The Big Read: A Senate candidate; a murder plot; an undercover cop; a giant fiasco

By Monica Hesse

Ruth Ann Aron leaves the Montgomery County Courthouse in 1997 with then-attorneys Barry Helfand and Erik Bolog. Washington Post photo by Dayna Smith
Ruth Ann Aron leaves the Montgomery County Courthouse in 1997 with then-attorneys Barry Helfand and Erik Bolog. Washington Post photo by Dayna Smith

Feeling exiled and frustrated in her Florida condominium, Ruthann Aron decided she needed a makeover. Not of the cosmetic variety but of the cosmic - a public image redo, which would not be particularly easy nearly 20 years after the trial that put her in a Maryland prison for hiring a hit man to murder her rich urologist husband.

One step involved returning to Montgomery County, where all her troubles began and where she served on the county planning board and ran for the U.S. Senate. Another step involved hiring Victor.

Victor Wainstein, 41, is Ruthann's attorney. She hired him because, in addition to the usual qualities that one looks for - intelligence, creativity - he agreed to temporarily set aside other clients and work for her, arriving every morning at her rented townhouse and working on nothing but the rebranding of Ruthann, recasting her role in one of the most infamous cases in Montgomery County history.

First, there is the court petition, a long-shot attempt to have her case re-examined.

"I can't talk to you about that," says Ruth Ann, 73. (That is how she spells her name now: Ruth Ann Aron Green, the Green being a shortening of her maiden name.) "Well, I can talk to you about the one," she continues. "I, or Victor, can talk about the one we filed. But anything else we are thinking about filing, I can't help at all."

"Maybe I can help a little," says Victor, a large man with earnest features. "If you Google her name now, all you find is a lot of artless stories that tell the story of 1997 in the way it was told."

The news stories imply that Ruth Ann pleaded guilty, when in fact she did not plead guilty. She pleaded no contest, which is different from guilty, even if it was her voice on those tapes spelling out her husband's name to a supposed hit man - "B like boy, A-R-R-Y" - and instructing him to look for a taupe Acura. (Her husband survived, by the way; the assassin was actually an undercover policeman.)

Now Ruth Ann has asked Victor to file a motion asking a Montgomery County court to overturn her plea, saying that she was bullied into making it and should receive another trial.

A hearing is scheduled for August.

Second, there is the book.

"It's really four books for the price of one," Ruth Ann likes to say, because the book, a self-published paperback memoir of her trial and life, is 764 pages and weighs 3.2 pounds on a bathroom scale. "The cover artist wanted to do this naked woman," she sighs one day.

"Lady Justice," Victor supplies patiently.

"Nude," says Ruth Ann, who is small and slight and stylishly dressed. "I was knocked off my chair, it was like she was posing for Playboy. Finally, on the third draft, I said, 'Listen, I don't want a naked lady.' "

Ruth Ann Aron Green attempts to sell a memoir she has written about the experience. The Washington Post photo by Matt Roth
Ruth Ann Aron Green attempts to sell a memoir she has written about the experience. The Washington Post photo by Matt Roth

The new cover of "Corrupted Justice" has a bloody gavel on the front. For a time it also had a complete chapter missing that the publisher had accidentally omitted; Ruth Ann thinks that has been fixed.

She hopes to sell the book at festivals and bookstores.

Third, there is the general business of redefining what it means to be Ruth Ann these days, which sometimes spirals back to what it meant to be Ruth Ann 20 years ago, before all of this happened.

"You look at the popularity of someone like Donald Trump," Victor offers, explaining Ruth Ann's life. "What do people supposedly like about him? He's an outsider. He's not taking lobbyist money. I look at Ruth, and I say, 'Guess what? In 1994 she ran for U.S. Senate as an outsider, a businesswoman, raised many of the same issues ... she was the Trump of 1994, minus the bravado and the language and all of that.'"

In the coming weeks, Ruth Ann would like to get back to this version of Ruth Ann. The businesswoman. The politician. The fighter, but also the victim.

