Sue and myself. I expected him to just go to sleep, but Sue started massaging him and asked if he wanted to sleep and he said not right now." The description grew more graphic, concluding, "Eventually Scott left and went to rest with the Queen."

The widening gulf between husbands and wives, and its impact on children, alarmed Lewis Dardick most. "One day," he recalled, "Pearl says to me, 'You don't have a wife anymore. You're not married. Forget it.' " But by then he felt trapped: "I had concerns for my safety." He also worried about coming home one day to an empty house, finding that his wife and children had left for either Scott Drive or for a new compound.

His marriage got a fleeting reprieve in late June 1998 when the couple took a weekend trip to Jamaica for their 15th anniversary. Caruthers disapproved, but the Dardicks had made reservations well before "training" had begun. Greeting them soon after their return was a Caruthers memo titled "Decision." Sent to everyone in the group, it was an admonishment of "self indulgence," signed with what Lewis Dardick said is Caruthers' "alien name," Aryeon Lanicet DeRaye.

"I am going to give you a Protocol by which you can determine the right thing to do without any possibility of cross training," it began, concluding: "We may appear to you as altruistic messengers holding up a beacon to dissolve the darkness that engulfs you; but make no mistake. You are not yet fit to lead -- and if you fail to follow, you will die by your own Decision."

Lewis Dardick was taken aback. His wife resumed her regular trips to Caruthers' home.

As leader of the group, Caruthers was apparently exempt from any restrictions against "self indulgence" in marriage. In September 1998, Lashra became his fifth wife in a private ceremony at Scott Drive. That Christmas, Richard Gershberg wrote a poem for the couple. Titled "Mission of the Fledgling," it was both a tribute and a pledge of devotion, as witnessed in these two stanzas:

I wrote this?
No it just came through you
And a hand and a pen connected to you
did it.
This is just to let you know
I have been

Caruthers continued to seek new recruits. One was a friend of Elaine Gershberg's who was visiting from out of state in the fall of 1998. The friend, who agreed to be interviewed only if her name wasn't used, affirmed that Caruthers explained the "Earth changes" and advised her to go into "training" by moving to the area with her children.

What about her husband? "They really didn't want him," she said. "They were living, as Elaine once put it -- 'a nonconventional lifestyle.' ... I just believe it's a form of mind control." That December, Elaine Gershberg wrote in anguish of her friend's rejection: "She is living every day Knowing what the Truth is and not doing anything about it."

Caruthers also recruited on the Internet. Printouts of e-mail transmissions depict a lengthy correspondence with a registered nurse from Memphis, Tenn., in which he told her he was an agent for BDX. They eventually met at a hotel near Baltimore-Washington International Airport on a weekend in July 1997. Later she broke off the relationship. She did not answer a request for an interview.

There was never much worry about financing the activities on Scott Drive. Documents show how Caruthers and Pearl began structuring accounts to pay for the group's most grandiose plans.

One concern, Lewis Dardick said, was where to build a compound to ride out the "Earth changes." Faxes to the house included at least five real estate listings for 100-plus acres on hilly sites, some of them in the Catoctin Mountains. In summer 1998, Caruthers and Lashra signed a contract on 190 acres near their home, but the deal fell through.

Their base of wealth was stock in Carnegie International, which Caruthers had helped found. He was still a director then. Pearl was secretary and Gershberg was corporate counsel. Seeking tax havens, the group set out to establish foundations, trusts and international corporations with the help of bankers and attorneys in the Bahamas, Belize and Panama. A memo from Pearl to Caruthers on Sept. 21, 1998, stressing the need to "find a jurisdiction that could hide ownership," updated him on progress in Panama. "As for the purpose of the foundation," Pearl wrote, "we need to consider how to word the document. The standard language is family protection, but I would rather incorporate a more esoteric purpose in line with the Truth. Essentially what is the purpose of the Foundation? Building of Compounds? (We can't say that.) Fund a new religion? (Better, but control must be absolute.)" Pearl said he doesn't recall the memo.

