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    The Mystery of Ruthann Aron

    Ruthann Aron
    Ruthann Aron after her 1997 arrest
    (File photo)

    By Karl Vick
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, February 15, 1998; Page M20

    They found the body of Ruthann Aron's father in the cellar of the house where she grew up. David Greenzweig's skull had been crushed by a handyman's pipe wrench and his head wrapped like a mummy's in masking tape. The investigation fell to Detective Bart Rasnick, whose own father had been a short-order cook in the Greenzweigs' Fallsburg Diner way back when the diner was the place locals gathered in the Upstate New York resort town. The policeman followed the trail to Florida and closed the case with the convictions of two drifters who said they killed the old man for the money in his pocket and the keys to his rusty Cadillac.

    At 54, police say, the wealthy Montgomery politician tried to hire a hit man to kill her husband and another man. Her upcoming trial will turn in part on whether mental illness renders Aron "not criminally responsible." Her defense, lawyers say, will rely on testimony about Aron's full life story. One thing is certain: It's no ordinary biography.

    For the funeral, Ruthann took off a week from her job, which in August 1994 happened to be a campaign for her own election to the U.S. Senate. It may have been strange to go from shaking hands in condo lobbies to accepting condolences in a funeral home chapel, but well-wishers say the former Ruthann Greenzweig was the picture of poise – well-dressed, polite, gracious.

    You would never have known, they say, that she had interrupted the most intense experience of her life so far to bury the father to whom she had not spoken in years.

    "I specifically and unequivocably leave absolutely nothing for my daughter Ruth Anne Aaron [sic] of Potomac, Maryland, who has been cruel to me," David Greenzweig wrote in his will, "and direct my executor to reject any claim that she may make, using the proceeds of my estate to take such legal steps as are necessary to disinherit my daughter, and carry out my intent."

    Nearly three years passed between the ghastly events in the Catskills and the arrest of Ruthann Aron last June. The Montgomery County politician stands charged with soliciting a would-be hit man to do away with her husband, Barry Aron, and a lawyer named Arthur Kahn. Neither was killed, and certainly the daughter's arrest has no connection to the father's murder. Yet they have something in common. Aron's trial in a Rockville courtroom later this month will turn on the same subject that nagged well-wishers so impressed by her outward composure in that Upstate New York funeral home:

    The mystery of Ruthann Aron's mind.

    Ruthann Aron
    In her days as a government official, Aron took target practice with Montgomery park police.
    (Montgomery Department of Parks and Recreation)
    The brainy, clumsy only daughter of David and Frieda Greenzweig had grown into a fit, wealthy, rather formidable success. She married a doctor. She earned a couple of million on her own. She helped raise two fine children. She made a respectable showing in the Maryland Republican Senate primary, her very first campaign for public office.

    And then, on a summer afternoon in her 54th year, Ruthann Aron allegedly went to a local man she hardly knew and said she wanted someone "eliminated."

    The startled man went to the police. The police arranged for someone to pose as a hit man. Aron allegedly phoned this man. Twice. The police taped it all.

    "The tapes," says Aron's lead attorney, Barry Helfand, "are bad." He does not mean they are hard to hear.

    And Ruthann Aron? Is she villainy distilled? Or is she sick? Did something going on within her head somehow render her, in the operative phrase of Maryland lawbooks, "not criminally responsible"?

    That is the plea she has entered on charges of solicitation to commit murder. It is an insanity defense.

    Her trial, scheduled to begin February 25, will take place in two parts. The first section, which determines guilt or innocence, will cover only what Aron allegedly did. The burden of proof lies with the prosecution, which must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. And court papers suggest the state will arrive prepared.

    Besides the tapes ("We'll be listening to a lot of tapes," says Montgomery Deputy State's Attorney I. Matthew Campbell), prosecutors will present evidence to the jury that, for instance, Aron's home computer revealed that she made visits to a Web site that peddles how-to books on homemade silencers; that copies of these books were found in her possession; that also in her possession were the prescribed components for such silencers, including two lawn mower mufflers; and that the Arons do not own a lawn mower.

