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Deadly Triangle
Arlen and Elsa Were Getting Divorced--and Battling Over Custody of the Kids. Suddenly There Were Allegations of Sex Abuse, and Elizabeth Morgan Was Involved. Then, Police Say, Elsa's Best Friend Walked Into Arlen's Bedroom in the Middle of the Night and S By Harry Jaffe, Cindy Rich
Comments () | Published June 1, 2002

AS A LIGHT SNOW FELL IN THE EARLY-MORNING DARKNESS of Monday, January 7, an intruder slipped through the basement window of a split-level home in Bethesda. A black ski mask covered the middle-aged woman's hair and face. She was wearing latex gloves and holding a nine-millimeter pistol. Two bullets were in the clip. She dropped a small pack below the basement window and made her way to the master bedroom.

There Arlen Slobodow lay sleeping in the queen bed. His son Lars, age five, awakened by a nightmare, had climbed into his father's bed and now too was asleep. Slobodow, deaf in one ear, didn't hear the intruder, but he felt someone climb onto the bed and try to push him off onto the floor. He first thought he was having a dream. Then he thought it might be his other son, who slept in the next room.

"Herbie," he said, "is that you?"

Then he heard a bang. And another. He smelled gunpowder and felt a sharp pain in his right leg. He struggled with the person and pulled off the ski mask. He was looking at his wife's best friend.

"Margie," he asked, "are you trying to kill me in front of my kids?"

The gunshots woke Herbie, age eight, who came into the master bedroom. He saw his father knocking a gun from the intruder's hand. In the darkness he heard a woman's voice. Through the smoke he saw his godmother.

"Aunt Margie," Herbie asked, "why are you fighting?"

Slobodow attempted to reach for the telephone. The woman grabbed the phone and began hitting him with it.

"She shot me," his father said. "Call 911."

"Go back to your rooms," the woman told the children. "Leave the phone alone." She then walked out.

The first bullet had hit Slobodow above the knee and shattered a bone. He was bleeding heavily.

He crawled into the kitchen and reached up for a cell phone. The intruder pounced on him and stuck her fingers in his mouth. He bit down with all his might; she pulled her hand away. He couldn't get a dial tone, so he crawled into the dining room, picked up another phone, dialed 911, and got through.

"I got shot in the leg twice," he told the dispatcher.

"Okay, by who?"

"Margery Landry."

"How do you know her?"

"Please get me an ambulance." He gave his address.

"Okay, where is she at now?"

"I don't know. Somewhere in the house. It's hard for me to move."

"Okay, we're on the way. What is your name, sir?"

"Arlen Slobodow. She's trying to get custody of my two kids. They witnessed the whole thing. And she's, uh--she's a friend of my soon-to-be ex-wife. There's a gun in the house. She might still be here. Please get here."

"Okay, we're on the way. Just hold on one sec. You said she's still there?"

"She may or may not be. I can hardly move."

"Is that her in the background?"

"Those are my kids crying."

"There's two kids there?"

The intruder had slipped away through the basement window, leaving a trail of blood.

POLICE ARRIVED AT ARLEN SLOBODOW'S HOME A FEW MINutes after his call. An ambulance rushed Slobodow to Suburban Hospital, where surgeons inserted a rod in his femur. One officer was stationed outside his room. Others took the children to the hospital to see that their father was okay, then took them to a neighbor's while family members were called.

A few hours later, police staked out a white clapboard house just off River Road. At about 7:30 Margery Lemb Landry walked down the front steps to her car, presumably to drive to the State Department, where she worked for the office of children's issues in the Bureau of Consular Affairs. Police could see that her finger was bleeding.

Officers arrested her, secured her wrists in plastic cuffs behind her back, and put her in a cruiser for the ride to the police station in downtown Bethesda.

Landry's cell phone was on a detective's desk when it started ringing at 1:12 PM. Police tracked the call to Elsa Newman, Arlen Slobodow's wife of nearly 12 years and mother of Lars and Herbie. It was one of five calls Newman made to Landry that day. The earliest had been at 6:55 AM--half an hour before Landry's arrest.

On Thursday, three days after the shooting, police arrested Elsa Newman and charged her with conspiracy to commit murder.

Both Newman and Landry would plead not guilty. The women were ordered held without bail. They are in the Montgomery County Detention Center awaiting trials expected to be held later this summer.

