By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 2010; B05
A Potomac teenager pleaded guilty to first-degree murder Wednesday as details emerged about how she lured a 57-year-old car salesman down a darkened path, where her boyfriend hit him in the head with a shovel.
Shortly before the encounter last year, Emily Geller, now 18, had arranged to have sex for money with the man, which she had done in her basement several days before, according to prosecutors and documents filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court.
"She admitted that it was her idea to 'play like I was going to have sex with him' and to lead him down the nearby path," Assistant State's Attorney Carol Crawford said in court.
The body of Ali Zare was found the morning of May 10, 2009, by a jogger on a path in woods near Bells Mill Elementary School in Potomac. Five months passed before charges were filed, but documents filed in court this month show how prosecutors investigated Geller and Artie Ellis, her boyfriend at the time. At one point, two detectives questioned Geller at her dining room table in the presence of her parents.
Geller faces up to 25 years in prison as part of a plea agreement. Ellis, now 16, reached a similar deal this year. Attorneys for each defendant said the other one formed the plan to rob Zare.
It was Geller who first met Zare, an Iranian immigrant who lived in Gaithersburg, in early May 2009. She said she was walking in the Twinbrook area of Montgomery County when he pulled up and offered her a ride. He told her that he bought and sold cars and that he could get her a good deal, she told detectives.
A short time later, Zare went to her house, where they had sex in the basement, Geller said. She and Ellis then carried out the plan to rob him. Neither teenager intended to kill him, their attorneys said.
Five days after Zare's body was found, two detectives, Randy Kucsan and Sgt. Craig Wittenberger, interviewed Geller at her house. She said that when she had gotten into trouble in the past, she fled, so her cooperation was a sign of innocence.
"I'm a runner. I've been running since I was a little girl," she said. "I would not be sitting here cooperating with the police if I did something. Every time I got in trouble . . . I ran before I got caught. I never turned myself in. I'm not lying to you about anything. I'm cooperating. You guys want to take my house down, feel free."
When questioned by detectives Oct. 14, Geller told detectives it was Ellis who struck Zare.
"So you're walking down the path," Detective Deana Mackie asked her, "and what happens?"
"Artie comes out of the woods and hits him with a shovel," Geller said.
She broke down in that interview and said she didn't want Ellis to get into trouble: "I don't want him to go to jail."
"Well, it's too late for that, Emily," Mackie said.
Geller repeatedly said she loved Ellis but was unclear about who formed the plan. At one point, she indicated it was Ellis's idea to rob Zare.
"I was on the phone with him, and he was like, 'Let's get him for some money.' I was like, 'All right,' " Geller said.
Rene Sandler, an attorney for Ellis, said that assertion was wrong.
"It was Geller, and Geller alone, who identified the victim and formulated the plan," she said.
Geller's parents attended the hearing Wednesday, and they walked up to a bailiff afterward to receive a message from their daughter. She told them that she was sorry and that she loved them, the Gellers said.
"We just hope she can get the help she needs," said Donald Geller, a real estate developer.
At a hearing in the case two weeks ago, he described the challenges his daughter has had since he and his wife adopted her when she was 2 days old. They found out her biological mother had used cocaine about the time of her birth. As Emily grew up, she received diagnoses of attention-deficit disorder, bipolar illness, depression and oppositional defiance, he said in court.
She started running away, behavior that continued into her mid-teens.
"She had a lot of out-of-control behavior," Geller said. "She would leave home for a week or two at a time. We were just kind of a way station for her. She'd come back and eat and get a clean set of clothes, and then leave again. . . . Try as we might, we couldn't control her."
Both defendants face sentencing. Prosecutors agreed to a limit of 25 years as part of a suspended life sentence. The governor's office would have to sign off on parole, attorneys in the case said.