    Ruthann Aron and her lawyers
    Ruthann Aron with her lawyers Barry Helfand, left, and Erik Bolog in November 1997.
    (By Dayna Smith/The Washington Post)
    Part two of the trial, however, will address not what Aron did, but why. Not guilt, not innocence, but responsibility. The burden of proof shifts to the defense, but the standard drops to "a preponderance of the evidence." That evidence will come from a battery of forensic psychiatrists, standing ready to address whether a mental defect prevented Aron from "conforming her conduct" to the law. With Aron's deep pockets on one side and the reputation of the state's attorney's office on the other, it is sizing up as an insanity trial on a scale never seen in Montgomery courts.

    "We're going to put in Ruthann's life from soup to nuts," says Helfand. "Everything. Nothing's going to be held back."

    "The whole trial," he says, "will be her life story."

    People remember the walk. The teenage Ruthann Greenzweig had the same way of getting across a room as the adult Ruthann Aron: in a straight line, with a sort of mild side-to-side bob that suggested she might possibly be being pulled along on wheels. It might not be terribly attractive, but it was exceedingly direct, which is how classmates at Fallsburg Central High remember their senior class vice president.

    "A brilliant chemist and discoverer of Smear, a new kind of lipstick," reads the prophecy in her 1960 senior yearbook. Honor Society, Calculus Club, Biology Lab Assistant.

    Nickname: "Ruth."

    "You'd never think of Ruthann as someone with whom you could cobble together a little frolic," says Michele Truitt, who sat in front of her in the clarinet section in band, and occasionally went for a sleepover at the tall stucco place on the rise off Laurel Avenue near the Pines resort. It was a pleasant house, crowded with antiques but still with plenty of room for a family of four, especially since the father was usually down at the diner or out at the track.

    Dave Greenzweig was a hard-working, apparently remote figure. A few years after the kids left for college, his wife left him, too, moving to Maryland to be near Ruthann, who at that point apparently severed all contact with her father. There came a point when she stopped speaking to her younger brother as well; and to a college friend once so close that Ruthann wore her gown at her own wedding.

    She is currently living, however, with Frieda Greenzweig, who by all accounts is the central figure in her only daughter's life. Short, fair and "enthusiastic, like a teenager," as one classmate puts it, Frieda logged long hours at the diner but was also omnipresent in a home where visitors of every age noted the "uncommon closeness" between mother and daughter. If Ruthann had a best friend from high school, it escapes the memory of more than a dozen former classmates. Several, however, were struck by how much time she spent with her mother. Even when Ruthann was at college, they spoke on the phone as many as half a dozen times a day.

    "I think she was a little possessive of Ruthann. They had a very close relationship," says Paul Michaels, who swapped a kiss or two over spin the bottle with his old Hebrew school classmate.

    She had a memorable appetite for competition ("She didn't like to lose anything," Michaels says), an intellectual self-assurance that struck some as stubborn and an emotional toughness that verged on the bitter.

    "I wouldn't think of murder or contracts," muses classmate Eleanor Sussman Kurtz, "but she did seem the kind of person who, if it didn't go her way and it was important to her, she'd really want to do something about it."

    At Cornell, where Aron studied microbiology, she also embraced the life of a co-ed. She pledged Sigma Delta Tau, and shared an apartment in the sorority with four roommates collectively known as "the munchkins" because they were all so tiny. One of them, Joyce Millian, became her closest friend.

    "She was a very sensitive person," Millian remembers. "She was very quick to cry, and to have fun. She was deep. She was always deep."

    She dated a fair amount, Millian recalls, and came close to marrying one beau Millian feared was too much like Ruthann: outspoken, intense. Barry Aron seemed a much better fit. He was smart and sweet and, most of all, steady enough to absorb Ruthann's volatility. They married in the fall of 1965 in New York City, where he was studying medicine and Ruthann was getting her master's in education. Their daughter Dana was born in 1970, their son Josh two years later. Ruthann struck Millian as an exceptionally devoted mother but a handful as a spouse.

