Friends’ Alleged Plot Tied to Custody Fight; Md. Trial Starts in Attack on Husband

Bethesda lawyer Elsa D. Newman plotted with a close woman friend to kill her estranged husband and threatened to kill her two sons because she was losing a lengthy court custody battle, a Montgomery County prosecutor said yesterday.

In opening statements in Newman’s conspiracy trial, Deputy State’s Attorney Katherine Winfree described Newman as a calculating woman who manipulated her friend of three decades, State Department employee Margery L. Landry, into doing her “dirty deed.”

“Elsa Newman hated her husband and wanted him dead, and she very nearly succeeded,” Winfree said.

Landry, 48, was arrested and charged with attempted first-degree murder in January after she allegedly broke into the Bethesda home of Newman’s husband, film producer Arlen Slobodow, and shot him in the leg. In the ensuing struggle, Slobodow was able to rip off her ski mask and recognized Landry.

Newman, 49, is also being tried on charges of conspiracy to commit murder, attempted first-degree murder, first-degree assault, burglary and illegal use of a handgun. Landry will be tried this year on a charge of attempted first-degree murder.

Newman’s lawyer, Barry Helfand, told the Montgomery County Circuit Court jury that Newman had no idea Landry would try to kill Slobodow. Newman was simply a loving mother who was fighting to free her children from an abusive father, Helfand said.

“She has devoted her life to her children,” Helfand said. “She’s a lawful person, with no criminal convictions, no crimes of violence in the past. . . . She didn’t know anything about what Margery Landry was going to do.”

Helfand held up a picture for jurors of the couple’s towheaded little boys and then handed it to Newman, a petite woman with shoulder-length brown hair.

She propped the picture up on the defense table in front of her.

Helfand said the two children — then ages 3 and 6 — told Newman that Slobodow had abused them. Her repeated charges of abuse — and Slobodow’s countercharges that Newman was coaching the boys — culminated in a dramatic custody hearing in September during which Newman’s divorce lawyer told the judge that she had threatened to kill Slobodow if she was not granted custody. The judge granted Slobodow custody of the children and allowed Newman only short, supervised visits.

“Elsa Newman was desperate. She was in a bitter custody dispute and she was running out of options and was about to lose her children,” Winfree said.

Newman then turned to “her best friend, her alter ego,” Landry, Winfree said.

Landry, a college roommate of Newman’s, had been intimately involved in her life for years. The two were “unusually and eerily close,” Winfree said. They had owned property together and lived for a time in London with Newman’s children while Landry was posted there for the State Department. Landry is godmother to Newman’s children and had a special toy-filled bedroom for the boys in her Bethesda home around the corner from Newman’s.

Yesterday, jurors also heard from Katie Ashley, the secretary for Newman’s former lawyer, who testified that Newman had confided over dinner at a Bethesda steakhouse in December 2000 her intent to kill her husband.

“She said she had plans to kill Arlen,” Ashley testified. “She was going to dress all in black and catch Arlen on the streets of Washington when the children weren’t with him. And she was going to shoot him.”