ARLEN SLOBODOW AND HIS SONS ARE BACK HOME, TRYING to go about their routines. He gets the boys up and off to school every morning, then works at home running his video company. He nurses his shattered leg, fetches the boys from school, ferries them to drama and soccer practice and to therapy, feeds them dinner, and puts them to bed at night.

Herbie and Lars are doing well at Bannockburn Elementary School, according to Slobodow. Herbie is imaginative and considerate, and he's making friends. Lars loves to draw and play soccer.

Meanwhile, the lawyers, detectives, social workers, and psychologists who played roles in the two-year battle leading up to the night of gunfire ask how a divorce case could careen so far out of control. They are used to parents who wage war over young children. But an early-morning intruder wearing a ski mask and carrying a nine-millimeter pistol?

The drama began when Elsa Newman started reporting that her sons had accused their father of sexually abusing them. The allegations triggered more than half a dozen investigations in DC and Montgomery County and one by the FBI. Not one turned up any evidence or witnesses to corroborate the allegations in court.

Newman persisted, claiming that investigators were incompetent or biased. She enlisted allies, finding a notable name in Elizabeth Morgan, the Chevy Chase cosmetic surgeon who went to jail in 1987 rather than disclose the whereabouts of her daughter, who she said had been sexually abused by her husband.

Newman also attracted support from Joan Pitkin, a Maryland delegate from Prince George's County, and from Justice for Children, a national advocacy organization.

Did Elsa Newman convince her friend Margery Landry to try to kill her husband?

"How far do you go to protect your children if you believe they are getting hurt?" asks Stephen Friedman, a high-profile attorney Newman hired and fired twice. "When do you take the law into your own hands?"

Friedman was the first to make public Elsa Newman's threats to kill her husband. He did so in court--four months before the shooting.

ONE AFTERNOON IN MARCH, THE AUTHORS DRIVE TO THE Montgomery County Detention Center, a maximum-security jail in Rockville. We go through one set of bars and another, then through narrow hallways past more guards to a whitewashed cinder-block room, where we meet Elsa Dorothy Newman.

She's slight and fragile, with light-blue eyes and a sweet smile. She clutches a book of psalms given to her by a rabbi who visits her often. We have made arrangements to avoid the regular visiting routine of talking through thick glass under guard. Instead we are left alone in the room, which is furnished with a table and plastic chairs.

We sit down opposite Newman and her second criminal-defense attorney, David Schertler. A few weeks later she would fire him and hire Barry Helfand, who would arrange a second interview in the jail. It is unusual for a defense attorney to allow a client to be interviewed before trial, but Newman convinced both lawyers to permit the sessions.

Newman spent her first days behind bars in a room usually reserved for inmates with mental problems. The lights were on 24 hours.

"It was a nightmare," she says. "I kept thinking I was going to wake up. I still think that."

Then she was moved into the general population, where she tutors some of her new companions and plays a little basketball. She talks on the phone a lot, though calls are limited to 15 minutes, and she has to ask people to accept a collect call from jail. She has had cellmates, most of whom were in for drug arrests. More than a few were lesbians, but it's "not my thing," she says. She advises inmates on legal matters. They commiserate with her about the evils of sexual abuse.

Now she's in the permanent block with her own cell. "It's F-2, the roughest cellblock, for people who are here for a while," she says.

She wakes up at 5 AM and begins a busy day. "I pray, exercise, meditate, draw, write," she says. "I'm writing a story for my sons: The Exciting, Scary and Silly Adventures of Bunjo and Lucky, about a turtle and a dragon."

Newman called The Washingtonian half a dozen times to arrange this meeting. She wants people to see her side, why she is in jail, how she will overcome, her good humor, her spirit, her patience, her love and devotion to her sons.

She turns and smiles at a guard through the window.

"God never gives us anything we can't handle," she says. "I have kids. I know I can get through this, and they can, too. We need faith and patience. Wrongs are sorted out."

ELSA NEWMAN WAS BORN AND RAISED IN A SUBURB OF Philadelphia. She idolized her father, Morris, who was in the printing business. He and his wife, Rose, had two children, a girl and a boy, before Elsa was born. The son died in a car accident. Then they had Elsa. Morris died 15 years ago. Rose lives in Florida and has been paying her younger daughter's legal bills.

Newman says she was a Girl Scout and shows us photos of herself on horseback. She went to Goucher in Baltimore, then a women's college, and got a law degree from the University of Maryland. She describes herself as an observant Jew.

