It was Feb. 21, 1994, a bleak and depressing morning, Presidents' Day. Rosario Ames was at home with her 5-year-old son, Paul. Her husband, Rick, had been called in to the office, which was not unusual on a holiday; Aldrich Ames was, after all, a CIA counterintelligence officer. Rosario's mother, Cecilia, was still asleep in the guest room. She had come up from Bogota, Colombia, for the holidays and had stayed on when Rosario, who seemed increasingly agitated, asked her to.

When the doorbell rang in her North Arlington home, Rosario was in the upstairs bathroom putting on her makeup. She wasn't expecting anyone. As her housekeeper went to see who it was, Rosario looked down the stairwell and saw a man and a very pregnant woman standing at the door. She went down to greet them. They asked her to step outside. There they told her they were FBI agents. They had just arrested her husband for espionage. They were going to arrest her too.

Rosario was paralyzed with fear and panic. She couldn't believe it was happening. They told her to get ready to go with them without making a fuss. They told her to take off her jewelry and leave her purse behind.

She ran up to the guest room, woke her mother and told her to dress quickly, that Rick had been arrested. She said that her mother and Paul should get out of the house, go to Rick's sister, who lived nearby. Her mother was dumbfounded. She didn't even know Rick worked for the CIA.

The pregnant woman was at her side the entire time as Rosario rapidly gave instructions to her mother. On her way out the door, she grabbed a camel's-hair coat. Paul was waiting anxiously in the hall. She hugged him and kissed him and told him she had to go with the people but that she would be back soon. She was straining to control herself so that he wouldn't see her cry.

When she stepped outside and closed the door, she realized that the house was surrounded. Squad cars and people with walkie-talkies swarmed about the yard and on the street. The pregnant woman took Rosario by the elbow as she got into the car. Don't worry, she told her, I'm a mother too. I understand. If you come quietly and help us out, you'll be back with your son tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.

She hasn't seen him since.

Maria del Rosario Casas Ames, 41, wife of confessed spy Aldrich Hazen Ames, sits in a tiny, windowless, pale-green room at a Formica table in the Alexandria Detention Center. She is dressed in a green prison uniform over a white T-shirt and white sneakers. Her brown hair is cropped short, her face sallow with no trace of makeup. Dark circles under her eyes attest to the strain she is under as she awaits her sentencing Friday morning for conspiring to commit espionage and for conspiring to defraud the government of taxes.

Under a plea bargain negotiated by her court-appointed lawyer, she agreed to plead guilty rather than go to trial with her husband, who has been described as the most notorious and destructive spy in CIA history. He is serving a life sentence. Because of sentencing guidelines, she faces a minimum of 63 months in prison. As part of her plea bargain, she agreed not to ask for less. The judge has the option of giving her anything from time-served to 10 years.

Now she has a new lawyer, John Hume, who has invited two reporters -- one print, one television -- to interview her before Judge Claude M. Hilton hands down the sentence. He hopes that once she tells her side of the story, she will be perceived more sympathetically.

The tale she tells is compelling and heartbreaking. She paints herself as a victim, isolated by a controlling husband, caught in an expanding web of secrets. It is a story of the mental and emotional deterioration of a woman, orchestrated by a clever and manipulative man intent on power and control. Whether it is the spontaneous truth or a carefully crafted fabrication intended to sway her interviewer, she tells it with conviction.

She talks rapidly, in fluent English with no accent, the product of an American school education in Bogota. She answers every question thoroughly, in minute detail, as though in the detail lies her salvation. She seems bewildered and disbelieving of her situation at times, in denial, by turns angry, desperate and distraught. There are moments of humor and irony, remorse at having believed, at having made bad judgments. When she talks of her husband she alternates between rage and disbelief, crying often at the thought of his betrayal of her, of his country, of their child. When she talks of her son she cries most of the time, speaking almost to herself in a kind of stream of consciousness. Her voice turns guttural; her anguish is almost feral.

She is acutely aware that her public portrayal up until now has been that of an arrogant, extravagant foreigner who conspired with her husband to betray the United States in return for large amounts of money, and helped cause the deaths of possibly 10 or more Russians collaborating with the United States.

