Model Marla Hanson, Showing the Face of Courage to a Jury, Helps Convict the Thug Who Maimed Her
It began as a small-town girl's dream: After only one year in New York, 24-year-old Maria Hanson seemed on the verge of realizing her dream of being a successful model. She had posed for Glamour and J.C. Penney Company; she was auditioning for bit parts in movies; on one heady day she had made $2,500 modeling lingerie.
Then late one spring night on a Manhattan street, as she stood talking to her 28-year-old landlord, Steven Roth, a makeup artist whose crude romantic overtures she had repeatedly rejected, Maria Hanson collided with disaster. Two men approached her. One shoved her against a wall and held her face; the other moved his hands quickly back and forth across her face, "almost," she testified later, "like an artist at a canvas." She was aware of a "burning, stinging motion," and when she put her hands to her face, they were covered with blood.
Hanson's beautiful face had been ruined. Three hours of surgery and more than a hundred expert stitches would not fully repair the damage. "Her skin was so incredibly fine," said plastic surgeon Ronald Levandusky, who is also an amateur artist and collector of fine china, "I felt like I was fixing a porcelain vase, but I kept thinking all I was doing was pushing the pieces together. I can't make the vase perfect again." Last month a jury convicted Steven Roth of having hired two men to disfigure the model. His motive, the prosecution charged, was sexual rage over his rejection by Hanson.
When the pudgy-cheeked defendant, who had worked for New York City news shows as well as the soaps, took the stand, he called forth a defense that no one had anticipated. The reason for Hanson's attack was love scorned, all right, said Roth, but Hanson was not the object—he was: On the night of the attack, he had broken off a 15-year homosexual relationship with one of the accused blade men. Steven Bowman, the spurned lover, had attacked the woman out of jealousy.
Outside the courtroom, meanwhile, Hanson, who has sold her story for a television movie and gotten wide publicity for her show of pluck, was putting on a brave face, despite the injuries that had shattered her career. "Everyone has scars," she said. "Mine show."
It was not an attitude that surprised those who knew her. In her short time in New York, Hanson had made a reputation as a strong and ambitious woman who did not allow anything to throw her off track. Nor had she, while growing up in small towns in Missouri and Texas, been a girl willing to settle for second best. "If she wanted to do something, she usually accomplished it, whether it was being a cheerleader or senior class president," said her brother Alan Hanson, a TV satellite installer in Fredericksburg, Texas.
It is also possible that growing up she suffered the kind of scars that plastic surgeons cannot mend. The second daughter of Phyllis and Robert Hanson, then an IBM employee, she was born June 18, 1961 in Independence, Mo. and was very young when her parents divorced. She was sexually abused as a child, she said in an interview in Glamour magazine, and her mother "couldn't deal with it." Maria ran free and, at the age of 12, after a protracted custody suit, went with Alan and another brother to live with their father. Precisely why he was awarded custody, Robert Hanson, now an insurance agent, prefers not to disclose. "Let's just say the family life in her place was not very good and in my place it was very good," he says. The father, like his ex-wife, had remarried. He had also become deeply religious, working with a Methodist youth group and taking in children who had no place to go. Maria was a hard worker with a concern for others; she planned, says her father, to be a missionary.
She was, however, a rebel. High spirited and fun loving, she dropped out of the Southwestern Assemblies of God College, a bible college in Waxahachie, Texas, after three semesters and moved to Dallas. Flitting from job to job, she sold real estate, worked as a waitress and a showroom model. She had many suitors, but the man she preferred was a young doctor who was not prepared to commit to the relationship. There was also an indication that Hanson was not always considerate; one roommate pressed charges against her for bouncing a check and claimed Hanson could be cavalier about debts.
But men adored her. Among her admirers was Bruce Ross, the owner's son at J H Collectibles, the clothing firm where Maria worked. When she spoke about wanting to come to New York, he transferred her to a Manhattan branch in June 1985. Nine months later, she had managed to get herself an agency—Petite Model Management.