During the interview, Newman grips and rolls her writing implement. Inmates are given only the insides of a ballpoint pen--the tip and the thin plastic tube of ink. She's learned to wrap paper around the tube and hold it together with rubber bands. She wears a blue prison uniform with metal snaps. "We're lucky," she says. "Some places have orange."

Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail and held by a rubber band. "No makeup, no hair brush," she says, laughing. "That's hard."

The smiling ends when discussion turns to the charges she faces and her own charges that her ex-husband sexually and physically abused their sons. She will not spell out any of the allegations that she brought to the attention of authorities. She says only that Arlen Slobodow was not involved in raising the boys, a view that he and others dispute. "He was rough with them" is all she says.

Why, we ask, have the investigations of sexual abuse found nothing to support the allegations? Why did not one person testify during custody hearings in support of the charges?

"They were highly influenced by court personnel," she says. "They painted me as some kind of vindictive mother who wanted to do something ridiculous and crazy.

"I believe my children," she says.

Did she conspire to kill the father of her boys?

"No," she says. "That's not at all what I want."

Did Margery Lemb Landry shoot Arlen Slobodow?

"I don't believe she would do anything stupid," Newman says.

We ask again at the second interview.

"I don't know what happened," she says. "I don't know what transpired one way or another."

We point out that Landry left a trail of blood, and there are three eyewitnesses, two of them her sons. They say that Landry was in the bedroom and fired the gun near one of the boys. Does that make her angry?

"I can't go there," she says. "I can't imagine that. I can't believe she would put those children in any danger."

ELSA NEWMAN MET MARGERY LEMB--NOW MARGERY Lemb Landry--at Goucher College in the early 1970s. They roomed together their freshman year and have remained inseparable.

Lemb was born in New York, Newman says, but her parents moved to Montoursville, Pennsylvania, to raise her and her younger sister. Lemb's father was an engineer, her mother a teacher. Margery Lemb Landry declined repeated requests for interviews.

"We were just friends--women friends," says Newman. "There was a group of us that were friendly from Goucher."

After graduation, Lemb worked for the Maryland state government and often visited Newman, who, after receiving her law degree, lived in Harrisburg, where she was a labor lawyer for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The two were at a bar in Harrisburg one night in 1978 when Newman met Scott Silverstine, a businessman. They dated and married the next year. Margery Lemb visited the couple often. Contacted for this story, Silverstine says, "Living with Elsa was like living in a cage." They separated in 1981 and divorced; there were no children. Newman says Silverstine called often in attempts to reconcile. He says he was relieved by the divorce and hasn't communicated with Newman since.

In 1980, Margery Lemb got a job with the Department of State and moved to Washington. Newman got a job with the Department of Labor and also moved to DC. The pair bought a condominium off Logan Circle and moved in.

Asked whether she and Lemb had a romantic relationship, Newman replies, "I don't even want to dignify that with a response."

While they lived on Logan Circle, Lemb was sometimes posted abroad. Lemb was in Thailand in 1988 when Newman met Arlen Slobodow.

THEY MET WHILE PLAYING SOFTBALL ON A JEWISH COM-munity Center team. "I was playing center field," Slobodow says. "I would throw the ball to her. She was playing second base or shortstop. I helped her with her swing."

Slobodow winces as he places his metal crutch off to the side and takes a seat in his lawyer's conference room. It has been months since the nighttime intruder shot him in the leg. He walks with a limp. He's taking OxyContin to control the pain. He has canceled two previous interviews because Lars was running a fever, which he then passed to Herbie.

With his mustache, goatee, and metal-rimmed glasses, Arlen Slobodow resembles a young Vladimir Lenin. He comes across as soft-spoken, deliberate, and calm.

While he and Elsa Newman were dating, they took a trip to the Far East and stopped in Thailand to meet Elsa's friend Margery. Lemb took a few days off work to be with them. The couple stayed a week, and the two women talked a lot.

"It was clear how close they were," he says. He came away thinking that Lemb was "polished and intelligent."

Slobodow was born in Brooklyn and went to grade school in Queens. His father was a sanitation worker, his mother a homemaker. The only one of four siblings to go to college, Slobodow got a degree in economics from the State University of New York at Albany in 1973.

