AN EX-FBI AGENT DONS A SKI mask and pulls a gun on the minister of a Virginia church. He shackles the man and lures his own, estranged, wife to the church. She arrives, armed, and takes a shot at him, but he escapes unharmed. He is later charged with crimes that could land him in jail for life.

A hostage, betrayal, gunfire in a house of God—all the elements of a scene from one of Patricia Cornwell's gritty, grisly crime novels. Except that this scene really happened, and what happened next makes it unlikely fodder for any future Cornwell thrillers. After the ex-FBI agent, 41-year-old Eugene Bennett, was charged by Virginia police with five felonies, a local newspaper, The Prince William Journal, obtained papers for his impending divorce hearing (only a day before they were sealed by a court). In the papers, Bennett claimed that his 12-year marriage, and his life, began unraveling in 1991 when his wife, Marguerite, 42, a fellow FBI agent, had a love affair with Patricia Cornwell.

So far, Cornwell, 40, isn't commenting. She is busy promoting her recently released seventh novel, Cause of Death, which will likely top The New York Times bestseller list, and basking in her brand-new $27 million, three-book deal she reportedly signed with G.P. Putnam's Sons. Friends describe her as an intensely private woman who travels with bodyguards—to homes in Virginia, Los Angeles, the Caribbean and London, among other destinations—carries guns, and lives behind sophisticated security systems. They also say there are numerous parallels between her fiction and her life.

A North Carolina native, Cornwell began learning about crime in 1979 as a police reporter for the Charlotte Observer. She had just graduated from Davidson College and was newly married to Charles Cornwell, an English professor 17 years her senior (they divorced in 1989). "She was what you call a digger," says former Charlotte police chief Mack Vines. "She was pretty much like a detective digging for information. We helped her, and she helped us." Cornwell later worked as a computer analyst in the Virginia medical examiner's office, an experience that helped her find a fictional voice in her literary alter ego Kay Scarpetta, a sharp-witted medical examiner who hunts serial killers for the FBI. The success of her first Scarpetta novel, 1990's Postmortem, launched Cornwell's crime-writing career.

The following year, while researching her next novel, Cornwell, according to the divorce papers, met Marguerite "Margo" Bennett, an instructor in interrogation at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. Margo Bennett's FBI agent husband, Eugene, was then assigned to the Washington field office. The couple—who have two young daughters—separated in 1992, the year Eugene filed for divorce.

A Manassas, Va., neighbor recalls that sharing the custody of his children angered Bennett. "He would say she wasn't taking care of them the way she should," says Maureen Wells, 35. A nanny who worked for Bennett in 1992, Meredith Duffy, 23, picked up other hints about his growing rage. "Gene kept telling me, 'She's seeing some famous author,' " Duffy says. Apparently, Margo Bennett was equally bitter; in 1992 she told FBI officials that her husband had attempted to defraud the agency of more than $17,000. He served one year in prison for that offense, and for trying to block the FBI's investigation, before being released in April 1995.

On June 23, Bennett called his wife's minister, the Rev. Edwin Clever, 43, and, disguising his identity, arranged a meeting at the Prince of Peace Methodist Church in Manassas on the pretense of donating food. Bennett put on a ski mask and a dark jacket, and waited in the church for Clever to arrive. "He just suddenly appeared out of the stairwell, and he had a gun," says Clever. "My initial reaction was, 'This must be a joke.' " Bennett shackled Clever's arms and legs, told him he was putting explosives around his waist and forced him to telephone Margo Bennett and lure her to the church.

Suspicious, Bennett's wife showed up with a gun. After an argument about custody of the children, she fired once at her husband, who escaped to his home in Manassas. Clever was released without injury, and Bennett was arrested after a four-hour standoff at home the next day. His gym bags found at the church contained syringes, sodium chloride and ammunition—what one police officer termed a death kit. Jeffrey Gans, Bennett's criminal lawyer, has petitioned for a psychiatric evaluation, citing his client's "black-out periods" and "an alter ego named 'Ed.' "

In his divorce papers, Bennett said that his wife "began spending a great deal of time with Cornwell in late 1991 and in 1992. Mrs. Bennett would secretly meet with Cornwell for romantic candlelight dinners." He claimed to have "observed Mrs. Bennett and Ms. Cornwell hugging and kissing in their vehicles" and noted, pointedly, that "Mrs. Bennett has displayed a moral bankruptcy in her sexual and personal preference that can only be very harmful and confusing" to his daughters.

A former associate of Cornwell's who asked not to be named says the writer confided to her that she had an affair with Margo Bennett. "It is true that it happened," says the associate. "I never met [Margo], but Patsy talked about her all the time." Later, Cornwell wrote The Body Farm, in which Kay Scarpetta has an affair with a married male FBI agent named Benton Wesley—a romance that continues in Cause of Death.

While Eugene Bennett awaits his Aug. 13 preliminary hearing in a Virginia prison, his wife, who resigned from the FBI in 1994, has temporary custody of the children. Neither is commenting on the situation.

The publicity surrounding the Bennett case hasn't hurt Cornwell's standing with friends like Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who was the model for a character in The Body Farm. "For as long as I've known Patsy, there was always someone trying to take advantage of her," he says. "Regardless of whether that story is true or false, she's a worthy, good person." Hatch suspects Cornwell will weather the storm. "She's used to being beaten up," he says, "but she says that people who know her will know the truth."

ALEX TRESNIOWSKI
MARY ESSELMAN and CAROL SIMONS in Washington and CHRIS RAPHAEL in Manassas

  • Contributors:
  • Mary Esselman,
  • Carol Simons,
  • Chris Raphael.