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."