Aron Allegedly Was Abused as Child; Long-Kept Secret Helps Explain Plot Against Husband, Her Lawyer Says

Ruthann Aron was sexually abused by her father starting when she was 7 years old, a secret she kept for years and one that explains why the Montgomery County politician ultimately plotted to kill a husband who had cheated on her and left her twice, her attorney said yesterday.

In the opening arguments of Aron’s murder-for-hire trial, Barry H. Helfand portrayed his client as a deeply depressed and dependent woman who once suffered a brain injury that impaired her judgment and ability to control impulses. Between that and a lifetime spent hiding her childhood abuse, she could not understand that what she was doing was against the law or stop herself, he said. Helfand did not deny that in 1997 the 55-year-old Potomac millionaire tried to hire a hit man to kill her husband, urologist Barry Aron, and Baltimore lawyer Arthur G. Kahn.

“There’s no doubt about that. She did it,” Helfand said, although he suggested that undercover police may have trapped her into going further than she had intended. His characterization was at dramatic odds with Deputy State’s Attorney I. Matthew Campbell’s portrayal of the former Montgomery Planning Board member and U.S. Senate candidate as a cold, calculating woman ready to carry out the killings herself.

“I’m so concerned about confidentiality, maybe I’ll just do it myself,” Aron told the supposed hit man, according to a transcript of police tapes that Campbell read to the jury of 10 women and two men. Campbell said Aron was so savvy that she bought “subsonic ammunition” after a friend told her that was needed for a silencer-equipped gun. She told her go-between that she “preferred a professional” and searched out pay phones where the hit man could return her pages, once leaving an all-day Planning Board meeting at a local high school to call him from a nearby Sears, Campbell continued. “She was like a careful shopper,” the prosecutor said. “She asked for the range {of prices} to figure out just how much it costs to have someone murdered in Montgomery County.”

Aron wanted Kahn’s death to look like a robbery, Campbell said. But her husband would be killed first in his cream-colored Acura, in such a way that it would look like a traffic accident, Campbell said. “Last name A, like apple, R-O-N,” Aron told the hit man, according to the transcript from which Campbell read. “First name B, like boy, A-R-R-Y.”

She and her contact, in reality an undercover police detective, agreed that Barry Aron would be killed the next day, Campbell said. Shortly after that conversation ended, Aron called her husband from a Giant supermarket and asked him whether he wanted her to bring him a fresh lobster for dinner. Psychiatrists will testify that Aron indeed suffered “profound depression” — but only after she was arrested on two counts of solicitation to commit murder and “realized her personal life had come to a sudden, humiliating, painful, shameful end,” Campbell said.

Aron, once an ambitious politician feared for her sharp tongue and aggressive campaigning, held her head in her hands and at times dabbed her eyes with a tissue as the two sides put her troubled family past and long-rocky marriage on display. In contrast to the tailored suits she previously wore in public, she was clad in a corduroy jumper and green turtleneck. Her trial, one of the most anticipated in recent memory in the county, is expected to last three weeks. If convicted, she could face up to life in prison. If found “not criminally responsible” because of insanity, she could be committed to a state psychiatric hospital. Helfand told the jury that the sexual abuse, which continued until Aron was 16, reverberated through her personal and political lives. In the latter case, it made her susceptible to being “courted” by the Republican Party to run for the Senate in 1994 and emotionally “fragile” when her GOP opponent, William E. Brock III, advertised allegations of fraud in Aron’s dealings as a local developer, he said. Kahn testified against Aron in a defamation suit she brought against Brock.

The Baltimore lawyer had represented former business partners of Aron who accused her of stealing money. Until she was evaluated by psychologists after her arrest in June, Aron never told anyone that her father had made her touch him sexually, according toHelfand. He said Aron’s mother will testify that her husband was “brutal” as a father. David Greenzweig will not be able to defend himself. He was killed in 1994 in New York during a robbery. Helfand declined to comment on when or how Aron suffered an injury to her brain’s frontal lobe and did not explain its connection to her emotional trauma, saying he would let psychiatrists explain it on the stand. It appears that the Arons’ 31-year marriage will play significantly into her trial. Prosecutors said that the couple had been estranged since 1993, when they began sleeping in separate bedrooms, and that both had had affairs. Campbell recounted how Barry Aron last year told his wife that he wanted a divorce. Ruthann Aron became “very upset,” Campbell said, and complained to her husband that a divorce would hurt her chances for a 1998 election to the County Council. Barry Aron assured her he would be “discreet” and “do nothing to hurt her chances for election,” Campbell said. Two months later, she allegedly began plotting his murder.

Helfand, however, blamed Barry Aron for years of marital tumult. After Ruthann Aron put him through medical school, he left her in 1970 to move in with a nurse. The couple reconciled for a week before the doctor left again for four more months, Helfand said. The infidelity was made worse, Helfand said, because Aron was so dependent on her husband. It was Barry Aron’s idea, Helfand said, for his wife to sue Brock for defamation after she lost the GOP Senate primary. The highly publicized lawsuit, Helfand said, created “new pressure” on Ruthann Aron. As he sought to show the other sides of his client, Helfand directly confronted her former public persona as a tough and aggressive “bitch.” It was “not unintentional,” he acknowledged to jurors, that their panel is nearly all women. “If she’s going to sink on my watch,” Helfand said, “she’s going to be judged fairly by her peers — people who have had an opportunity to know what it’s like to play in a man’s world.”