But nothing is ever quite that simple. Her story is complicated and tortured, her explanations rational and concise. Hers is a tale of choices, a test of morality, courage, character and will. Like other sensational legal cases -- the Bobbitts, the Menendez brothers, O.J. Simpson -- the Rosario Ames case stands as another moral Rorschach test.

And like any story that involves the CIA, this one is like entering a hall of mirrors, where things are not what they seem, where you can never be sure who is telling the truth. If Rosario Ames is not lying, her case has many of the same elements as a case of wife abuse. Why did she put up with it? one wonders.

A Dinner of Destiny

"The day my life ended," Rosario says, came in the summer of 1992.

A couple of weeks earlier, she had needed a small wallet to fit into a special purse and remembered an unused red wallet of Rick's in the closet. In it she found a typewritten list. Two items on it worried her: a reference to "the city where your mother-in-law lives" and one to "our embassy." She thought it strange and was worried about the reference to her family. She had never told them her husband worked for the CIA. She assumed the note was related to his work. But she knew his work involved Soviet affairs and was not related to Latin America.

She says she asked Rick about it that night. He didn't want to talk about it. "For a couple of weeks he did what he should've kept on doing," she says, "which was to say nothing." When she continued to press him about it, though, he said he would tell her.

They made a date for dinner that night at Germaine's, a Vietnamese restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue NW. They got seated in the front of the room, where the tables are spread out enough for private conversation. They ordered drinks, they ordered dinner, and then he told her. "I'm working for the Russians," he said. It was that simple.

At first she didn't believe him. "My first reaction, apart from utter panic, was one of denial. My first impulse was to say, well, this is obviously something that has to do with your work ... like the CIA told you to do this, some strange sort of operation. I knew that these things happen, that people get sent over ... and he said no. ...

"I didn't want to know what it was. I said, I don't want you to tell me anything else. He never went into details. I knew, though, that he had met them in Bogota, that's why there was a reference to Bogota there. ... That's when my panic was total. ... He had used my family. I was just so panicked, devastated, scared, speechless."

The Russians, he told her, had asked for pictures of her and Paul. "He made it very clear that the Russians were not going to like it that I knew. He suggested very clearly that I was a liability. I was a problem because I wasn't supposed to know. He had told me so I was in danger, and they had pictures. ...

"That was one of the main reasons for my ruinous decision {not to tell anyone}. My panic was that these people know what I look like, what my son looks like. ... I had nightmares in which I dreamt that the Russians were coming after me and Paul. They know what my mother looks like. They know what her name is too."

It was later, she says, that a psychologist who had interviewed Rick explained why Rick might have told her. "We'd had a tough time {in our marriage}. It was not a good period and he said he did it out of spite because he was angry."

So she knew. But the question was, would she tell?

Trouble Overseas

To understand her predicament that night, it helps to understand how she wound up sitting opposite this man at a table in Germaine's restaurant.

A 30-year-old university teacher of literature, criticism and philosophy, she had lived at home in Bogota with her prominent family. A friend of Colombia's then-president, she was chosen to be cultural attache at the embassy in Mexico. There she met Aldrich Ames -- attractive, separated from his wife, 11 years older and working at the U.S. Embassy. They began to date. They shared an interest in the arts, she says, and she found him "cosmopolitan," "cultured," "traveled."

"What was compelling about him, for a person like me who is very nervous and high-strung and passionate about things, he was sort of very stable and very quiet and very calm. Very gentle and sweet. ... He's a hard person to get to know." She laughs bitterly. "Little did I know how hard." They fell in love and he proposed. Only then did he tell her that he was in the CIA. She was shocked, she says. "I guess I had some sort of stereotype of what CIA people were like. ... He didn't seem to fit any of those preconceptions. I guess I didn't see it as the ideal sort of thing. ... I would rather have had him be what he appeared to be so magnificently, which was a very cultured, quiet diplomat."

She says she was "very sophisticated intellectually but very naive as far as men were concerned. I thought love conquers everything. I would do anything for love. I was raised to, you know."

