Ibolya Jenes and Ilona Szabo were inseparable, even told everyone they were sisters. They had fled Hungary together and landed in America together, worked and lived and banked together, pooling their money in one account.
Then, on the night of Oct. 8, 1978, Szabo shot Jenes in the chest with a high-powered rifle they had bought to protect themselves in their Oakton apartment. Even today, with Szabo free after pleading guilty to first-degree murder and serving one year of a 20-year sentence with 15 years suspended, the shooting remains a mystery to prosecutors.
Jenes and Szabo had made a remarkable pair, each the other's closest friend. Jenes, 44, was 5-foot-5, 190 pounds, with jet black hair and leveling black eyes. Szabo, two years younger, was a wisp in comparison, small and delicate and reserved.
"Ibolya was so domineering, and very protective at the same time," recalls Gerlinde Kuchmanich, herself an immigrant from Germany, a confidant of the pair, and the manager of the Marriott Cafeteria in Tysons Corner, where the two worked for a year in 1977, the longest they had worked anywhere since coming to this country in 1971.
"They were a little like Laurel and Hardy. Ilona was dependent on Ibolya on the outside, in public. But Ilona took care of all the money, did the driving, cooked all the meals. She spoke much better English, too."
Jenes and Szabo relied on each other, developing their own ways of adjusting to life in a frightening new world where custom and nuance often escaped them. "They were always afraid that somebody would come and make them pay for leaving their own country," says Kuchmanich.
"They loved having the freedom to work and move as they pleased. Once they just picked up and moved when they heard about some factory jobs in Minnesota." Yet, Kuchmanich says, after having lived in America for six years before the shooting, they didn't know how to go about becoming naturalized citizens. "They were afraid to call someone and ask."
At home they read Shakespeare and listened to Bach and Beethoven, though the walls of their one-bedroom apartment were decorated with posters from Niagara Falls and rabbit hides from Luray Caverns.
At work they got along well enough, though they would sometimes fight, Jenes screaming, Szabo crying, Kuchmanich says. But just as suddenly as they started, they would stop and hug.
So it is hard to say why Ilona Szabo shot Ibolya Jenes. Szabo told police she had pulled the rifle from under her bed because she saw intruders on the balcony, that the gun had gone off accidentally.
While awaiting trial, Szabo wrote to her lawyer: "I like to ask of you to tell judge I'm like to die by electric chair . . . . I all the times feel her blood in my hand . . . . It is not life I feel . . . . I like to die very soon, please." Today, Szabo is married. She could not be reached for comment.
Says Kuchmanich, "It was the two of them against the world and the two of them against each other. They had no one else to love and no one else to hate."