A 55-year-old Washington woman has been charged with first-degree murder in a murder-for-hire scheme in which she is said to have paid four men and a woman $3,000 to kill her husband to collect insurance on his life, D.C. police reported yesterday.

Betsy Cole, of 604 Columbia Rd. NW, was arrested Thursday in the slaying of her husband, George Cole, 62, who was fatally shot several times in the chest and once in the head while he was en route to his job as a building maintenance worker in Silver Spring on March 11, police said. Mrs. Cole denied the charge.

Four of the suspects, all of whom also were charged with first-degree murder, were arrested Wednesday and Thursday, while the fifth already was being held in the D.C. Jail on an unrelated charge.

News of the arrest of Mrs. Cole shocked the Columbia Road neighborhood where the couple lived. "She's a very lovely person," said a neighbor who lives across the street. "I'm very shocked."

"They seemed like nice people," said Edith Barnes, who lent her black veil to Mrs. Cole to wear at her husband's funeral.

Betsy Cole talked in person about the killing with Edward M. Hawkins, 27, of 1245 Randolph St. N.W., one of the four men charged in the case, according to a police affidavit filed to obtain an arrest warrant. The two agreed that she would pay $3,000 to have her husband killed, police said. The killing was set for March 11, in the early morning hours, according to the affidavit.

Hawkins and another man, Ronnie Dell Shepherd, 32, of 1387 Quincy st. NW, were paid part of the $3,000 by Mrs. Cole to carry out the killing, according to police and court documents.

George Cole was shot in the 600 block of Hobart Street NW, near his home, shortly after 4 a.m. as he was headed for work, accordiing to police. He had been robbed of $20 and fatally shot, police and neighbors said.

Cole died in the Medstar unit at Washington Hosptial Center an hour after the shooting.

Hawkins and Shepherd were paid the remainder of the $3,000 after the killing, according to police investigators.

On Wednesday, police arrested Hawkins and Shepherd, who gave police detailed statements of the murder-for-hire scheme, according to the affidavit.

Police arrested Betsy Cole and the three ofther suspects on Thursday, officials said. The three others are James Henry Morris, 62, of 1433 Spring Rd. NW; Maude Byars, 68, of 705 Irving St. NW , and Romes Austin, 26. Austin is the suspect in D.C. Jail awaiting trial on an unrelated charge. It was unclear last night what role each of the suspects is thought by police to have played in the plot.

Reached at her home yesterday, Betsy Cole denied any involvement in her husband's death. "They [the police] said that somebody said I'm connected with it. I really don't know what it is about."

Mrs. Cole said she and her husband had been married for nearly 20 years. He was a maintenance employe of a church in Silver Spring.

She said she did not know whether her husband had carried any life insurance, and if he had, what the face value was.

Neighbors described the Coles as a quiet couple who kept to themselves in an area where "little mixing" ever happened among neighbors.

Gerturde Robinson, who lives four doors from the Coles, carried condolences and food to Betsy Cole's home the night of her husband's wake. Robinson said Cole, dressed in dark clothing, was not crying, but "she seemed to be remorseful and confused just like anyone else in a similar situation. She was disturbed and asking, 'Why did this happen to me?'"

Another neighbor, Wallace Willis, remembered George Cole as "a quiet, nice fellow. You never saw him on the street other than going to or from work, or sitting on the porch."