After their engagement, Aldrich Ames left Mexico for Washington, and she followed. They got a small apartment in Falls Church, and she traveled back and forth to Bogota and Mexico for a while before their marriage on Aug. 3, 1985. Unbeknown to her, he had begun working for the Soviets earlier that March.

It was right after he started with the Soviets and before their marriage, she says, that he explained his finances to her. He had an old friend, "Robert from Chicago," he told her, with whom he had made some investments. Robert had done very well. She thought nothing of it, she says, because lots of people have investments. So there was never any sudden infusion of cash. Rick Ames, she says, always liked to live well. He "has very good taste. He always dressed well, he liked to eat well."

After studying Italian at language school, Rick Ames was assigned to Rome. There, she says, for the first year or so, she was "full of enthusiasm, optimistic, just very happy. We were going to conquer the world together." She had a miscarriage, then became pregnant with Paul. But during that time, she says, "our marriage was deteriorating rapidly. ... Rick started becoming indifferent, showing less and less interest in, let's say, the sexual part of our relationship, which was very hurtful to me." When she asked, he said he didn't want to talk about it. "He was very good at manipulating and using because without really saying much he had me totally convinced that it had to be my fault. ... I was either too skinny or too hysterical or too something. ... Paul was a miracle, really, because we were not having a normal sex life." She never confided in anyone, she says. "I found I had been living my life with appearances, because everybody thought, 'She's so happily married. Rick is such a sweet, gentle, kind, respectful, lovable man. He's so patient. She's the hysterical one.' "

She was "so happy and delighted" with her new baby, she didn't worry about sex for a while, but the problem returned. By then, she says, Rick had become almost totally impotent, except for rare occasions when he demanded sex from her. "I remember telling him several times that I didn't like to be raped because that's the way I felt." Ames refused counseling at the time, but when they returned to the United States, she says, he had tests that showed there was nothing physically wrong. It was psychological. He had counseling a couple of times, then refused to go back. "The fact that he didn't care about it," she says, "said to me that I was not a priority." Nevertheless, she says, "he had this strange hold on me. ... I look back on it now and see this very unhealthy dependency relationship. He knew exactly what strings to pull to get me to react in whichever way he wanted."

As a new mother, she says, she became much more nervous, even more of a worrier, always afraid something was going to happen. "The change from a working woman to a nonworking woman did a lot to me in terms of undermining my self-confidence. We were living abroad, the professional part of my life was out of the picture for a while. It made me dependent on him financially. I was not used to that ... that did bother me ...

"I think the other thing that contributed to that sort of unhealthy dependency that I developed with Rick was the fact that there were so many secrets involved from the start in my life." Nobody knew that her husband worked for the CIA, and she was not allowed to tell. "It was like barriers of secrecy kept popping up in my life." She had too much pride, she says, to tell people her marriage was not perfect. "Rick was the only one who knew everything. So I became unhealthily attached to the only person who had all the secrets. ... We had to share the CIA thing, he knew our relationship was not working. And then later on, this horrible thing. It was very strange."

'I Was So Scared'

Once Rosario Ames knew that her husband was working for the Russians, she was faced with a terrible dilemma: Should she tell anyone, and if so, whom?

"Who could I tell what? Where would I start? Nobody even knew he worked for the CIA. ... How could I tell all these people all of a sudden, no, my husband is not a diplomat. He really works for the CIA, but he doesn't even work for the CIA, he works for the Russians. I really haven't had a wonderful life for the last four years. I'm ugly, my self-confidence was totally crushed at that point. I just didn't have any will. I couldn't do anything, I was like a robot.

"That was my biggest mistake. I could not confide in anyone. How could anyone imagine what was going on? I couldn't believe it myself. ... So the ironical thing was ... I ended up concluding that Rick was the one who had to save me or protect me. That's why I stuck there.

"But it became a nightmare because obviously I hated what he was doing. I despised it. I insulted him. We fought all the time." She became sick, she says, with migraines, hives, allergies, "all sorts of psychosomatic things. ... I just felt totally trapped. I did not know what to do and the fear got so bad I was unable to function like in my normal life." She says she was too scared to drive on the Beltway, for instance.