    "She didn't hold things in," Millian says. "If she was angry, you knew it. Barry knew it. ... She would get very angry. There was nothing left to the imagination. [But] when it was over, it was over."

    "It seemed to me a strange relationship, because she really would yell at him like a fishwife. And then comment, like, 'I'm just venting.' He would just take it," says Ed Weissman, an associate professor of political science at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., who spent time with the Arons as they plotted her Senate campaign. "I mean, it was fairly uncomfortable to be around."

    Her interest in public life went back at least to New York City, where Ruthann worked the phones for liberal Republican John Lindsay. When the young family got settled in Montgomery County, after Barry served two years in the medical corps at Andrews Air Force Base, Ruthann set about changing careers, starting law school at Catholic University.

    "She had put me through medical school working two jobs," Barry later said. "So I put her through law school."

    Armed with a law degree, she became a developer, completing seven real estate deals in the next 10 years – two of which later would loom large in her political career, ending as they did in nasty court battles brought by former partners who felt cheated. (After juries found against her in both cases, Aron settled by paying six-figure settlements in each.)

    With Barry's urology practice prospering, the Arons built an oversize brick home on two wooded acres in Potomac, Montgomery's preferred nesting ground of new money. Ruthann became a regular at the evening meetings that are the lifeblood of the county's process-focused politics. She headed a civic association, and in 1992 the County Council narrowly voted her into a Republican slot on the county's influential Planning Board.

    The jump to elective office seemed natural. Aron first set her sights on Annapolis, preparing with a slate of other Potomac Republicans to run for a seat in the House of Delegates, the statehouse's lower chamber. The abrupt decision to run, instead, for the upper chamber of the U.S. Congress was, as campaign workers remember it, someone else's idea. Democrat Paul Sarbanes was defending the Senate seat he had held for three terms, and GOP headhunters were on the lookout for female candidates.

    "The National Republican Senatorial Committee heard about this pro-choice, self-made millionaire with no elective record," says Chris Deri, Aron's deputy campaign manager. "So they courted her."

    To take on Sarbanes, however, Aron first had to win the Republican primary, which meant beating William E. Brock III. A former national GOP chair and labor secretary under President Reagan, he had already served in the Senate from Tennessee. Now running from a bayside mansion in Annapolis, Brock was well connected and well funded but vulnerable to charges of carpetbagging.

    Aron came out swinging. Though the 1994 primary election wasn't until September, she had TV ads on the air in April, and by August was calling Brock an outsider, an insider, and worse. Her own image was, in a word, "tough." Aron let reporters know that she preferred a .38 Detective Special revolver at the target range. On the road (she logged 26,000 miles in an old van), audiences heard what she did about a kid who called her a name while she was teaching in New York.

    "A bit of a swift touch of a yardstick," she would say, adding that she refused to apologize when his parents complained. By September, a Mason-Dixon poll showed her within three points of the leader.

    Then Brock hit back. His own ads said Aron "had trouble obeying the law" and cited as evidence the suits from her former real estate partners. "Before Ruthann Aron starts attacking anybody, maybe she ought to look in the mirror." In a five-day period, the spots aired more than 800 times. There was nothing unusual about Brock's counterattack. Campaign Strategy 101 dictates, If hit, hit back, and the quicker the better. "What was unusual," says Tony Marsh, a veteran Republican consultant who handled Aron's media strategy, "was her reaction to it. It was all out of proportion ... she sort of spun out of control."

    By her own account Aron was particularly devastated by The Washington Post's account of a day when the campaigns had mounted dueling news conferences. After Aron accused Brock of robbing retirees in a crooked real estate deal, he had shot back: "She has been found guilty, convicted by jury of fraud, more than once." When she read the quote in the next day's paper, her husband later said, you could see the air go out of her. "It's over," she said.

