What Would You Do?
I Was on Ruthann Aron’s Hit List
By: John Edwards Harrison
Sunday, March 8, 1998
Our family was in Florida. We were staying in a nice Holiday Inn near West Palm Beach. It was June. We’d just had a good breakfast. The sun was shining. So I was curious, but not worried, when I took a telephone call from a woman identifying herself as an assistant state’s attorney for Montgomery County, Maryland.
“Mr. Harrison,” she asked on that day last year, “Are you the attorney Harrison who had a case a few years ago with Ruthann Aron?”
“Yes,” I said. “But who are you?”
“My name is Savage,” she said. “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.” Bad news? My mind recycled to another phone call six years before when I was told that my oldest daughter had been killed by a drunk driver. In the fraction of a second pause between my words and hers, everything shifted into slow motion. Who could be dead, I thought, looking out the open door of the room and seeing one of my children jumping into the crystal blue swimming pool, laughing all the way.
“Well, it appears that Ms. Aron may have been trying to kill you, or to have someone kill you.”
In case you haven’t guessed yet, this is indeed the same Ruthann Aron now on trial in Montgomery County, Maryland charged with attempting to hire a hit man to kill her husband and a lawyer. But when I received this phone call, word of her arrest had not gotten to me.
The prosecutor’s news, compared with what was going through my head, was good news. Only someone who has received one of those awful calls can know, or feel, or understand, how happy I was to learn that this time, it was only about someone who might be trying to kill me.
Savage told me of Aron’s arrest that morning. She told me that my name was on what authorities believed to be a “hit list” found in her car, along with a silencer, and that they had found a number of automatic weapons, including a military style, assault weapon of hers, and several how-to books on assassination and making silencers.
I suppose I should have felt immediately afraid, but I didn’t. After all, the Montgomery County Police had found out about Aron’s murderous plans and she was in custody. What did I have to worry about?
Plenty, Savage suggested.
She pointed out that Aron may have hired more than one “hit man.” She asked me what I knew about Aron — wife, businesswoman, politician. I told her that I had had one case against her about a decade ago; that she was the most calculating woman I had ever met; that she really planned ahead; and that no matter what happened, she always had a plan and a fall-back plan.
Savage’s parting comment was chilling. She asked me to keep her name and telephone number in my pocket so that if anything bad happened to me, it could be immediately linked with Aron by investigators.
Put yourself in my situation. You’ve been told someone may be out to kill you and that it’s not a joke. How do you protect yourself? What do you do?
I began to think about the threat more seriously, but as it happened though we were on our way to Disney World (really). And, as it happens, Disney World is about as good a place as any to hide since it is hard not to be anonymous there. Like everyone else, we had three kids and two cameras, wore sandels, shorts and colorful T-shirts. A hit man would be hard-pressed to find us in that happy crowd
However, my devil-may-care attitude faded fast when we arrived home in Washington, D. C. and I listened to the 22 messages on my answering machine. The arrest of one-time Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ruthann Aron had hit the news big time.
The first eight messages were supposed to be funny. They had been left after Aron’s arrest but before any public mention of my name. They were from friends who knew that I’d handled a case against Aron and they were harassing me for not having made her final cut.
Then news reports had come out saying that I was on Aron’s hit list. The humorous messages stopped and were replaced by messages of concern. (“Are you all right?”) Jokes changed to pleas to call back immediately
Later, I learned that Aron habitually roamed her expansive Potomac, Maryland home with a loaded automatic pistol strapped to her hip, in quick-draw, cowboy style. News reports described her unconventional but long-term fascination with guns (she owned several), and her very accurate marksmanship that came from practicing regularly with the Montgomery County police pistol team at a local pistol range.
It feels silly to even write the words “hit list” but that’s what I had been told it was. She was not charged with hiring a hit man to kill me because for some reason at the last minute she substituted her husband’s name on the list she gave to the undercover officer who was posing as a hit man
The case I had tried against Ruthann Aron had been concluded almost 10 years before. Eventually she had to pay back several hundred thousand dollars to my client. The only unusual aspect of the case was that the jury had chosen to believe that she had taken money from her partner on the testimony of a man previously convicted of nineteen counts of fraud
I talked to friends about what they thought I should do. One, a trusts and estates lawyer, asked me if my will was up to date. He wasn’t kidding, though he immediately apologized for the question, which was a good one. So I got a new will. That’s $500 Aron has cost me so far.
Then I went on “Fox Morning News” with Lark McCarthy. As I was leaving the studio, I heard a news segment reporting that a security guard at those very studios in Northwest Washington that I was in had been attacked in broad daylight; a security guard. That was just before a D.C. police officer was gunned down in his police cruiser. Who’s safe?
