It was 4:30 on a dark, cold morning in March three years ago when George Cole, a 62-year-old handyman, walked out the back door of his house at 604 Columbia Road NW to catch a bus to work.

Cole strode into an alley behind his home, where two men confronted him in an apparent robbery attempt.

"I don't have anything! No money!" Cole blurted out as he turned to run, but one of the men aimed a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver and shot Cole five times.

Cole was dead when police found him a short time later, but a billfold containing about $20 was still in his pocket. The slaying of George Cole was no robbery, his assailants told a D.C. Superior Court jury recently, but a carefully planned execution for which they were paid $2,500 in cash.

Cole's wife Betsy, 59, is charged with ordering her husband's death to collect on a $24,000 insurance policy. Her friend Maud Byars, a 70-year-old domestic worker, is accused of plotting the details of the slaying with the killers. James Morris, a 65-year-old house painter, allegedly picked the men for the job.

A jury today will begin deliberating first-degree murder charges against the three defendants, who could be sentenced to life in prison if they are convicted. The jury also will decide a perjury charge against Cole's daughter Mavis Francis, who told a grand jury earlier this year she could not remember driving to the bank the day of her stepfather's death and withdrawing $2,000, the amount the killers said they were paid that evening. They said they were paid the remaining $500 a few days later.

Assistant U.S. attorneys Steven Gordon and Kathleen Voelker worked more than three years with homicide detectives to bring Cole, Byars and Morris to trial, with the help of a private detective who investigated Betsy Cole's insurance claim.

Defense attorney Douglas Wood called the charges "a figment of the government's imagination," a case of "thugs" giving false and conflicting testimony to strike a deal with prosecutors for reduced charges.

Authorities said the fact that no money was taken from Cole when he was shot was the first clue that his killing was no ordinary murder.

A few days later, the gun that killed Cole was found at the scene of an attempted robbery and eventually linked to 28-year-old Romes Austin Jr., an acknowledged drug addict with a string of previous convictions on charges that included bail jumping. Austin was arrested after an unrelated armed robbery.

Police said they then arrested 30-year-old Edward Hawkins, also a heroin addict and a convicted burglar, and tricked him into giving a detailed statement about Cole's slaying by telling him that Austin had already done so.

Hawkins implicated himself, Austin and a third man, Ronnie Dell Shepherd, who was later shot and killed in a robbery attempt. He also named Cole and Morris and gave Byars' phone number as well as her name, Gordon said.

Austin and Hawkins were charged with first-degree murder in Cole's death, but Hawkins was released on bail and fled to California, where he found a job in a car wash outside Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, the charges against Cole created a dispute over her entitlement to the insurance proceeds and prompted a lawsuit by the insurance company. An attorney working for another relative hired private detective Sherman Hogue to investigate.

Hogue visited Romes Austin at Lorton Reformatory in April 1983 and pressed for information about Cole's murder, promising that he would say nothing to police. Austin, who until then had steadfastly remained silent about the crime, eventually relented, giving a five-page statement corroborating Hawkins' account.

Hogue broke his promise and gave the information to prosecutors, and eight months later the FBI arrested Hawkins in California. Each man was allowed to plead guilty to lesser charge of second-degree murder, eliminating the possibility of a mandatory minimum prison term of 20 years for each.

According to their account, Morris approached them and "told us a friend of a friend would like to have her husband killed," Austin told the jury. Later, they met with Byars at her apartment on Irving Street NW to discuss the plan and were joined by Cole, who "told us she wanted her husband killed," Austin said.

Prosecutor Gordon said Betsy Cole, a housekeeper who worked at Howard University, was planning to separate from her husband, who earlier had paid her $10,000 for her interest in the house on Columbia Road. Only a few months before the slaying, she had lost $2,000 of that money when her son-in-law backed out of a deal to buy a house in suburban Maryland, forcing her to forfeit her deposit.

But those were not reasons enough, defense attorneys told the jury, for Betsy Cole to want her husband killed.

"I have to confess that I'm the beneficiary of a life insurance policy, too," Wood said. "I hope I never get on the bad side of Mr. Gordon, or he'll be coming after me. . . . This is something you see on television."