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Months later, Van Pelt gave him a call. They began spending time together. He told her about how he'd been chosen from 400 kids to star as Mark Taylor, about how he'd learned from tutors instead of going to school, about how he'd been the family breadwinner before he hit puberty.
Their personalities meshed.
Van Pelt thought the former actor was quirky and charismatic; she saw him as a fiery, self-assured Aries. He was also 16 years younger.
She felt awkward about the age difference, but she was in the middle of a nasty breakup with a live-in boyfriend. She agreed to move in with Smith.
He tells the Pitch he wasn't bothered by the age difference or the fact that their relationship progressed so quickly. "Yeah, people would say that's weird, but my whole life has been pretty weird so I'm kind of used to it."
Smith still lived with his parents; he told them that the 32-year-old Van Pelt was 25. Two months later, an argument about a speeding ticket betrayed his girlfriend's age. "They freaked out and kicked her out," he says of his parents.
The two went on the run, crashing on friends' couches. They traveled south of the city and worked on a farm for a couple of months. Back in Los Angeles, Van Pelt got them a window installation job at a Melrose boutique.
She remembers how the employees and customers kept telling Smith, "You look exactly like that kid on Home Improvement."
"I get that all the time," he'd reply, keeping his cover.
When they banked a thousand bucks, the couple flew to Maui for four months. Smith says he made $12 an hour as a landscaper. Van Pelt taught cooking classes out of their home in Haiku.
Their fugitive status kept her on edge — especially when her friends in California called and said a private investigator had been asking about her. She felt responsible for Smith, but every time she pressed for him to return home, he'd ask her to hold out a little longer. And Van Pelt knew what he was going through. She'd watched his mother confront him with head shots of him at age 7, pushing him to get back into acting, implying that the family would be destitute if he refused. Van Pelt wanted to help him out.
Then she made tabloid headlines.
"Home Improvement Kid Missing; cops called in after he disappears with lover" blared the National Enquirer in March 2001. The attention was unwanted, but Smith and Van Pelt pocketed $5,000 for the photo.
But as time wore on, Smith says he realized the gravity of their situation.
"Up until that point, I was legally a runaway," he says. "If we'd been stopped by the police and taken back to California, I would have been locked in a room somewhere. And Heidi would have gotten in trouble."
He also had to do something to stop his parents from siphoning funds from the $1.5 million he earned during his eight years on the show and the $60,000 in annual syndication residuals he received. Until he turned 18, Smith would have no control over the small fortune that had bought his family a $585,000 home and 49-foot sailboat — unless he found a way to make himself an adult in the eyes of the law.