"She was so pretty and delicate; her features were so finely structured; her skin was beautiful—we just liked her right away," says booking agent Sharon Walters. Her rise at Petite was impressive. Within one month she was getting jobs. Unusual, says Walters, "for someone who just comes in off the street."
She was also apparently still a woman who went after what she wanted: One story has it that when a photographer she was dating did not break off the relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Maria tried to speed things along by phoning the girl.
She was still at the point in her career where she thought of jobs in terms of making the rent. So when Steven Roth told her in April that he had a coop apartment to rent for $600 a month, she grabbed it. From the start she had no great fondness for Roth. His crudeness offended her: Soon after meeting her, he asked if she would be uncomfortable if he gave her legs a "bikini wax." When she said yes, he told her, in explicit and aggressive language, why it should not matter.
Nor was Roth, though Hanson did not know this, a well-adjusted young man. According to papers filed by his lawyers when they were contemplating a psychiatric defense, Roth had "been plagued by severe mental distress and significant emotional problems throughout his life." His mother had suffered complications during his birth and was subsequently dependent on painkillers. Roth claimed he was beaten by both parents throughout his early life in Queens, N.Y. and estimated that over the years he had seen a dozen psychiatrists. One, who saw him for six months when he was a teenager, noted "hostility towards authority figures... especially anger at his mother." At 16, after impregnating his girlfriend, he was thrown out of his family's home.
By the time he'd met Maria, that relationship was over and Roth had become a financial success. He had $120,000 in a savings account and owned a $90,000 one-bedroom co-op just down the street from the studio where he lived. His record as a landlord was problematic: The previous tenant, a dancer, was disturbed by Roth's habit of letting himself into the apartment unannounced. Nonetheless, with affordable apartments at a premium in New York, Maria Hanson put aside her misgivings, paid him rent and a security deposit and moved in.
Problems began at once: Roth continued his habit of popping in on Maria and her two roommates. "He was interested in more private things. He asked me a lot about my boyfriend, love and sex," said one of Marla's roommates, German stylist Marianne Schaeffer. Maria, too, found Roth intrusive. He "always seemed to get on the subject of sex" and he was at the apartment daily, sometimes calling first, sometimes just ringing the bell and letting himself in. In late May Hanson arranged a meeting at the apartment to tell Roth she was moving out.
It was, both agree, a tempestuous encounter: Hanson felt that she was entitled to the return of her security deposit, while Roth, reportedly screaming in anger, did not. Later he called back, saying he would give her the $850 she calculated that he owed her. They arranged to meet late on the night of June 5 at Roth's hangout, a local bar called Shutters.
When she arrived, Marla said, Roth seemed "really nervous." He recited his litany of complaints. In their business, he told her, it was important to be "nice to people." He was not, however, very nice to Marla. He insulted her constantly, she says. "Have you been screwed over a lot in your life?" he asked. "I could tell because you're a real bitch."
Then he asked her to step outside to get her money, though he would admit later that he had neither check nor cash on him. As the two walked down a deserted street, Roth obsessively repeated a grim prophecy. "You shouldn't have been so nasty to me," he said. "You reap what you sow." He also spoke with envy of the man she was seeing. "Boy, Craig is really lucky to date you," he said. "You know, I fantasized about dating you." She stopped in her tracks at that; direct, if not diplomatic. "What?' she said.
Then she saw them—two strangers who seemed to be following them. Roth, claimed Hanson, saw the men too and seemed to recognize them. But when she asked him, he denied it, holding her closer and walking rapidly. "I'm scared," Marla Hanson said.
Then they were upon her: The man she knew only as "the shorter one" pushed her to her knees and held her head while "the tall one" allegedly slashed her face. The 104-lb. model fought hard, but she was helpless. Every corner of her face was slashed; the muscles that controlled her smile were severed, half her nose skinned.