    If that was true, even loyal staffers say Aron's reaction assured the outcome. Deri, who during the campaign often described Aron as "a human being going through an inhuman process," remembers how seriously she took every bumper sticker, button and flier that carried her name. To Marsh, a veteran of more than 250 campaigns, something more than usual seemed at stake for the candidate.

    "She began to believe that the Brock campaign was against her personally," says Ed Weissman. "When in fact it was merely the ordinary miserable nature of politics in the '90s."

    Things grew stranger. After Brock went on to be thumped by Sarbanes in the general election, Aron filed a slander suit against her fellow Republican, citing his use of the term "convicted" for verdicts that had come in civil court. It was a stunning move for anyone with remaining political ambitions, and when it went to trial in February 1996 it became historic, to boot: No losing federal candidate was ever before known to have gotten the winner into court over words spoken in a campaign.

    The trial lasted weeks, slowly filling a huge, almost empty Annapolis courtroom with the guts of a dead campaign. The witnesses included Brock and Aron, who, when asked her reaction to Brock's ads, said: "I was shocked – shocked."

    For juror Harmon Bullard, the turning point was the testimony of a man named Arthur Kahn. He was an attorney who had represented some of the former partners who sued Aron.

    "He was pretty adamant that she was wrong and that, in fact, the jury obviously found her wrong," Bullard says. "You could see, almost, the hate between the two in his voice and in his testimony. I felt how much he really disliked her.

    "I remember looking at her during the testimony. She just stared at him."

    The jury in the slander case needed only six hours to decide that what had happened to Aron was just politics. She had lost again. And she again refused to accept it. But this time her counterattack would be mounted on two tracks, according to police: one public, one private.

    In her appeal of the verdict, Aron insisted that Kahn's testimony be disallowed, along with that of a second lawyer, John Harrison, who had represented the business partners in the other civil suit recorded against Aron, and whose testimony jurors also called damaging.

    Maryland's Court of Special Appeals would take a while to rule. In the meantime, Aron logged on to her home computer and found her way to the Web site for Paladin Press, according to court records. The publisher sells how-to books for what might be called the darker arts. Its most notorious title, Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors, had been followed to the letter by a hustler from Detroit convicted in the contract killing of three people, including a quadriplegic 8-year-old boy, in Silver Spring three years earlier. The title had been making headlines since October 1995.

    Aron, police say, first called up the publisher's Web site in March 1996, the month her own jury returned its disappointing verdict.

    Everyone knows where to find Billy Mossburg in the morning. Montgomery County's most colorful trashman holds court in the lobby of the Courtyard by Marriott on Research Boulevard. While business travelers deal over fruit plates and muffins, Mossburg does his own bluff, genial trade across a huge plate of slightly wet scrambled eggs. The waitresses all know him. So did Ruthann Aron.

    Only not as well as she thought.

    "You know I'm getting a new trial," Aron told Mossburg, he recalls. It was June 1, 1997, three days after Maryland's top judges ruled on her appeal, which had grown even more complicated after reaching them. It turned out that the trial court, which had been holding a juror's notebook that had become a crucial piece of evidence in the appeal, had lost the book. This constituted judicial error of the most tangible sort, and the higher court ruled that, because of it, Aron would get a new trial – unless the material described in the notebook could be located. As it would eventually turn out, it could. But Aron did not yet know that when she buttonholed Mossburg at the Marriott and asked him to meet her in a saloon two days later.

    What she knew was that she had a good chance for a new trial, and that Kahn would be allowed to testify at it.

    "The son of a bitch lied on me," Aron said, according to Mossburg. "Happens all the time," he remembers replying.

    "I want him eliminated."

    Convinced that she was serious, Mossburg made a mental note to phone the FBI. He had no idea what was going on, and did not trust the Montgomery government that had billed him millions for a locally infamous fire it had taken days to put out at his old dump. But the FBI had no jurisdiction, and two days later Mossburg was sitting in another restaurant with Montgomery State's Attorney Robert Dean, who was finding occasion to ponder what strange things were happening over public dining tables in his jurisdiction of late.