He moved to Washington and started down a path of liberal activism, first in the Department of Labor, then through a public-policy master's program at George Washington University, then at the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In 1980 he left government and got involved in radio programming and making video documentaries. One--Your Water, Your Life--was hosted by Susan Sarandon; it and two others were aired on public television. He called his company Public Interest Video.

He lived in group houses on Washington Circle and Capitol Hill, then lived with a girlfriend in Glover Park before buying a house in Petworth, off Georgia Avenue.

Newman and Slobodow shared interests in travel and film and music. They dated for about a year before he moved in with her.

In 1990 Slobodow asked Newman to marry him. About 80 guests came to the wedding at Strathmore Hall in North Bethesda. Lemb flew in from Thailand to attend.

SLOBODOW SAYS THE FIRST TWO YEARS OF THE MARRIAGE were usually calm. The couple bought a house on Overbrook Road, off River Road just across the DC line in Bethesda. They busied themselves fixing up the house.

"It was a new experience for me," says Slobodow of being married. "It was not always smooth."

It became less smooth, he says, when Margery Lemb returned to Washington a few years later. He and his wife tried to fix Lemb up on dates. The women seemed to be involved in every facet of one another's lives. They spent hours together in the house or talking on the phone.

"They were too close," he says. "It seemed bizarre."

He says he tried to talk to his wife about his concerns, but "there were some things she could not be talked to about." He says Newman's mother had similar concerns.

The marriage improved when Herbie was born in May 1993. "Things eased up a bit," says Slobodow. "It was better for a couple of years." Lars was born in March 1996.

FOR A NEIGHBORHOOD SET IN THE ELBOW OF TWO BUSY thoroughfares, River Road and Western Avenue, the community around Overbrook Road is contained and cozy. It has narrow, winding streets and yards with play equipment. It was full of children.

"We rarely saw their kids outside," says Barbara Knopf, who lives across the street. "One neighbor saw them once playing in the backyard and thought they were visiting."

By all accounts, Elsa Newman encouraged her kids to take sports and music lessons, and she took them to concerts and plays. But she was also protective. A family with children moved in across the street, and Herbie and Lars were invited over to play. Newman found out, retrieved them, and marched them home, according to Slobodow. When neighbors did see Herbie and Lars, they would be walking hand in hand with their father. "When they came around on Halloween," Knopf says, "Arlen would bring them."

Newman had a knack for alienating people, Slobodow says. "She would find something missing and accuse someone of stealing it. I was her enforcer. We went through childcare workers like water."

Margery Lemb was a constant presence in the house. Slobodow says Newman would ask Lemb to do chores, like rake leaves. The women sometimes would argue. Slobodow says he saw Newman slap Lemb more than once.

Slobodow felt his marriage deteriorating. He found himself putting more emphasis on his work and the children. Yet he could salvage the marriage if he could get Newman away from Lemb. Newman quit her job and started working part-time for her husband's video company. "We had a nice house, a nice community," he says. "My job allowed her not to work. Things were not that hard for her."

Still, Slobodow acknowledges that he sometimes yelled at his wife and cursed in frustration at their marriage problems. "I'm not a saint," he said. Elsa Newman, sitting in her prison blues, goes much further.

"In the marriage there was abuse," she says, lowering her eyes. "Physically and verbally. He tried to strangle me. I was holding one of the babies, and he pushed me down the stairs. Police came. I never told anyone. I wanted to stay married, thought the clouds would clear and get better."

Slobodow says the abuse is fiction.

Through it all, Lemb often was there.

Says Barbara Knopf: "For years we thought Margery and Elsa were sisters."

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIALS IN LONDON had the same impression. Margery Lemb was posted there in the summer of 1998. A month after she moved into State Department housing in Hampstead, Elsa Newman and the two boys moved into the same flat.

For Newman it was a chance to see if she could be successful on her own. She hoped to get a job as a lawyer in London. She considered it time away, she says, not a separation. Slobodow says he was "not happy" when his wife took the boys to London, but because he traveled in his own work, he figured he'd be able to visit often, which he did for weeks at a time.

According to State Department officials, Lemb represented herself as Newman's sister. To everyone in the building, she was the boys' Aunt Margie. "They created a fictional world," says a London neighbor.

Newman tells us she lived in her own apartment and never held herself out as Margery's sister, but State Department officials and neighbors say otherwise. The two women and the boys settled into Lemb's apartment but found it too small, so Lemb lobbied for more space for her and her "family." Based on this supposed connection to Lemb, Newman was given official embassy identification.