"There were things I could not deal with. I didn't want to do anything alone." More and more, she says, "I ended up clinging to the last person I wanted to cling to." She says she was guided during that time by her irrational emotions. "And the feeling of total impotence and aloneness. ... Who could I go to? What could I do? I did not think I had any options. ... I was a shadow of my former independent self. ... I mean, it was awful. He did destroy my sense of respect as a woman."

At one point, in front of her husband and her mother, she says, she started pounding her head against the kitchen cabinets. Her husband, she says, had to grab her arms.

By the time Paul was 2 years old, she had resumed her studies at Georgetown, working toward a PhD in philosophy. The only thing that kept her going was the fact that she believed that she was a good mother and a good student. "I used those two things as a hiding place. Submerging myself more and more in what I was doing at the university. And Paul," she says, "was the only reason I survived that."

She is relieved, she says now, that she didn't tell anyone. "It would have ended up endangering more people, endangering my mother." And she didn't need to tell Paul. "He's so smart. He'd come up to me and say, 'Mommy, what's wrong? I know you're sad.' " She says now, as devastating as her arrest was, "in a horrible sort of way, yes, it was a relief."

During that time, she says, she begged her husband to stop working for the Russians. He promised her over and over he would, even telling her once that he had discussed retiring. But he never did.

The FBI learned of Rick's activities nearly a year after she found out. It began bugging the house and the car, following the car and setting up surveillance in the neighborhood. It was also during this time that the bureau taped several comments by Rosario Ames relating to the Russians, comments that were widely publicized at the time of her arrest.

On one mission she told him, "I hope you didn't screw it up." On another, she told him that she hoped a lost suitcase didn't contain "anything that shouldn't have been {there}." She warned him about the weather, and suggested he send a message to the Russians before it got bad. Another time she suggested the possibility that the house was bugged. And in one instance she drove with him when he went to a site to check a signal. Once she advised him that he should be "more imaginative" in carrying packages back to the United States. It is these incriminating conversations and events that resulted in her being accused and ultimately pleading guilty to espionage.

Most of those incidents, she says, occurred during one period at the end of 1993. And she did it, she says, because "I panicked. ... I was so scared. It was fear. That's really the first time I said, 'Oh my goodness, what's going to happen?' And I thought, stupidly I guess, that by saying these things I was going to prevent something else. Of course, I wasn't."

She says the night they went to the signal spot, a mailbox in Georgetown with a chalk mark on it, she suspected it had something to do with the Russians but that they never discussed it. But soon after, she says, he began to say things like, " 'I have to go put the signal down.' Just the fact that he told me drove me insane," she says.

She knew he was getting money from the Russians, because he had told her so that night at Germaine's, but she says their lifestyle never changed, and he never disavowed his earlier claim that he was getting money from his investments with "Robert from Chicago." So she continued to make her usual cash deposits, which he would give her for her own spending account, she says, usually in small amounts, but once as much as $3,000.

She says she did not think there was anything unusual about this, because she says her husband had always dealt in cash and that that was the custom among all the Americans in Rome. Before she knew about the Russians, she says, she did question the fact that he paid cash for their house -- $540,000 -- but she says that he didn't like mortgages and didn't want to pay interest. "I tended to use checks more and credit cards," she says now. "But if I ever thought about it, I thought, it's one of his quirks."

Her husband, she says, opened a Swiss bank account in her mother's name, which her mother agreed to, but she says many people in Colombia have Swiss bank accounts. What she didn't know until she was arrested, she says, is that her husband took her mother to the U.S. Embassy in Bogota and got her to sign a paper acknowledging that she had loaned them $500,000. She says she can only explain it this way: "She did it because she trusted him."

The Evidence Against Her

When the FBI agents arrested Rosario Ames that grim February morning, they took her be be interrogated for more than five hours. During that time they didn't tape record the interview. There are discrepancies between her version of what happened and theirs. The bureau will not let her or her lawyers see the summary of the interview. Nor will it release any of the nearly 2,000 hours of surveillance tapes. Only Monday night did it release a transcript of the lie detector test to her lawyer.