"Everyone else's lives have moved on," says Ruth Ann. "Mine is still stuck in 1997." Since then, she says, she has been very misunderstood.

Ruth Ann's 1997 treatment in the media

Ruth Ann and Victor, in the townhouse, on the subject of Ruth Ann's 1997 treatment in the media: "There were so many gender issues," Victor says. "It was somehow viewed as if she was an aggressive ... "

"Bitch," Ruth Ann supplies.

Ruth Ann and Victor, in the townhouse, on the subject of her first attorney, whom she says forced her into the plea: "He presented, in the words of the 'Godfather,' a deal she couldn't refuse," Victor says.

"No, he threatened me," Ruth Ann says. (The attorney in question, Barry Helfand, says the accusation is false and "shocking").

Ruth Ann and Victor, in the townhouse, on the subject of the townhouse:

"How did this house happen?" Ruth Ann throws up her arms and looks around at the dingy gray carpet and poorly insulated walls. "I'm going to throw a rock at Victor while I tell you how this house happened."

The house happened, she explains, because although her comeback involved returning to Maryland, at the time she was still in Florida. A real estate agent identified a few houses; Victor, who lives in Montgomery County, looked at them, and she relied on his opinion.

"I have no comment," Victor says. "I'm not going to speak against my client's interest. That's all I'll say."

"What, are you kidding around or are you serious?" Ruth Ann asks. "Are you saying it's my fault that you rented me this house?"

"What I'm saying is that I was tasked one day to look at two townhouses. There was one that was not good. And there was this one. Between the two of them, I said this one was better than the other one," he says.

"I think this house is a dump," Ruth Ann says.

Dump is a relative term. The house is, however, a dump compared with the custom, two-acre Potomac home she lived in the last time she was in Montgomery County.

Ruth Ann Aron Green works with her lawyer, Victor Wainstein, at a rental home in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Photo for The Washington Post by Amanda Voisard
Ruth Ann Aron Green works with her lawyer, Victor Wainstein, at a rental home in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Photo for The Washington Post by Amanda Voisard

Before 1997, which is the way that she refers to everything that happened - "1997" or "the events of 1997" or "the troubled waters of 1997" - Ruth Ann Aron was a well-known name in the Washington area. A Cornell-educated New Yorker, she came to Maryland in the 1970s with her doctor husband and two young children, acquired a law degree at Catholic University and became a real estate developer. She completed several big deals.

In 1994, after winning a seat on the county planning board, she decided to run for Senate. Her campaign manager said she had been drafted by the National Republican Senatorial Committee: A self-made female millionaire was exactly the type of person who appealed to them. She was petite, with queenly features and impeccable style; a spitfire who attended target practice with the Montgomery County park police.

But the primaries got ugly. She was defeated by a fellow Republican, then sued him for what she said had been defamatory campaign ads. She lost, but her appeal dragged on for more than a year. It was June 1997 before word came down that Ruth Ann could have a new trial on the defamation case because of a judicial error. By then, acquaintances speculated that she was planning a political comeback; police said she was planning something else as well.

On June 9, Ruth Ann walked into the lobby of a local Marriott hotel carrying a manila envelope containing $500. She handed it to an attendant, the attendant later recalled, and the next day the headlines read, "Former Senate candidate arrested in murder for hire plot."

The case

When Ruth Ann's solicitation-for-murder trial came around, the emerging details only made the story stranger: Before the defamation case could go back to trial, Ruth Ann met with an acquaintance who owned a local landfill. She implied, he later said in court, that she wanted a certain witness from the case eliminated. The landfill owner went to law enforcement. Investigators outfitted him with a wire for his next meeting with Ruth Ann and gave him the phone number of an undercover detective who would pretend to be a hit man.

By the time Ruth Ann spoke with the supposed hit man, she had an addendum to her original wish. "There are two jobs," she was recorded saying. The first job was the defamation witness. The second job was Barry Aron, her husband of 32 years.