Newman tried to find work. She enrolled Herbie, then five, at the American School in London, but in the type of conflict that would become a pattern, Newman fought with school officials to the point that they complained about her to the embassy.

There were more-serious complaints. When the renter of a condo Newman owned in Philadelphia received a threatening letter on embassy stationery, he wrote to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Investigators who looked into the matter found that Newman and Lemb were not related. *

The investigative report sent to the State Department Office of Inspector General mentioned ethically questionable acts, "a pattern of deceit," and possible fraud. Officials confronted Lemb with the allegations and curtailed her assignment overseas.

Lemb got married in London just before her return to the United States. She had met John Landry on a ski trip the winter before she left Washington, according to Slobodow. Landry, in his early fifties, is a civilian worker for the Defense Department.

Slobodow says Lemb broke up with Landry before she left for London, then changed her mind and asked him to fly there and marry her. The wedding was held on April 1, 1999. Elsa Newman was the maid of honor. Arlen Slobodow gave a toast during a boat party on a London canal.

"Only fools fall in love," he said.

ELSA NEWMAN DESCRIBES THE LONDON interlude as a turning point. She says she felt liberated from her husband. She realized she could live without him.

That summer Newman and the boys moved to a flat, and she told her husband that she wanted to extend her stay in London.

Slobodow's reply: "Come home in August or I will file for divorce."

When she returned from London, she says, her husband became "increasingly abusive and violent in front of the children." The couple argued over money.

Slobodow says his wife teamed up with Margery Lemb Landry to provoke him, but it didn't work. He says they trumped up arguments and called police, who responded but left when they saw no evidence of trouble. Slobodow began to move more of his life into the basement--he added his sleeping quarters to his office--and spent less and less time at home.

Without telling her husband, Newman contacted divorce lawyers and began emptying their investment accounts and transferring the funds to Landry, according to Slobodow's attorney and documents filed in the case.

In December 1999, Slobodow moved to a townhouse on Capitol Hill. Through his attorney, Stacy Blondes, he sent his wife a letter asking for a divorce and shared custody of the children; they would live with her but visit him on alternate weekends and one day a week. Though Newman did not respond, Slobodow furnished a room in his townhouse for the boys and filled it with toys.

Back from London, Margery and John Landry started looking for a house close to Newman and the boys. They moved around the corner from the house on Overbrook Road and set up a room in their house for Herbie and Lars.

BOTH NEWMAN AND SLOBODOW FILED for divorce in December 1999. Newman sued on the grounds of "cruelty of treatment." Her campaign against Slobodow began.

First she charged him with physical abuse and got an ex-parte order--granted automatically when such charges are filed--keeping him away from the family home. Slobodow says Newman fabricated the charges of abuse. When the temporary ex-parte order expired, he and Newman signed a consent order that Slobodow would stay away from the house.

Newman agreed that Slobodow could have the boys on Saturday afternoons, but she often came up with reasons why they could not be with their father. He didn't have the right bed linens; he didn't have a car seat; he had never put them to bed at night. Slobodow says he would call to talk with the boys, but Newman wouldn't answer the phone. The couple was at an impasse.

The circuit court assigned Charles Cockerill, a family-division master, to hear both sides and resolve the custody dispute.

Cockerill took testimony on April 4, 2000. Newman described Slobodow's relationship with the boys as weak and erratic but made no mention of abusive behavior. She acknowledged that he had taught Herbie to ride a bike. When his turn came, Slobodow said he was a caring father who had changed diapers and sung his boys to sleep and played with them often. He backed up his testimony with two witnesses. Barbara Knopf, the neighbor, testified that she had seen Arlen and the boys walking hand in hand. Kevin Patrick, his employee, testified that while he was working with Slobodow in the Overbrook Road basement from August to December 1999, the children would come down to play with their father. Newman, Patrick said, would come down and scream at Slobodow, once yelling that he had stolen her mail.

Cockerill said he found Slobodow's testimony "far more credible and convincing" than Newman's about his relationship with their children.

"In summary," Cockerill wrote, "the Master finds that the father has been an active, involved parent. . . . The Master further finds that it is in the best interests of the children to have substantially greater contact with their father than they have been having."

Cockerill ordered joint custody. The boys would live with Newman but spend every other weekend and every Tuesday with their father.

"Then it started to get ugly," says Slobodow's attorney, Stacy Blondes.

