Hardball

updated 08/04/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/04/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

AFTER 32 YEARS THEIR MARRIAGE was hardly a love affair. With a son and a daughter grown and on their own, Barry and Ruthann Aron slept in separate bedrooms in the spacious brick home they shared in leafy Potomac, Md. Still, when Ruthann, a developer, took a stab at local politics and even made a run in the 1994 Republican primary for U.S. Senate, Barry, a prominent urologist, was by her side. "He was incredibly supportive," says a close friend of the couple's. "He was in many respects the perfect husband."

Apparently, Ruthann Aron disagreed. On June 9 she allegedly left $500 cash in an envelope at a Gaithersburg, Md., hotel—a down payment, police say, for a hit man she had hired to kill Barry Aron for $10,000. Then she spent the afternoon playing nine holes in a charity golf tournament. As it turned out, the hit man was an undercover police officer, and later that day, Ruthann, 54, was arrested and charged with solicitation to commit murder. Her mild-mannered husband, 56, was in shock. "He simply never saw this coming," says Stephen Friedman, Barry Aron's attorney. But to many who have known Ruthann Aron for years—as she earned a law degree, pursued suit-plagued partnerships as a real estate developer and finally launched a political career, first running her local neighborhood association and then sitting on the Montgomery County Planning Board—it was merely the culmination of a life gone awry. "Everything she did over time was really evidence of a downward spiral," says an acquaintance familiar with her career. "This was a woman with no moral brakes."

Abrasive, outspoken and pushy, Ruthann Aron was seemingly consumed with success at any cost. "Her driving force was her desire for power and celebrity," says lawyer T. Joseph Touhey, who has faced her in court. "Everything about her said she wanted to be in control and to be recognized." Yet her determination was combined with a bizarre, self-destructive streak. "The more she got, the less happy she was," says a political ally. "Every time the prize was in Ruthann's hand, she was going to throw it away." And despite her brash exterior, Aron was thin-skinned. "Her feelings were always getting hurt," says an old friend from Aron's graduate school days. "She had a real inappropriate response to slights."

That may be an understatement. According to police, Aron, a gun collector, had acquired an assault rifle, manuals on how to make silencers, a kit for ordering false ID cards, and what prosecutors labeled a hit list that included not only her husband but two local lawyers—John Harrison and Arthur Kahn—whose clients had sued her. Police say she raised the idea of hiring a hit man on June 1 with William Moss-burg Jr., a dump owner who had contributed to her Senate campaign—and whose son Christopher was once implicated in a murder-for-hire scheme targeting him. Concerned, he told police, who quickly investigated.

After his wife's arrest, Barry Aron told authorities he remembered that one night last April, Ruthann had poured white powder she said was a spice into a batch of chili. Afterward he lay down, only to wake up 14 hours later feeling hungover. (Police found among her possessions a vial containing a potentially lethal mix of Valium and other drugs, and she was additionally charged with attempted murder.)

In fact there had been previous indications that Aron's ambitions were becoming obsessions. After a series of 1993 meetings with state Republican officials, who recommended that because of her inexperience she run for a more modest state post, she jumped into the race for U.S. Senate, pitting herself against former Tennessee Sen. William Brock III, a popular Republican moderate who had served in Ronald Reagan's cabinet. "My reaction was that she really should walk before she runs," says Richard Taylor, a state Republican official. Ignoring such advice, she hired Clinton campaign consultant Dick Morris, whose polls showed she had little chance to win. "She was furious with me," says Morris. "The fuel that motivated her was hatred and resentment and anger."

That became clear after she lost the primary by 13 percent and vainly filed suit against Brock, claiming he had defamed her in a press conference. "Political campaigns are full of rough-and-tumble," says Stephen Sandler, whom Aron hired briefly as a consultant, "but rarely do they end up in court with one person out to destroy the other." Says an acquaintance: "She had no natural ability to compromise or negotiate."

That was apparently true even when she was growing up in Fallsburg, N.Y., where her father, David Greenzweig, ran a diner in which her mother, Freida, was a waitress. People from her hometown remember Ruthann as a standoffish young woman with no close friends, and when her parents divorced some time after she graduated from high school, she bitterly blamed her father. When he was murdered in a robbery a few weeks before the '94 primary, she hadn't spoken to him for at least 10 years but didn't hesitate to exploit his death in the campaign by appealing to voters' sympathy. In his will he left "absolutely nothing for my daughter...who has been cruel to me."

When Ruthann met Barry Aron in 1965, he was in medical school at New York University, and she was a microbiologist. They married within a year, and all her energy went into supporting his career and raising their children. But after her graduation from the Catholic University of America law school in 1986, her own ambitions became paramount. Recently the Arons had spoken of divorce but agreed to stay together at least until 1998, when she planned to run for county council. Still, Barry had told her he would not support her financially in her legal struggle with Brock.

Why, exactly, she might have wanted her husband dead may only come out during her trial, set for October. "We are dealing with a very complex human being who has had some real psychological problems for a very long time," says Barry Helfand, Ruthann's lawyer, whose client initially claimed to be a victim of domestic abuse. More likely, speculates Joseph Touhey, the lawyer who represented Brock in the slander suit, she thought divorce would be a political liability, while the seemingly accidental death of her husband might help her image. "She thought anything that stood in the way should be removed," he says.

Whatever her motives, her actions have left friends and family—including son Joshua, 25, a trader with a New York City brokerage firm, and daughter Dana, 27, a clinical psychologist:—mystified. "She was just a normal, neurotic person," says a friend from Aron's law school days, "who was really ambitious and wanted to strike out and be different from the Potomac matron crowd vacuously playing tennis all day." That is one ambition Ruthann Aron has achieved.

THOMAS FIELDS-MEYER
ANDREW MARTON in Potomac and MARIA EFTIMIADES in Fallsburg

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