The Greatest Fear of All

updated 07/10/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/10/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THEY COULD HAVE BEEN FLOWERS from a fan—a dozen long-stemmed roses that arrived in the Fort Lee, N.J., offices of singer Whitney Houston on May 8. Nothing unusual there; stars like Houston get flowers from fans all the time. But this bouquet was accompanied by a printed card that receptionist Michelle Canal found suspicious. The sender, someone named Steve Marriott, claimed to be Houston's brother. He expressed his undying love, urged that Houston see him and began calling the office quite regularly—even collect.

Houston's chief of security, David Roberts, decided to investigate Marriott, 38, and quickly learned that he had also sent flowers and a note to a Long Island, N.Y., woman, claiming to be her brother as well. But the big scare came when police in the upscale Long Island community of Lloyd Harbor questioned Marriott, a sometime carpenter. They discovered he had been living in a movers' truck with an arsenal of weapons—two rifles, a pistol, a shotgun, knives and a crossbow among them—along with two fierce-looking pit bull terriers.

Marriott was arrested in Lloyd Harbor on weapons charges May 18, and Houston, 31, promptly got a court order of protection, her second against an alleged stalker in less than a year. In September the Grammy Award-winning singer won a restraining order against an unemployed Newark, N.J., man, Charles Gilberg, 38, who had stalked her since 1991 and claimed to be the father of her 2-year-old daughter, Bobbi. And those have not been her only security concerns. Law enforcement officials say Houston has been hounded by some 20 "Steve Marriotts." All this is grim irony, given that in her 1992 debut film, The Bodyguard, Houston plays a singer dogged by a deranged fan.

Life very much followed the script in the Marriott case. In an affidavit, Roberts said Marriott had spent much of the last year on an itinerary eerily mirroring that of Houston's cross-country concert tour, showing up in Florida, Louisiana, Colorado, California, Oregon and Washington, all places on the entertainer's performance or rehearsal schedule. Marriott appeared caught up in a fantasy no logic could puncture. "I asked, 'How could Whitney Houston be a sister to you?—she's black and you are white," says Lloyd Harbor police commissioner Bernard Welsh. "He said, 'I'm her soul brother.' "

Such delusions are not unusual for celebrity stalkers. Just five weeks ago a security guard shot and wounded a man caught outside Madonna's Hollywood home; he was the second intruder in less than a year who claimed to be the singer's husband. Police say Marriott's fixations focus on sibling relationships. On the same morning he paid $70 in cash to a Long Island florist for roses for Houston, he sent a $60 bouquet to a Lloyd Harbor mother with small children. He had once done work on her kitchen cabinets. "You and Whitney are two people in my life who have touched me deep in my heart," he wrote in a note. "And no matter how many times I'm put to sleep, each time I wake up the feeling is as strong as ever. I love you both very much."

Marriott's arrest stunned most of his former neighbors in Northport, N.Y., where he grew up and went to high school. Residents there remember that he was an animal lover who had many pets and once saved an injured crow. As an adult he ran a business making Formica furniture. He bought his parents' home when they retired and lived there with his then-wife, Anne, and her two sons. "They seemed happy," says one neighbor. "He was polite and good to his stepsons."

Around 1988 the family moved to a wooded 15-acre spread in Olive Bridge, N.Y., near Kingston. There, both Marriott and his marriage appeared to deteriorate. "I heard he was fortifying his property, learning survival techniques," says one Northport resident. Friends also suspected drug use.

By 1991 the couple had split up, and he was living in an $825-a-month house in Bonita Springs, Fla., just north of Naples, with a woman named Leslie Silver. One night, next-door neighbor Max Miller heard Silver "screaming and yelling in the middle of the night" and called police. They showed up, but no charges were filed.

Today, Marriott is being held on $20,200 cash bail in the Suffolk county jail, pending a court appearance later this month. But Houston worries that he may be released. The charges against him are "minor," Houston's attorney Thomas Weisenbeck told a New Jersey court in his successful application for an order of protection. He "may soon be at large." New York authorities disagree. If convicted, Marriott faces up to three years in jail. "We don't want to give this guy a break, because we feel he is potentially a dangerous man," says Suffolk police Lt. Frank Stallone. "We don't know what he could do."

PAM LAMBERT
JANE SUGDEN in New York City, MARY HUZINEC on Long Island, LORNA GRISBY in Olive Bridge and CINDY DAMPIER in Florida

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