SLOBODOW SAYS NEWMAN AND LANDRY tried on many occasions to incite him to attack them. Before he moved out of the Overbrook house, they would enter the basement while he was working and taunt him. Margery Landry would bump into him and accuse him of hitting her. Occasionally they would call police, who would come and talk and leave. Landry filed six charges of second-degree assault against Slobodow. At an April 10 hearing in Montgomery County District Court, he was cleared of all charges.

Newman says that on Saturday, May 20, 2000, when Slobodow arrived to pick up the children, he shoved her as he tried to get in the door to grab one of his sons' ice skates. He left with the boys. She says she called her attorney, Steve Friedman, who told her to call the police. She told police she had a protective order against Slobodow, filled out an arrest warrant, and told them when he would return.

When he did, they arrested him on charges of violating the protective order. No such order existed, but Slobodow spent the weekend in jail before a judge could dismiss the charges and free him.

ELSA NEWMAN HAD QUICKLY GONE through two lawyers. Friedman, a tall, flamboyant attorney with a mane of white hair and bright blue eyes, was her third. Known as one of the more aggressive lawyers in Maryland, he thrives on contentious, high-profile cases. He represented Barry Aron in the case against his wife, Ruthann, who was convicted of plotting the murder of her husband and another man. In custody cases, Friedman often makes an all-out attack on the opposing parent.

Friedman applied his scorched-earth approach to Newman v. Slobodow. In an April 2000 letter to Slobodow's attorney, he said that Slobodow "loathes his wife" because she would no longer live with his "abusive conduct," which included "handling the children roughly and crudely since this is really the only way he could hurt Ms. Newman." Friedman made Slobodow an offer: Split the marital assets and pay no child support in return for giving Newman total control over visitation.

Slobodow rejected the offer.

Newman still had raised no allegations of sexual abuse.

THAT JUNE--WITH THE BOYS BEGINning to shuttle between Newman in Bethesda and Slobodow on Capitol Hill--Newman says her sons started accusing Slobodow of playing too rough with them. She says they told her that he tickled them in their private parts.

"I couldn't believe it," she says. "I disbelieved it."

She won't say exactly what they said, but she insinuates that they told her Slobodow was hurting them. She says she related the boys' reports to her pediatrician and mentioned them to her lawyer. Friedman filed a motion calling Cockerill's visitation recommendations "clearly erroneous" and "committed in error."

He included the only two pieces of evidence ever introduced in public court records that Arlen Slobodow might have done anything that could be construed as abuse of his children. One was a report from a teacher at the British School, a private school in Northwest DC that the boys were attending. One of the boys' teachers, who spoke daily with Elsa Newman, wrote that Herbie described his father as a "bad man" and "dreads" his Saturday visits and that his father tickled him in his private parts.

Friedman's motion also included a note allegedly scrawled by Herbie in April 2000 in which he wrote that his dad was mean to him, was nice to Lars, tickled "my privits," and punched and kicked his face. According to teachers, his face never showed any sign of bruising. Slobodow says the note does not resemble Herbie's handwriting, and when he asked his son whether he had written it, Herbie said no.

Friedman's motion also included as fact Newman's allegation that Herbie had said Slobodow had told him "he was going to burn the house down and kill his mother."

Despite Friedman's request for a delay in full-scale visitations, the court granted Slobodow alternate weekends and one weekday night with his sons, which is what he had asked for before the divorce was filed. Newman and Slobodow signed an agreement on June 22 that the court-ordered visits would begin.

THE NEXT DAY, MONTGOMERY COUNTY received the first allegation that Slobodow had hit his sons.

The names of sources who report child-abuse allegations are confidential, as are most facets of the investigations that follow, but many elements of the charges and investigations in this case have come to light in court documents and interviews.

Elsa Newman rarely made the initial reports herself. Steve Friedman says he instructed her always to have a third party contact police or social-service agencies. Newman says it was Friedman who told her the boys' reports sounded like examples of abuse by their father. "I didn't encourage her to report the abuse," he says, "but I did everything to help her vet it."

The first allegation came from Dr. Jill Scharff, a psychiatrist who was treating Lars and Herbie. By law, doctors must report allegations of abuse to authorities. Scharff notified Montgomery County Child Protective Services that, while in therapy, the boys had reported a range of abusive behaviors by their father.