    Three weeks earlier, Dean had eaten breakfast with Ruthann Aron, each arriving with a campaign sidekick at a bagel shop on Rockville Pike. Aron was drumming up support for her political resurrection: She was going to run for an at-large County Council seat – as a Democrat. The party switch had been foreshadowed by her endorsement the previous fall of Bill Clinton's reelection, an event that Montgomery Democrats had called a news conference to herald. Since then she had been touching base with her new party's major powers, and Dean, who would be standing election for the first time after being appointed to fill out his predecessor's term, listened politely but made no promises. He might not want to run beside her, but neither did it make sense to brush her off.

    Some local Democratic activists gave her a decent chance. Aron had money – always at a premium in politics, it went even farther at the local level – and the bridges she had burned by suing Brock were Republican bridges. Montgomery women would "admire her moxie," says her old classmate Michele Truitt, who had settled in Bethesda and become active in Democratic circles.

    All of which made the events of the next few days that much harder to understand.

    A trap was set. Aron had been so paranoid at their first rendezvous, Mossburg says, that she patted him down for a wire even though she hadn't told him why she'd called this meeting. When they met next, at a Northern Virginia shooting range, she patted him again, but missed the surveillance device police technicians had tucked into his pager. It picked up both her throaty voice and the sound of shots being fired in the background.

    The trashman gave her a name and a number. According to a police affidavit, she dialed it, and Detective Terry Ryan answered the phone. Aron told him she wanted Kahn killed. The price would be $10,000. It could look like an accident – or, perhaps, prosecutors added later, part of a robbery.

    Confirmation would be Kahn's obituary.

    The next day, according to the affidavit, Aron phoned Ryan again. She said she wanted her husband killed, too, the affidavit says. It says she noted where he worked and what kind of car he drove; this one definitely had to look like an accident.

    As a down payment to the now-$20,000 fee, the document says, Aron agreed to leave $500 in an envelope marked "Universal Systems" at the front desk of the Marriott the next day, when Ryan paged her. The page came as Aron was golfing in a charity tournament. She walked off the course, drove to the Marriott, and was arrested.

    By then, she had put on oversize sunglasses, a floppy hat and a trench coat. In her car, court records say, officers found a red wig, a stolen Virginia license plate and the silencer makings. Elsewhere police say they found a May 14, 1997, receipt from Paladin Press for $75.45, and copies of How to Make a Disposable Silencer and The Hayduke Silencer Book: Quick and Dirty Homemade Silencers, plus a book on disguises, all allegedly sent to a mailbox Aron rented under the name "A. Andrus."

    From her bedroom, officers took a military assault rifle equipped with a flash suppressor and a laser scope. They could not find two other guns, a 9mm pistol and a Colt revolver that Barry Aron would discover months later, though not until prosecutors had made a great deal of their absence in arguing to deny her bail. But police did find a list, they said. And on it were not only the names Arthur Kahn and Barry Aron, but also John Harrison. Finally, from the pocket of a jacket hanging in Ruthann's closet, a detective pulled a prescription vial. It contained a ground mixture of potentially lethal drugs that prosecutors call evidence Aron tried to murder Barry Aron herself, specifically on the April evening when he recalls eating a few spoonfuls of her homemade chili, remarking that it tasted funny, then falling asleep for 14 hours and waking up with a really bad headache. Police laboratories found no traces of poison in his hair or blood, but if his wife is convicted of solicitation to commit murder, prosecutors say they will proceed with a second trial, set for April, on charges of attempted murder.

    Aron has also been indicted on those counts and has pleaded not guilty. If that trial occurs, the vial might be explained by another book detectives found, this one in her nightstand: Final Exit, a how-to manual published by the Hemlock Society, which promotes euthanasia and suicide.

    "Maybe I just lost it," the prisoner blurted, not half an hour after her June 9 arrest. Detective Edward Tarney, who knew to stop questioning his suspect after she asked for a lawyer, could at least write down what she said. He also wrote: "If I could have the last 24 hours back and I knew I was getting set up, things would be different." And: "A lot of people are going to get hurt, and I guess it's my fault." And, just before the prisoner was taken to the county jail and put on suicide watch: "You might as well take me out back and shoot me. My life is over."

