Those Little White Lies

updated 04/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

HELL HATH NO FURY LIKE A HUSBAND scorned—particularly if his sex appeal is the issue. That was the lesson learned by Bonnette Askew after she invited Ron, her husband of 14 years, to attend one of her therapy sessions. It was there, Ron remembers now, that "Bonnie told me she never had love, desire or passion for me from the beginning of the marriage." And Bonnie remembers immediately sensing that Ron was annoyed. "T knew then it was over," says Bonnie, 45. "I could see it in his face. It was like a steel door shutting."

It was also the starting point for one of the most stunning decisions in the history of marital strife. No sooner did Bonnie, a former travel agent, sue for divorce in May 1991—she was granted $3,400 per month in alimony—than Ron, president of the Pacific Imperial Bank in Anaheim, Calif., retaliated with a legal maneuver ail his own. Still fuming over what he had learned in the counseling session with her psychiatrist, he charged Bonnie with fraud. "She's a manipulator, a liar, full of trickery and deceit," says Ron, 50. "She was prepared to deceive a man by standing in front of God and a minister and exchanging vows."

"I loved him," says Bonnie, who moved out of the couple's 16-room home in Tustin, Calif., last summer and now lives a few blocks away with their two children, Amber, 13, and Andrew, 10 (Ron's two children from a former marriage are about to move in with him). But she did indeed tell a Santa Ana Superior Court jury last month that she had never been sexually attracted to Ron. She never informed him of this, she says, for fear of "hirting his male ego." Result: On April 7, a jury of six men and six women found her guilty of, yes, fraud, and made a preliminary recommendation that she fork over $240,000 in interest on five of the couple's properties. They also tacked on damages of $2,009.50. "Where they arrived at the nine dollars and fifty cents I have no idea," says Bonnie's lawyer, Richard Millar. Actually this could turn out to the tip of a bigger real estate iceberg: The couple has property worth a total of $1.2 million that will have to be split up as further hearings are scheduled.

And then there is the broader significance. "Does this mean if a woman fakes orgasm she can get sued?" wonders Millar. "The implications are staggering." In fact, the verdict has sent near seismic shock waves through the California legal establishment. "It's a Pandora's box whereby husbands may try to undercut wives' community-property rights," says feminist attorney Gloria Allred. "If you can sue for damages on this basis, why not sue for injunctions to force people to have sex during marriage?"

Back in their dating days, before they became legal curiosities, "Ron was very charming, very considerate," says Bonnie, who met him in 1973, when she was a bank secretary. They began dating in December 1975 and married two years later. But their marriage seemed to founder as Ron climbed the career ladder at Imperial Pacific. She says: "He treated me like an employee. Once we got in an argument and he threatened me right then and there with a lawsuit. I le attacked my sell-esteem all the time."

He says: "This is the self-esteem of a woman who didn't work. Who got furs, jewelry, diamond rings. Who spent $50,000 a year on herself."

And then there is the matter of Ron's alleged sexual dysfunction. She says: "Sex with him was anticlmactic." He says: "Absolutely categorical bunk. What really happened is that she fell in love with another man." Ron claims that he can document Bonnie's affair with a local schoolteacher back to 1989 and that private detectives trailed the pair on trips to Palm Springs, Boston and Sedona, Ariz. Without denying the relationship, Bonnie says, "It has nothing to do with our breakup."

At this point the Askews are hardly finished fighting. Bonnie intends to appeal the verdict (lying about the enjoyment of sex, says Millar, is not actionable for fraud). For his part, Ron hasn't stopped seething. "I'm still angry at her," he says. As for Bonnie, she seems sadder, wiser—and still committed to therapy. "If had to do it over again." she says, "I would have attempted to get Ron some help."

JOHN HANNAH in Orange County

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