Banker David L. E. Fawkes, managing director of Ansbacher (Bahamas) Ltd., became uneasy with the way Pearl and Gershberg were operating. On Feb. 1, 1999, he wrote to admonish them for ignoring "the legal and discretionary parameters of the Trust structure." He also fretted about possible "insider trading regarding the Carnegie International shares."

Pearl also tried to secure a diplomatic posting for Caruthers from tiny Sao Tome and Principe, an island nation off the west coast of Africa where Strongput and Carnegie sought to do business. It was something Pearl had been working on since October 1995, when he wrote in a letter to Strongput shareholders that the country would soon appoint Caruthers, Lashra and business associate E. David Gable as consuls to the United States. The deal never happened, Pearl said in a later interview. But that didn't stop him from claiming diplomatic immunity for Caruthers in a dispute in Baltimore County Circuit Court over child-support payments to Caruthers' former wife Paula Crothers. Pearl argued Jan. 5, 1998, that the court had no jurisdiction because his client was "a Diplomat from the Government of Sao Tome and Principe."

Carnegie executives indicate that they never had much concern about what Caruthers and Pearl were up to until late 1998, when Gable, who was Carnegie's chairman, said he asked Caruthers to resign from the board after hearing disturbing stories about life on Scott Drive.

The company soon severed ties to Pearl and Gershberg, and also got rid of a subsidiary called DAR Products, a company that Caruthers had created in 1987 to hold the patents for his no-grip Strongput inventions. But other deals engineered by Carnegie and its subsidiaries kept Caruthers, Pearl and Lashra linked to Carnegie officers and directors in two companies, TimeCast Corp. and Aegis Technologies. Carnegie attorneys say those ties are also being cut.

Carnegie officials are sensitive about discussing Caruthers; for the past 10 months the company has had serious troubles of its own. The Securities and Exchange Commission halted the trading of Carnegie stock April 29, 1999, one day after its listing on the American Stock Exchange. The SEC launched an inquiry into company financial reports, and the AMEX later moved to drop Carnegie altogether.

Company officials hope to resume trading by summer, but with more than $362 million in stocks frozen, irate investors have filed suits accusing some officers of issuing false statements about company revenues. None of the allegations mentions Caruthers, but investors have passed along information about him to the SEC.

Meanwhile, Caruthers has continued to pursue business deals harking back to Strongput. Faxes in 1998 referred to meetings with Black and Decker Corp. officials about producing nongrip power tools.

Disgruntled Strongput investors have neither forgiven nor forgotten that they lost their money by betting on Caruthers. In December 1998 they obtained a consent order from the Maryland attorney general's office barring Caruthers, Pearl and Gershberg from selling further securities. The three each paid $5,000 in fines but admitted no wrongdoing.

The investors weren't satisfied. After a life of relative obscurity, Caruthers was about to be examined as never before.

In the fall of 1998, Dashielle Lashra did something she hadn't done in 13 years. She contacted her family. Her father, who she said sexually abused her, had died years earlier. She told her mother that she had been out of touch for so long because of her secret work for the government. She then invited her mother, siblings, cousins, nephews and nieces to a reunion dinner the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Three members of the Dzambo family described the event. None wanted to be identified, but an invoice from the M&B Limousine Service confirmed several details. Caruthers paid $605 for two limousines to haul 16 people to and from Rudys' 2900 restaurant in Finksburg on Nov. 29.

When Lashra's relatives gathered in Glen Burnie to await the limousines, some feared for their safety, spooked by the talk of secret work. They arrived at Rudys' to find their hosts in a private dining room. Lashra's mother hugged her, then Caruthers decreed: No more hugs, please.

Dinner was elegant, with Caruthers picking up the tab. A hired photographer snapped pictures while the family sat at a square table with place cards and listened to stories of dangerous missions. The couple said they'd worked for U.S. presidents and that Caruthers had flown a stealth fighter. He had been shot in the head, and Lashra had saved his life.

