Not Wisely, but Too Well
updated 03/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 03/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST
These were the spies who came in from the mall—and while they shopped, others dropped. "As many as 10 highly placed Russian spies may have been executed because of information Ames passed to the Russians," says Cord Meyer, who for three years was the CIA's London station chief. "This is very, very damaging." And the outrage in intelligence circles has only been heightened by the discovery that Ames and his wife appear to have been motivated by pure acquisitiveness—yet their lavish spending of KGB millions went unnoticed by the Company for years. Although Ames's salary as a counternarcotic analyst at the CIA was $69,843, he paid $540,000 in cash when he bought his house in Arlington in 1989, then spent another $99,000 on remodeling. Later, a $40,000 Jaguar appeared in the driveway next to Rosario's Honda Accord.
But while his supervisors may have ignored Ames's binge-buying, his new neighbors couldn't help but notice. Although Ames claimed that Rosario had inherited money from her family, "we thought, half-jokingly, that it was probably drug money because she was from Colombia," says a woman who lives around the corner. Still, the pair was generally well-liked. One neighbor, Luciana Divine, 70, recalls Rosario as reserved but says Rick "was more friendly and more relaxed and more on the lazy side." By most accounts, the Ameses doled on their son, Paul, 5. "He was the little king of that house," says Divine. It was, in some respects, an odd domain. When another neighbor brought her two children over for Paul's third birthday party, she found that the Ameses "had ropes in doorways to keep people out of certain rooms." Yet in general the family seemed "nice" and "normal"—if just a tad self-indulgent. They shopped at Hermès and Polo. "Mrs. Ames probably spent $150 a week here," says Gabe Pica, who owns a gourmet deli not far from the Ames home. "She loved our hams and deli meats and free-range chickens."
Neither Rick nor Rosario were raised to be hedonists. Ames grew up in River Falls, Wis., where his grandfather Jesse had been president of what is now the University of Wisconsin at River Falls, and his father, Carleton, was a history professor and mother, Rachel, a homemaker. When Ames was 9, his father joined the CIA as an analyst, and the family moved to Burma, then to McLean, Va., near CIA headquarters. A National Merit Scholar semifinalist, Rick entered the prestigious University of Chicago in 1959.
By 1962, Ames had dropped out. He never told his old friends why. "It must have been devastating," says Peggy Anderson, a high school pal who is now a professor of history at Berkeley, "because getting accepted was the highlight of his life." Soon, Ames joined the CIA. In 1967 he graduated from George Washington University and in 1969 married another young employee, Nancy Segebarth. Yet by the time he was posted to Mexico City in 1983, his career had stalled—one former supervisor remembers him as "a lackluster officer and a drunk"—and his marriage, still childless, was unraveling. Then he met Rosario.
Both her parents were university professors—her father taught mathematics; her mother, Spanish—and she was valedictorian of her class at the elite Nueva Granada high school in Bogotá. "Rosario was not wealthy like other students," says a former classmate. "I'm sure this bothered her, but she never showed it." A brilliant literature student al the University of the Andes, Rosario was recommended by then-Colombian President Turbay Ayala to the Foreign Ministry in 1982. Mexico City was her first post.
Rick and Rosario met at a diplomatic luncheon that June, and soon he placed her on the CIA payroll as an informant. "I believe that their relationship began as a professional one, based on her getting money for information," says Rosario's mentor and friend, University of the Andes professor Carlos Gutíerrez, 55. "Maybe then it turned into love. [But] they were not the passionate kind. She was very calculating. Rosario was the dominant figure. She led the way and Rick went along. He was not very macho."
Sometimes, it seemed, Rosario was downright shrewish. Albert Andrews, a housekeeper for three months in 1990, noted, "She used to call him stupid. He never responded, never talked back." In FBI transcripts of the couple's phone conversations last November, she told Rick, "Don't be an a—h—e."
Back in 1983, however, life looked rosier for the couple. Ames returned to the U.S. that October and announced to his wife that he was in love. (Later, he would complain to friends that she used that admission to impose on him a crushing divorce settlement.) He and Rosario moved into a cramped apartment on a commercial strip in Virginia. When they were wed in a small church ceremony in August 1985, only wine was served at the reception, and Rick pleaded poverty. It was perhaps his first cover story as a mole. Ames, FBI files show, had gone on the KGB payroll two months before.
Now, Rick and Rosario are both being held without bail at an Alexandria detention center, and Paul is presumed to be living with relatives. Facing life imprisonment, both Ameses are denying all charges. Meanwhile, those who know the pair remain in a profound state of shock. "I can't believe they would do such a thing for money. Nobody can," says one neighbor. "The real tragedy is that they put their son in jeopardy. No fancy car is worth such a trade."
PETER MEYER and SARAH SKOLNIK in Washington, JOHN MAIER in Bogotá and bureau reports