Go price a bodyguard. With benefits, they cost $40,000 or $50,000 a year, per guard, and you would need at least four guards to cover three shifts of a 24-hour day. With overtime, that’s a cool quarter of a million dollars a year. That only gives you one guard at a time. Several very good guards were not enough to shield President Reagan. If John Hinckley, a certified nut case, could put a bullet into Reagan and another into a Secret Service agent, in broad daylight, in spite of the best protection in the world, what could I really do to protect my family or myself
When I returned from Disney World, I went over to the Montgomery County state’s attorney’s office to talk about what I knew. They showed me the “hit list.” I had not known that my home address was on it. I suppose she wanted me killed right in front of my family. For the first time, I got really angry.
Even if I could legally own a gun for protection, and get a permit to carry it in the District of Columbia, no courthouse would let me bring one to work. But a courthouse is where I do my legal work. My bodyguard, assuming I could afford one, couldn’t carry a gun into a courthouse, either.
What about my law practice and my clients? Would I have to argue their cases from behind a bulletproof shield, or by long-distance telephone? You can tell where I’m going to be at any given time pretty much by looking at a few docket sheets publicly posted in various courthouses. Could I tell my clients that I was going to become their “phantom lawyer”?
All I could think to do was worry and stuff Savage’s name and phone number into my back pocket. Small comfort.
I read a couple of newspaper columns that were meant to be humorous. The general tenor was that two lawyers dead was at worst a good start. At about that time, another friend pointed out that possibly the reason I was not among those she had asked the undercover Montgomery County police officer to kill was that she was probably saving me to do all by herself. He suggested that’s what the M-16 that was in her car was for when she was arrested. He laughed.
I suppose these columns and comments might have seemed funny to me under other circumstances. But my kids and my wife did not see any humor at all in Ruthann Aron, or in people who think real stories about people trying to kill lawyers are funny. The worst thing of all was explaining to our children why daddy’s name was in the news — without terrifying them.
“She is a bad guy,” satisfied the 4-year-old. But my two older children, particularly my 18-year-old daughter, required somewhat longer explanations.
All of this, I supposed, was at least partly academic as long as Aron was in jail awaiting trial. But in November 1997, she was released from a state psychiatric hospital and allowed to live in the Silver Spring home of a new friend she had met at the psychiatric hospital. After they argued, Aron was asked to leave. She moved to the home of one of her attorney’s secretaries. Later, she asked for and received permission from the court to be allowed to live, unsupervised, in her own Potomac home, pending trial. She has an electronic bracelet and must stay near her phone, except when she is visiting her lawyers or doctors or when she is on the six hours of unsupervised “personal errands” that were approved for every week until trial.
When I heard she had been released on bail, I remember hoping that all of her guns had been removed from her home and that she did not pick up any more guns on one of those “personal errands.”
Her release on bail still makes no sense to me. A friend of mine who handles criminal cases told me hardly anyone charged with solicitation to commit murder is released on bail, for obvious reasons. It seemed to me this would be particularly true with a person, as Aron was, charged with hiring a hit man to kill witnesses.
Even before she pled it, many believed that Aron must be insane. I think because most people do not understand the nature of an insanity plea, that there was an almost reflexive belief in her claim that she is insane. These people find it hard to believe that a sane, 55-year-old, wealthy, Potomac resident, doctor’s wife, mother of two, would try to kill her husband and a lawyer or two. They find it hard to believe that a well-educated, female, lawyer really made up a hit list and tried to hire a hitman. They want to believe that “one of us” couldn’t be a killer. Since these little fictions make them feel safer, they can not bring themselves to believe that Ruthann Aron is sane.
An African American friend says this is all unconscious racism. He says that if Aron were black, they would all say she was guilty as hell and Aron would be in jail, perhaps under the jail, until a trial was concluded. I think he has a point
On the one hand, Aron is claiming to be so insane that she is not responsible for trying to hire a hit man to kill people. On the other hand, she has already convinced the judge trying her case that she is sane enough to stay free on bond. I find this at best, strange.
If, in fact, she is correct in her insanity defense, since it is based on the idea that she does not know the difference between right and wrong, she is a danger to everyone. If she is not crazy, then she has admitted to trying to have at least two men killed, one because he was a witness against her in a court case and one who is the father of her two children. With a trial pending, it seems to me that any sane judge would have wanted all the witnesses to feel they could testify in safety and thus would have kept her locked up. Either way, I figured all along she would be in jail at least until the conclusion of the trial. Obviously, I was wrong.
So, once again, imagine that a serious person calls you one day and tells you that someone, perhaps even a professional killer, was trying to kill you. What do you do? What can you do?
Sadly, not much, except carry around a state attorney’s telephone number and hope for a police department as good as Montgomery County’s.
John Edwards Harrison is an Alexandria lawyer.
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The Rest of the Story (https://johneharrison.wordpress.com/2014/06/03/the-rest-of-the-story/) tells what happened at Ruthann Aron’s trial and the aftermath.