And Steve Roth? He stood nearby, doing nothing, and minutes later, when police caught the suspected slashers, did his best to throw them off. "That's not them," he said, as the cops showed Hanson and Roth the two, shackled belly down on the pavement, their clothing stained with Hanson's blood. They were identified as 5'6" Steven Bowman, Roth's childhood friend who would later admit to a $150-a-day cocaine habit; and 6'2" Darren Norman, 19, a man once on probation for a violent felony robbery.
Later, after Marla was taken to the hospital, where doctors noted she had been cut so badly that she had lost 20 percent of her blood, Roth was coldly indifferent. "Do you know she's probably going to get over 100 stitches in her face?" asked a police officer. "That's her," said Roth, who claimed he had been robbed. "I'm out 850 bucks."
Bowman and Norman, who both denied cutting Marla Hanson and will be tried later, provided a different tale. According to the police, Bowman said, "Steve Roth told us to get razor blades...he said a girl was giving him a hard time and he wanted to really scare her...to hurt her real bad, cut her up."
In December Marla Hanson took the stand to accuse Roth. Her face was devoid of makeup in order to show the dark pink scars across her face; her hair was pulled severely back and tied at the nape with a modish velvet and net bow; she wore an oversize dress that emphasized her physical fragility. Her tone was at times young, even schoolgirlish—"I lost my place..." she said at one point—at times hardened. Four-letter words that had been uttered by her assailants were repeated without stammer or blush.
As Roth stared at her impassively, she spoke of the attack and of her job since then as a restaurant hostess, modeling having come almost to a halt. At the request of Assistant District Attorney Consuelo Fernandez, she stepped from the witness box to give the jurors a close look at the state's most chilling exhibit: the evidence marked permanently across her face. (Further surgery is planned to reduce the prominence of her scars.)
She swallowed audibly and pointed to the most visible cut: a livid welt running across her right cheek that her surgeon said would never completely disappear. "I received a cut across my face, to my eyebrow," she said, fighting tears.
Roth took the stand, leaving behind the Jewish prayer book he had carried daily into court. Sighing often for his sorrows, speaking in a high, tentative voice, he told of a mother too ill to get off the couch, a father too busy to care, a lonely, abused childhood in which Steven Bowman, a boy from a poor, black neighborhood, was his only friend.
Then he dropped the defense bombshell. When he was 13, his relationship with Steven "changed from a real good friendship...into a touching, loving homosexual relationship." ("A marketable defense," Bowman's attorney said dryly, outside court, adding that he had "no reason to believe" the two had been lovers.) The affair, kept secret from all but a few people, superseded all other relationships, claimed Roth, including that with a woman by whom he had two sons, and male and female lovers too numerous to recall. Then, last June, he decided to marry. On the evening of the attack, Roth claimed, he told Bowman of his planned marriage and broke off their relationship. His lover, said Roth, took it badly, getting "very mad." Roth testified that it was a few hours later, shortly before he was to meet Hanson, that Bowman intercepted him in the street; he was "really high" and pleaded with Roth to change his mind.
By Roth's account, his response might certainly have promoted a confrontation from a discarded lover—though he offered it as evidence of innocence. "I told him I had a date," he said. "I told him I had a date with a very pretty girl." Nonetheless, when the attack came, Roth professed astonishment. He could not even see what was happening until it was all over, he claimed. Why did he lie to police about his lover's identity after seeing that Hanson had been severely mutilated? "I didn't want Steve to get caught," he said.
It was not a pretty self-portrait. Under cross-examination, it grew worse. His story that the attack took only 10 seconds, during which time he stood too "confused" to aid Hanson, met with the prosecutor's contempt. "You can cut somebody's face 14 times in 10 seconds?" Fernandez sneered. The jury shared her incredulity. Roth now awaits sentencing—a maximum of 15 years in prison.
Hanson was not present for the verdict. But when she met with reporters later, she said she was "relieved" that Roth would finally be off the street. She was tired of being known as "the girl who got slashed," and with her modeling career all but ended, she was looking in new directions—acting, perhaps. With that, she smiled broadly, hugged her lawyer and was gone. The out-of-town girl who had chased a rainbow to New York was damned if a razor attack would throw her off course.
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