When anyone asked Lashra a question, Caruthers almost always answered first. Neither mentioned working on a science fiction novel, which Caruthers would later claim was the focus of his group's activities on Scott Drive. At the evening's end, Caruthers permitted a few hugs, after all. Then the long black limousines drove everyone home.

By then, relatives of others in Caruthers' group were trying to get to the bottom of what was happening on Scott Drive. In August 1998, Martin Tulkoff, scion of the Tulkoff Horseradish empire, sought help from an organization in Pikesville known as Jews for Judaism, which specializes in retrieving Jews from cults. Tulkoff and his wife were particularly concerned for their niece, Elaine Gershberg, and her children.

The Tulkoffs also hired a private detective, and in early 1999 he found the fax machine cartridge containing the imprints of seven months of journal entries and other correspondence. The Tulkoffs later joined forces with Tim Hackerman and relatives of the Dardicks, and on May 17, they met with the growing organization of former Strongput investors.

The minutes of the meeting show the strategy they agreed on: "Place the leadership (Caruthers, Gable, Pearl, Gershberg and others) under such scrutiny that it may produce the desired effect to 'rescue' the children under Scott's cult-like influence. 'That lives are at stake' is the top agenda."

Having acquired wealth and a loyal following, Caruthers set out in the summer of 1998 to become a cyberartist. On July 30, he incorporated Lightspear Corp. and Quantum Financial Corp. to pay his way, and he began calling on business connections to get his work noticed. He wanted attention, but he would eventually attract more than he'd bargained for. In January 1999, Rick Latham and Peter Jovanovich of Creative Color Graphics came to Westminster from the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia to look at Caruthers' work -- portraits of spaceships and gray-faced aliens. Debra Hackerman, who had changed her name to Dulsa Naedek, recorded the day in a journal entry. She described Caruthers showing his work and introducing five of their seven cats to his visitors. He also told them of the coming "Earth changes" and of his ability to see into the future through "remote viewing." Latham confirmed in an interview that the journal entry was an accurate account of the meeting, contradicting an assertion Caruthers would later make that such entries were works of fiction or forgeries concocted by his enemies.

Latham found a forum for Caruthers' debut at the Arthur Ross Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania. Director Dilys Winegrad said the gallery normally arranges its own exhibits, but last summer "agreed to host -- a word I don't often use -- to host the exhibition. ... People have asked me if he was a self-promoting artist, and that had just sort of flipped through my mind. ... We fitted it in basically because it was over the Fourth of July, when we would have been closed."

The exhibit opened June 18 with a lavish party at the university's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Caruthers paid for ice sculptures and elaborate place settings for 307 guests. An orchestra played as they dined on lobster and filet mignon.

The guest list included syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, a longtime acquaintance who wrote a laudatory introduction to the exhibit; Bahamian bankers; a Portuguese man who'd tried to arrange the consular post for Caruthers; a Black and Decker representative; and Carnegie CEO Lowell Farkas. Anderson, who heads NASA's Young Astronaut program, arranged for former astronaut Gordon Cooper and a cosmonaut from Ukraine to attend. The gala was splashy enough to attract a proclamation from Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, who declared the next 30 days CyberArt Month. Unveiled along with the artwork was a book called "Truth Notes," a vanity publication of the images accompanied with poems by Caruthers.

One, titled "Beta Dominion Xenophilia," spoke of "secret keepers, strangers to the average citizen. A silent coterie, equipped to recognize prevarication and falsehoods, sworn by sacred oath to defend liberty at all cost ... even from the ignorance of their charges."

But a shadow of worry was cast across the festivities in Philadelphia. Three days earlier, on June 15, the Tulkoffs, Tim Hackerman and the Dardicks' relatives had taken action, armed with the findings of the private detective.

Tim Hackerman picked up his daughter for his weekly visit and immediately filed for emergency custody in Carroll County Circuit Court. Lewis Dardick, seizing his chance to sever ties with the group, also filed for emergency custody of his three children. The judge granted it in both cases. A Maryland State Police investigator began looking into the matter.