    What remained private until Ruthann's arrest was that Barry Aron had told his wife he planned to divorce her. He promised to wait until after her council campaign, he says, but then color him gone. They had been sleeping in separate bedrooms for years. Life was too short, he said.

    To the prosecution, the prospect of divorce looks an awful lot like motive. To the defense the key word might be "abandonment," which happens to be the thing a mentally disturbed person may fear most, if the disturbance is called borderline personality disorder.

    According to a report from the state's own psychiatrists, which a prosecutor described in open court, Ruthann Aron suffers from borderline personality disorder.

    "Inappropriate, intense anger ... frequent displays of temper ... a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships ... transient, stress-related paranoia ... ." Even from a distance, Aron looks a snug fit for the criteria laid out in the standard psychiatric reference manual. First on the list: "frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment."

    The defense has its own psychiatrists, of course. A bunch of them. And although they have not found consensus on one diagnosis, neither do they disagree, according to another of Aron's attorneys. "My belief is, the varying diagnoses – even including [the state's] – are not mutually exclusive," says defense attorney Judith Catterton, who helped frame Maryland's insanity statute.

    Yet another of Aron's attorneys, Erik Bolog, promises the jury will be told of "physical conditions contributing to her mental illness." On the day she was jailed, Aron circled "yes" on a form that asked if she was a victim of domestic violence. But her lawyers have not broached the issue since.

    The only glimpse into what Aron's doctors might say about her mental competence is a one-page letter in the court file from defense psychiatrist Lawrence Y. Kline. He found that Aron suffers from depression. He also diagnosed depersonalization disorder, which leaves a person feeling like an automaton, detached from her own feelings.

    Kline added, moreover, that he had given Aron an anticonvulsant while she was awaiting trial, and that she "suffered from Temporal Lobe Encephalopathy." That appears to imply brain damage, though the words are "kind of on the fuzzy side to a neurologist," says Walter Koroshetz, a committee chairman with the American Academy of Neurology. Trouble in the temporal lobe, the seat of many mental functions, including impulse control, "tends to be used sloppily by a lot of psychiatrists to give people a physical reason for their behavioral problems," Koroshetz argues.

    Aron's defense might need brain damage evidence. Forensic psychiatrists say they must struggle to recall an insanity defense that succeeded on the strength of mere personality disorder. A jury typically wants to see sustained psychosis – a person well removed from reality – before sending a defendant to a mental hospital instead of jail, these specialists say. And while a borderline, for instance, may have psychotic episodes, "what distinguishes these episodes is their brevity and their reversibility and their relationship to clear-cut events," says a psychiatric text.

    If Ruthann Aron is borderline, therapists say, she probably has been since childhood. Think of a child aged 1 to 3, literally toddling off into the the world beyond the mother but looking back to make sure she's still there. The disorder is thought to form when that child's test of independence goes somehow awry. Maybe the mother clings; maybe other forces intervene.

    If successful separation from Mother does not occur, the child may grow up without "feeling right, feeling safe," says District psychologist Stephen Shere, who specializes in treating and training other therapists. "The world is a precarious place to a borderline," he says. "It's as precarious as it is to that toddler." He adds: "The father in this scene is often absent."

    Shere, who has no connection to the Aron case and agreed only to translate its jargon, adds that many borderlines function more or less normally in daily life, but at home may show a spouse terrible rages. The rages are terrible because they rise "commensurate with the perceived threat" to their own well-being.

    At risk, after all, is the very self, which of course is exactly what a politician puts on the line in a campaign.

    "The basic risk to anyone who is in politics is losing an election," Shere observes. "To a borderline, it's really, am I going to exist? Is the world going to turn to chaos?

    "To the extent someone is borderline, he's going to feel precarious day in and day out anyway. Living the political life isn't going to help."

    Karl Vick is a reporter in The Post's Metro section.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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