She says she believes there is nothing more incriminating on the FBI surveillance tapes. Those close to the case, however, hint that there is more. They do not need to release any more information, though, because she has already pleaded guilty to espionage. The prosecutor, Mark Hulkower, refused to comment for the record.

When the FBI arrested her, she waived her right to a lawyer, which she now says she did because she was scared and distraught. The FBI says that she at first did not tell the truth to it and then, after it let her call her sister-in-law and check to see if her child was safe, she began to tell what she knew. She disputes that. Those familiar with the case say that when the FBI realized that she did not know that much, it decided to use her as a way to pressure Aldrich Ames to talk. When it found so much incriminating evidence on his computer at the house and in the trash, she was no longer a valuable bargaining tool for the bureau and it could then force her to accept a plea.

Aldrich Ames continues to corroborate his wife's story, writing letters to the court and to the public. "I successfully concealed my relationship with the KGB and the SVRR from her for seven and a half years of the nine years of my criminal activity," he wrote. "When she learned of it through my careless mistake, that knowledge was devastating to her and to our marriage. Frightened nearly to death by the possible consequences to me, to her and to our son, she pleaded with me to break off the relationship with the Russians." He went on to say that she "had no knowledge of what information I furnished the KGB and the SVRR. She had little or no understanding of what any consequences of my actions could be. Rosario recognized and feared my sloppiness, verging on recklessness. She ultimately found herself cautioning and counseling me to be careful and precise in my contacts with the Russians."

After the Ameses were arrested, the FBI found a typewriter ribbon in their trash and reconstructed a letter that Aldrich Ames had written to the Russians in the summer of '92. "My wife has accomodated {sic} herself to understanding what I am doing in a very supportive way." Ames would later say that he wrote that note to protect her.

Ask her why he is so supportive of her, and she will say, "He has to be. It's the truth." Ask her how she feels about him, and she'll say, tears welling in her eyes, "I hate him." But she begins to sob when she is asked when she actually began to fall out of love with him. "It was a rapidly decreasing process," she says. "When the person you've given up everything for, and I do think I gave up a lot, suddenly tells you he's doing something as monstrous as this, it takes a while to sink in. Still, to this day I have trouble believing that he could have caused the death of people. It's something that I know happened, but I still have trouble dealing with it. ... I would ask him constantly, 'Are you mad at me? Do you still love me?' I was really in bad shape. It was totally insane."

Tears are rolling down her face now. "Oh, when I remember way back in 1982 when I met him ... I did love him, and that's what hurts more. ... Deep down I don't think he knew what it meant to love somebody. I don't think he really cared for anyone except Paul."

She says she threatened to leave him after he told her about the Russians, and he would say to her, "You can't take Paul away. Is this what you're going to do to your son? What are you going to tell him? That you got mad at him and you took Daddy away."

She says she never wants to see Rick again, "not after knowing that he's caused people to die. It's not just me. It's my whole family. So many people's lives have been ruined." She won't take Paul to see him, either. She says that's up to Paul when he gets older.

She wavers a bit over whether she will divorce him. "I think so," she says, "though I haven't told him. He's so deluded. I have a funny feeling that this will shock him. I think he will be very surprised. He still thinks he's going to have a role in Paul's life. He just assumes that people can say, 'Okay, Rick, you made a mistake and now we're going to forgive you and everything is fine.' It's clear from what he writes that he doesn't seem to realize the dimension to which everybody's life has been ruined."

In a rather incoherent letter she received from him recently, he wrote, "Yes, it will and does take two of us! I do and will try, knowing very well, not only the size of my faults but also how small my successes have been. In rough order, they are:" -- and he lists -- "impotence: drinking: my side business: procrastination and carelessness." And he continues: "Each of them and taken all together make me fear that I have or am in the process of forfeiting your love, making marriage sterile and inflicting tremendous damage on you, causing you doubt, anxiety, loss of self confidence and a feeling of trapped hopelessness, even desperation. ... And I ask myself, how can someone cause such harm without intending it. Because I don't intend it -- I haven't got a shred of hatred or resentment toward you. ... My love for you wants only your happiness and I fear you are not -- unhappy mainly because I have failed. ... Teach me to love (?) I said! Well, I've turned out to be a poor student."

