Last month, three local college students separately responded to a Craigslist ad. Each met with a polite middle-aged man with a stutter who called himself Dorrin C. Small. Each was shown a room in a rowhouse at 2923 St. Paul St., and each allegedly paid Small more than $1,000 to cover the security deposit and first month’s rent, after signing a one-page lease. For a time, all went relatively well. Small provided an internet connection, had a faulty hot-water heater replaced, and supplied dingy but serviceable furniture for the common areas.
“We thought he was a strange, eccentric, pretty harmless landlord who wasn’t very efficient at his job,” says one of the students, a Johns Hopkins University senior who did not want to be identified. Then, on Sept. 13, John Hinegardner Jr., of University Haven Management Company, knocked on the door. The Hinegardner family, which owns University Haven, owns about 75 properties, including 2923 St. Paul; rent checks from a tenant named Nancy Aram, who had signed a lease on Aug. 20, had bounced, and Hinegardner had come to investigate. Instead of finding Aram, he encountered the students, who had never heard of University Haven or Aram. Their landlord, they said, was Dorrin C. Small. After a confused back-and-forth, the students and Hinegardner came to the conclusion that they had been hustled.
Google Darien Craig Small—or any of his many aliases: Dorrin C. Small, Craig Smalls, Dare Small—and the first hit is likely to be stopdariensmall.com. The webmaster, a Michigan man who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution, says he started it shortly after he fell victim to one of Small’s scams in 2005. The man says that he and his fiancee paid Small more than $2,000 to photograph their wedding. Small neither took the pictures nor returned the money, the man says.
Over the years, the site has drawn a steady flow of e-mails from others who claim to be victims. “I never in my wildest dreams would have thought this many people would have gotten ripped off by this guy,” the webmaster says. Posts allege that Small’s schemes include wedding and sports photography scams as well as real estate swindles. According to a 2008 Chicago Tribune article about Small’s alleged misdeeds, he is said to have once started a home-school basketball tournament but cancelled the events after entry fees were paid. Small, who has a master’s degree in education from Johns Hopkins University, has a string of civil convictions and misdemeanors in Maryland, mostly for writing bad checks. Newscasts from Detroit, Atlanta, and Tampa describe cons he is alleged to have committed and at least one state—Illinois—has an open warrant on him, for criminal trespass.
“Ah, yes. Darien Small, aka the Stuttering Conman,” Sgt. Philip Cappitelli of the Chicago Police Department’s Financial Crimes Unit says. Small allegedly pulled a rental scam in Chicago in 2008, which led to a warrant for his arrest. In April, Small was arrested in Maryland on another matter. He technically could have been extradited to Illinois, but the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office declined. The cost of extradition would likely have exceeded the cost of his alleged scams. “That’s how he gets away with this stuff,” Cappitelli says. “He’ll do nuisance-type things.”
It was Bert Pasquale, a photographer in Laurel, who got Small arrested. He contends that Small bilked him out of $1,200. Pasquale says he rented photography studio space from Small this spring, writing a check in advance to Small’s “assistant.” Then the studio folded, and Small initially refused to refund all of the money, Pasquale says. A criminal warrant was issued, and the Howard County State’s Attorney’s Office pursued the case. “It was one of the cases where I put in 10 times more work than I normally do,” Assistant State’s Attorney Scott Hammond says. The case was recently dropped because, Hammond says, it could not be proven that Small ever received the money, since the check was written to a third party.
Small spent little time in jail, but a number of people hope he’ll be back there soon. Chief among them is Kim Hinegardner, University Haven’s account manager. She and Brett Lambert, property manager at Village Property Management—the leasing agent for the St. Paul Street property—say they have pieced together the alleged grift. In July, Small answered a University Haven Craigslist ad. He said he was the owner of a photography and graphic design studio looking for housing for his assistant Nancy Aram, Lambert says. Lambert showed him the St. Paul property, and on Aug. 20, a woman claiming to be Aram came in to sign a lease. (A full background and criminal check on Aram came up clean, Hinegardner says.) It appears Small immediately advertised rooms for rent on Craigslist, and the three students moved in. (Hinegardner says she plans to offer them a lease that would begin in October. They would have to pay once more for rent and security deposit.)
Small appears to have rented another property nearby, also in Aram’s name. Anjali Hinduja, who owns a house at 344 E. University Parkway, says in late July a man who called himself Craig Small responded to a Craigslist ad, wishing to rent her house for his assistant, Nancy Aram. Checks from Aram consequently bounced. Hinduja and her husband threatened to go to the police, and Small paid much—but not all—of what Aram owed. Then, in early September, Hinduja, who lives in Easton, sent an employee to investigate. She learned that someone was living in nearly every room of her house. “[Small] kept talking about how he was a photographer,” she says. “So then I Googled ‘photography’ and ‘Craig’ and ‘Small.’ That’s when I realized we had been totally scammed.”
On Sept. 21, a City Paper reporter visited the University Parkway property. Amber Clark and Igor Fedorovskiy, both 21, answered the door. Upon questioning, they said Small was their landlord and that they had four other roommates. (The house has only four bedrooms. Hinduja says that Small appears to have installed French doors between the living and dining rooms to create another.) Neither was surprised to hear the allegations about Small. Clark, who moved in in late July, says she worked for him all summer in exchange for housing. She says her job was helping him furnish properties. She pointed to the couch in the living room, her bed. “Everything in this house I found on Craigslist,” she says. She became suspicious of Small over time. “I knew something was going on,” she says. “I saw the lease and said, ‘Who’s Nancy?’ and he got mad and told me not to open his mail.” Clark contends Small is renting out at least one other property, in Savage.
Days before CP’s visit, Clark says she Googled Small and looked up his criminal record. Then she confronted him, calling him a scam artist. “He got really upset and he claimed the owner was gonna come and kick me out,” she says. Fedorovskiy says he has paid Small $800 for first month’s rent and security deposit. Both are still living in the house, unsure what to do next.
Hinduja and Kim Hinegardner have vainly sought help from law enforcement, they say. “I’ve basically been on the phone with every agency that I can think of,” Hinegardner says. “The first thing everyone says is ‘Go to rental court.’ But this is fraud!” Early last week, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s office took down a report from Hinegardner. State’s Attorney’s spokesperson Margaret Burns would not comment on the case, but said the investigation and review process can take several weeks or months. Attempts to contact Small and Aram were unsuccessful.