A life immersed in sound

Audio: Baltimore native Stephen St.Croix believes he can fill in the most infamous gap on the Watergate tapes.

September 02, 2001|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

As career paths go, the one taken by Stephen St.Croix has been a murky, quirky, meandering trail - a long, strange trip with only one constant:

Noise.

Whether it was trying to make his electric guitar louder than anybody else's as a rock musician, defuzzing the audio for the re-release of The Wizard of Oz as a sound engineer, or enhancing the covertly recorded mumblings of terrorists and drug dealers as a manufacturer of audio surveillance aids, the Baltimore native's life - at least the parts he can talk about publicly - has been all about sound.

But it is 18 1/2 minutes of relative silence - specifically that wordless, clicking, humming and hissing gap that remains on a tape recording erased by Richard M. Nixon's secretary - that has intrigued St.Croix for the past two years.

With the possible exception of the identity of "Deep Throat," no greater Watergate mystery remains than what was on Tape No. 342, recorded June 20, 1972, three days after the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters.

St.Croix believes that mystery can be solved. What was on the tape, he thinks, still is.

"What's on a tape is not completely erased - ever," he said. "In theory, there's always some signature, no matter how many times it has been erased."

As a member of a National Archives committee of experts studying that question - whether computer-age technology can bring voices back to the erased 29-year-old audio tape - St.Croix pushed harder than anybody to give technology a shot.

And being the sort who would rather think too big than too small, who seeks rather than shirks challenges, who - from racing dragsters as a teen-ager to touring on one of his half-dozen Harleys at age 53 - has always liked to live fast, loud and brashly, Stephen St.Croix believes the best person for that job is Stephen St.Croix.

If the name sounds fake, that's because it is. St.Croix was born to a Baltimore neurologist and his wife as Steve Marshall. But it is under his stage name - shared with a porn star - that he appeared on a Stevie Wonder album, toured with rock bands, worked as a sound engineer, and co-founded Intelligent Devices, the Baltimore company that specializes in "speech extraction" technology.

St.Croix's company sells computer software - primarily to police agencies and governments - that helps enhance muffled voices, both those captured on tape and those being listened to through live transmissions. Among his customers is the National Archives and Records Administration, which has used his software to clean up the sound on some of the 3,700 hours of Nixon tapes in its possession.

As a result of that contact, he was selected to serve on the committee looking into whether the conversation on Tape No. 342 - believed to be between Nixon and chief of staff H.R. Haldeman - can be recovered.

Restoration competition

The National Archives announced two weeks ago that it had approved a three-tiered testing process that will allow interested companies to try and restore voices to erased tapes. Those who pass will be qualified to submit bids to work on the original Nixon tape.

St.Croix, often in a minority of one on the committee - most members doubt any understandable conversation can be returned - says he will be among those seeking the job.

"I've certainly been the guy kicking up the dust. And yes, if it turns out nobody can do it, it's my fault; I wasted everybody's time. On the other hand, how can you not try?" he said.

"Who knows?" he added. "We might get the most incriminating thing you ever heard in American history, or we may get Nixon asking for pineapple on his pizza. Then again, we might get a very clean, hum-free nothing."

If he passes the tests and is chosen for the job, St.Croix will be in a position to, if not rewrite American history, at least fill in what many see as a major hole.

Not bad for a man who was once interested only in making cars faster and guitars louder. And not without irony, considering that St.Croix - who says he has dabbled in espionage and has an affinity for spy gizmos - sometimes displays a cautiousness and suspiciousness that, whether necessary or pretense, can reach nearly Nixonian proportions.

St.Croix encrypts his telephones, has laser detection devices on his property, worries about "blowing his cover" and packs a gun. He spends a lot of time in "undisclosed locations" doing things "you don't want to know."

He is a cryptic sort, talkative about some things, taciturn about others; boastful one minute, self-deprecating the next. He has the varied interests of a Renaissance man and the intense focus of a computer geek. He's a child of the '60s who went on to own more than a dozen Ferraris, at once; a rebellious rock-and-roller who now wants nothing more than to help his country. Once he was all about distorting sound; now he's all about clarifying it.

"Steve is nothing if not complex," said a younger brother.

Baltimore native goes West

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