Life Without Paul

Rosario Ames cannot deal with the idea of spending the next five years away from her child. When the subject of the 63-to-72-month sentencing comes up, her eyes fill with tears and she waves her hands as if to magically dispel the notion. "Now, for me, it's hard to get through one day without Paul. I can't think about it."

Wives have generally been treated more leniently than their spy husbands. Barbara Walker, the wife of Soviet spy John A. Walker Jr., collaborated with him for nearly 18 years. But because she turned him in she was never sent to prison. Anne Pollard, the wife of Jonathan Pollard, was sentenced to five years for spying with her husband for Israel but served only 3 1/2 because of a stomach ailment.

The judge has been bombarded with supporting letters from Rosario's friends and family, including a heart-wrenching note from Paul that says, "Judge, Please make mommy come fast, I love her, Paul."

Her son is in Bogota now with her 64-year-old mother. She is allowed to talk to him once, sometimes twice, a week. She calls him every Monday when he gets home from school. Last Monday, she says, was Columbus Day and she was unable to call. "He went to bed crying," she says. She does not want him to visit her at the detention center.

"I don't want Paul to see me like this," says Rosario Ames. "No. No. No. Not like this. He doesn't know I'm in jail. He thinks I'm staying in a hotel." Paul, she says, is seeing a psychologist. He has been told that his daddy did something wrong and is being punished. He believes his mother is helping the government and she can't come home yet. He has told his grandmother that he knows he will never see his father again. He has taken a photograph of his parents and pasted his own picture next to his mother's, covering that of his father's. He sits at meals with the photo in front of him, talking to his mother as he eats.

For now she is confined to a tiny cell in the Alexandria Detention Center, with a slit for a window. She is allowed only five books in her room at a time and was recently punished for having eight books. She was locked in her cell for a weekend, no phones, no TV, no shower.

She feels very lucky that she was able to get a job working in the prison commissary, which helps fill up her days. And she is helping translate for some prisoners who don't speak English.

She hopes that she will be allowed to go to the Danbury, Conn., prison, which is the closest to Kennedy Airport. That way her son will be more easily able to visit her, though she has no money for his airfare. Danbury, she says, looks more like a campus than a prison and allows "contact" visits so she will be able to hold him.

She says she is not able to explain to Paul that she will be in jail. "Right now I feel so weak," she says, "that I feel somebody else should tell him ... how can he understand? I mean he's watched TV. There are good guys and bad guys. ... Are we going to tell him I'm a bad guy? Am I really a bad guy? I don't know."

Her son, she says, was not welcome at the American school in Bogota, her alma mater, nor at the British school. "They decided to show their solidarity. That was made clear. ... He's got to carry on his little shoulders that he's always going to be the spy's son. And without his mother there to help him. He's always going to be Rick Ames's son."

Paul's psychologist told him to think of little projects to do for when his mother comes home. So he has recently been telling people, she says, that he is organizing a big party for her.

"But he doesn't know," she whispers, almost unintelligibly through her tears, "that he won't be having the party for five years."

The Final Sentence

In any morality play it helps if the lines are clearly drawn, if the characters are clearly delineated, if good and evil, black and white are clearly distinguished. We want our heroes and heroines to look the part, our villains too. Snow White and Cinderella must be sweet-natured and beautiful, the wicked witch ugly and hateful.

But Rosario Ames doesn't fit conveniently into any of those categories. She is certainly not perfect. She made some terrible choices. She has pleaded guilty to espionage. Is what she has done enough to sentence her to more than five years in prison, take away her freedom, confiscate everything she has ever owned, separate her from her family and from her only child? Judge Hilton will make that decision Friday morning.

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About 48,000 students were back in school after teachers in Alaska's largest school district voted overwhelmingly over the weekend to accept a new contract.

Schools were closed three days last week as 2,900 teachers walked out. Classes resumed Monday.