"You want a car accident?" the detective asked in one conversation.

"Yeah," she said.

"What about a suicide?"

"If it would pass muster," she agreed.

The case walked the line between absurd and tragic. In the Marriott, Ruth Ann - a woman accustomed to dressing properly for many occasions - wore a trench coat, a floppy hat and glasses, as if she had purchased a criminal-mastermind costume from a Halloween shop.

When arrested, she told a police officer "maybe I just lost it," the officer said. On a jail intake form she indicated that she had been a victim of domestic abuse, although this largely wasn't made a part of her defense. At her trial, Barry Aron testified that he had recently asked for a divorce, and he later told reporters that the couple had slept in separate bedrooms for years. (Barry Aron, through an attorney, declined to comment for this story).

Ruth Ann didn't take the stand on her own behalf. She says that she was overmedicated, on a cocktail of prescription drugs that had been given to her by her husband, and which caused her to have a psychotic break. She was barely aware of what she was doing when she made those calls, she says. Her attorneys ended up using an insanity defense, introducing psychiatrists as expert witnesses and arguing that Ruth Ann had been entrapped, encouraged to go further than she otherwise would have with the hit-man plot.

"You ever look through a kaleidoscope?" she now says. "That was my mind. My mind looked exactly like a kaleidoscope."

The judge declared a mistrial after a lone juror could not be persuaded that Ruth Ann was in her right mind and legally responsible for her actions. During her second trial, Ruth Ann pleaded no contest. In a no-contest plea, the defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges they will be sentenced for a crime. That plea, which she now says she did not fully understand, put her in prison for three years.

At the Montgomery County Detention Center and a pre-release facility where she served her time, staff members submitted updates on her progress. There seemed to be a chasm between how Ruth Ann understood her situation and how others did: "Ms. Aron struggled with adhering to the program's rules and generally manipulated the staff for personal gain," one staffer wrote. "She often portrayed herself as a victim ... and attempted to use past history and mental illness as excuses for her criminal behavior."

As her release date approached, Ruth Ann petitioned to get out early to attend her son's wedding in New York. "I have been a model inmate," she wrote. "Toiling long hours in the jail library helping others with their legal research needs."

After her release in 2000, she moved to New York and later to Florida, where she learned that serving her time and being embraced back into society were separate tasks.

"I always tried to live my life being very good to the people around me, and when I needed that very same quality it was nowhere in sight," Ruth Ann says.

She tried to join the Florida Citizen Police Academy in Palm Beach but was informed she could not. Her insurance carrier dropped her because, she was told in a letter, "solicitation of murder is demonstrative of behavior and judgment characteristics that present an increased and unacceptable risk of loss insured under our policies."

Twenty years of these frustrations led her to move back to Montgomery County last year, to this crummy townhouse, with piles of legal papers and boxes and boxes of the self-published books.

"This kitchen is a testament to my resiliency," she tells Victor, dragging a stepladder over to a cupboard to search for a cooking spice. "A testament to my willingness, even at this point in my life, to stand on ladders ... In no other kitchen would I have to go through this."

'She was a lawyer, a mother, a wife, a community activist'

On a Friday evening, Ruth Ann and Victor leave the townhouse. They go to Victor's house to celebrate Passover. Ruth Ann brings the chicken soup.

"The secret is that it needs a little bit of seltzer," she had confided while making the soup the afternoon before. "It makes the matzoh buoyant."

In any event, life goes on.

One potential outcome of her attorney's motion is that her case would go to trial again. And if it went to trial, Ruth Ann, a woman who had been free for more than a decade, who has the financial resources to live independently in Florida, to rent an additional townhouse in Maryland, to hire an attorney to fight her case, and hire a publicist to promote the book whose publishing she funded - one possibility is that Ruth Ann could be found guilty and go to prison again.

Why gamble?