Ten days later -- with the question of long-term custody before the court and embarrassing details of Caruthers' life spilling into the public record -- Caruthers hired a limousine to ferry Anderson from his Bethesda home to a luncheon at Cockey's Tavern in Westminster, where the columnist signed an affidavit ridiculing the idea that Caruthers led a cult. Anderson said in a later interview that's the first time he remembers Caruthers discussing a possible science fiction novel.

Caruthers also invited a state senator, the head of the Carroll County Economic Development Council and a reporter for the Carroll County Times to the luncheon, where he began spelling out his version of life on Scott Drive for public consumption.

The Times reported the next day that Caruthers was a local cyberartist who was working with Anderson to develop a TV series called "Futureman" that would be based in Westminster. Later, Anderson said he'd always thought that "Futureman" was an idea for a sci-fi video game that would incorporate images from Caruthers' cyberart.

By fall, it was clear that the halt in trading of Carnegie stock was pressuring Caruthers financially. The caterer of the lavish party in Philadelphia suddenly stopped receiving payments after getting checks for nearly $300,000. Still owed was $246,641.49 to the caterer, a photographer and a publicist. In November, the creditors filed a Chapter 7 action in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Baltimore against Caruthers' Lightspear Corp. None of the court filings, or even the removal of the four children from their mothers, seemed to draw the group out of its insular existence. Neither of the estranged mothers has visited her children for nearly six months, said Mark Powers, director of Jews for Judaism. And when reporters visited the home on Scott Drive in December to interview Caruthers, the social order described by others appeared firmly in place.

Dulsa Naedek went upstairs to her bedroom, refusing to answer questions and deferring to Caruthers. Lashra sat through most of the interview but let Caruthers speak for her.

Pearl and Gershberg, who gave a previous interview at Gershberg's law office, interrupted only to offer legal advice or to challenge a statement made by a reporter. Later attempts to interview Elaine Gershberg, Susan Pearl and Amy Dardick were rebuffed.

Caruthers answered questions for three hours. When asked why so many people said he'd told them that he was a CIA agent, a test pilot, an astronaut, a war hero or a space alien who'd come to save the world, Caruthers scoffed, saying, "When I was a little less sophisticated and a whole lot younger, I would share my views about what I was writing with people to get their reaction and their opinion."

Now that some of those people have lost money or their families, he said, they've chosen him as a scapegoat and have twisted the facts against him. Eight weeks after the interview, saying Caruthers had decided on a policy of "full disclosure," Pearl gave The Sun 518 pages of documents. Most of it was material from Strongput. But in a 16-page cover letter, Pearl drew attention to a copy of a fax that Caruthers sent the CIA on Jan. 31, 1996.

Pearl was coy about the fax, insisting that he was unable to confirm or deny whether Caruthers ever worked for the agency. He suggested that Caruthers' past had merely been "window dressing" for some other, more secretive life and that the identity of "Grace" might unravel the mystery -- although he advised using the information carefully lest it place Caruthers "in harm's way."

But "Grace" is hardly a mystery. The fax number on the letter is that of the CIA's Office of Public Affairs, one listed prominently on the agency's Web site. As for "Grace," CIA spokeswoman Kathy Adams said, "That's a name we give out. That's a clue to us, because we use 'Grace' when the call comes from somebody who sounds like they're a little off."

For security reasons, CIA policy is to neither confirm nor deny someone's employment. But the agency makes exceptions when someone may be claiming affiliation for personal gain.

"We will deviate from our normal policy in this case," spokesman Tom Crispell said. "We have no records of Mr. Caruthers being employed at any time."

It's the sort of rebuff that might crush the credibility of many leaders. But among Caruthers' followers, only his words seem to carry much weight. That is especially the case when he speaks of a theme he has stressed for 15 years, whether in writing customers, addressing investors or e-mailing friends. The subject is "The Truth."

"It's corny, I know," Caruthers said, leveling his steady gaze at a questioner, "but candor is important. The truth always works, and I don't want to deal with anything else."

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