"It's a question that only a person who has gone through what she has gone through can answer," Victor says one afternoon by telephone. "It's easy to say, 'Why don't you just move on, why don't you put this past you?' Maybe that's what another person feels like he would do. It speaks to how seriously and passionately she feels about what's happened to her."

There is no doubt that Ruth Ann is a complicated person, Victor says, or that she has lived a complicated life.

He acknowledges her past.

Ruth Ann's father was brutally murdered in a 1994 robbery gone awry while Ruth Ann was fighting for the Senate seat. They were not close. He had called her "cruel" and written her out of his will; in her trial, Ruth Ann's attorney claimed that her father had molested her.

Victor acknowledges her only son.

Her son, Joshua, was killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in his office on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center. She never got his body back, and her townhouse is filled with image after image of the handsome young man.

She is estranged from her daughter, Dana. In her memoir, in some of the sections that blame others for bad relationships, Ruth Ann is the one who inadvertently comes across as difficult. She doesn't have many friends.

But all of this, all of her, has become a footnote in a life that has been reduced to one day in June 1997. The events of 1997 have uncomplicated her life. They have made her life simple, because they have made her guilty, and her guilt overshadows everything else good and bad about eight decades of existence.

"There were all of these parts of her. She was a lawyer, a mother, a wife, a community activist," Victor says. "And then in 1997, those parts of her died."

There are so many other things in her life that cannot be undone, but - even if only by a legal, technical standard - maybe 1997 can.

'I never meant anything, I never pled anything, but I went to jail'

"Is the table in here?" Ruth Ann asks Victor a few days later, on an early Sunday morning outside of the townhouse. They are going to an outdoor book festival in Kensington, Maryland.

"The table is where it was," he says, nodding toward a card table waiting to be loaded into his SUV.

"Can you get it?" she asks. "Where is my pocketbook?" She disappears into the house and returns a few minutes later - not with her pocketbook, but with a crate containing a jar of candy that she hopes will draw people to her table at the book festival, and two red, white and blue pinwheels.

"Here are two pinwheels,' she says. "I thought they would blow if we had a breeze, and if not, we could just blow on them."

They get in the car and drive toward Kensington.

They hope this event goes better than the one the day before in Annapolis. The audience consisted of one former business acquaintance and one reporter from a local newspaper who had been sent to cover the reading but did not seem to know exactly who Ruth Ann was. Eventually Ruth Ann stood up in the middle of the room and started reading the first chapter as a coffee grinder whirred in the background and a clerk wove past her, reshelving books. She did not introduce herself as a person who went to jail for hiring a hit man. She did not explain that she was infamous.

When asked by the reporter for more detail about her past, she said: "I'd rather not get into the whole story, but basically my mind imploded and my husband ended up putting me in jail. I never meant anything, I never pled anything, but I went to jail."

At the Kensington festival, she unloads the table and the pinwheels and the books, which a few days earlier her publisher confirmed now contained the missing chapters. Other authors have tents and tablecloths and big, polished displays.

"Would you like some candy?" she asks a passing child, gesturing to the plastic candy bin. To her mother, she asked, "Can she have some candy?"

The little girl chooses a mini Butterfinger but does not say thank you. "You're welcome," Ruth Ann says.

A couple of hours pass. No books have been sold. Ruth Ann sends Victor off in search of a coconut ice.

Eventually a woman walks by the table. She stops. She looks. She takes a few steps backward and then comes over.

"Well, what do you know?" the woman says. "You're Ruthann Aron."

"Yes," Ruth Ann says.

"Weren't you accused of killing your husband or something?"

"No," Ruth Ann says. "No, he's very much alive."

The woman shakes her head. "I can't even remember the whole story. But I would have thought I'd hear something about you getting out of jail."

"That's because you don't know the whole story. The real story," Ruth Ann says.

She picks up a copy of the book and offers it to the woman, who doesn't take it and moves on to the next table. Ruth Ann holds the book for a few more minutes before putting it down again.

- Washington Post

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