A social worker interviewed Lars and Herbie in Rockville. She wanted to talk to them alone, but Elsa Newman insisted on being in the room, presented the accusations, and tried to control the interview, Slobodow says the social worker told him. He was also called in for an interview. "I never went with an attorney," he says. "I knew it was a crock of shit."

This first allegation of abuse was ruled out.

NEXT CAME AN ALLEGATION OF SEXual abuse.

On June 27, Slobodow was scheduled to have his first weekday visit with his sons. He prepared dinner and led an evening of homework and games at his townhouse on Capitol Hill. "It was hectic, but we had a great time," he says.

The next day the DC Police Department received a report that Slobodow had sexually abused the children. The report was investigated by Detective Elisa Brown, who works in the division that specializes in child abuse. She interviewed the boys and Newman and Slobodow. She went to Slobodow's house to see if the boys' stories were plausible. When she told Newman there was no evidence of abuse, Newman was furious, Brown told coworkers.

The charge was ruled "unfounded."

Detective Brown later told Slobodow's attorney that she considered the possibility that Newman might be so angry that she would manufacture physical evidence.

While this investigation--and several more--were being conducted, Slobodow was not allowed to see his sons for days or weeks at a time.

ON JULY 11, SLOBODOW WAS SCHEDuled to pick up the boys from the British School for another Tuesday visit. But Newman didn't take them to school that day. She took them instead to Children's Hospital--on Steve Friedman's advice, she says--where she asked doctors to check for evidence of abuse. The doctors found some redness on one of the boys, but there was no reason to believe it was unusual. Again Slobodow missed a visit with his sons.

Newman took the boys back to Children's about a week later. This time doctors found "erythematous"--superficial redness. This became Newman's smoking gun. Stephen Friedman called it "positive physical evidence" in a letter to a Montgomery County judge. It could have been a rash, but the hospital's report triggered another police investigation. District Detective Q.E. Wallace conducted interviews and ruled the allegations "unfounded."

As part of the investigation, Wallace interviewed Newman at a police station. While Wallace interviewed her, two male detectives hung out with the boys. During their time with the detectives, both boys recanted the abuse allegations. When Herbie was reunited with his mother, laughing, Newman became angry, according to all three detectives, and screamed at everyone in the room.

On September 12, DC police received another allegation of sex abuse. Again they investigated and found no reason to believe it. Because it was the third allegation, it was referred to the US Attorney's office, which reviewed the case and also found no credible evidence of abuse. According to court testimony, federal prosecutors considered charging Newman with making false accusations.

Detective Wallace wrote in an investigative report: "It became evident that upon the children's return from visits with their father, Ms. Newman would enlist the assistance of her friends and immediately make reports of bizarre sexual abuse, which were repeatedly found to be unsupported by doctors upon medical examination."

Throughout the summer, Slobodow rarely saw his boys. To protect himself from further allegations, he hired a childcare worker to accompany him whenever he was with them. When the childcare worker was unavailable, he would bring along his aunt, who lives in the District.

"It was the only way to defend myself against these charges," he says.

AROUND THE TIME THE ABUSE ALLEGAtions were being made in DC, the Maryland court handling the divorce appointed a guardian to represent the boys' interests in the legal arena. Guardians are often called in when parents are in combat. Alan Town got the job. A longtime member of the local bar, he had handled half a dozen guardian cases, though he'd received no official training.

"There's no more important decision courts make than decisions about kids," he says. "As a guardian you can take the high ground and try to do the right thing."

Town had a month to prepare for a scheduled August 2000 custody hearing. He read the files. "I knew there was something deeply weird," he says.

THAT FALL, THE COURT SOUGHT AN EXpert to offer a psychological evaluation of everyone in the custody case. Dr. Bruce Copeland, a Bethesda psychologist, got the appointment.

Copeland logged scores of hours interviewing and testing the parents and the boys, separately and together. Herbie and Lars seemed happy and calm in the presence of their father; with their mother they were agitated and accused their father of being mean and hurting them.

Copeland asked Elsa Newman what she thought of Arlen Slobodow.

"I began shielding the kids from Arlen since Herbie was born," she responded. "Arlen is close to the most awful person on earth. I can't see any strengths. I don't believe he loves them or sees them as human beings."

"Does he have any positive qualities?" Copeland asked her.

"He knows computers," she responded. "He might be able to teach them computers. But there's nothing good in his parenting. In the fall of 1999, I decided the kids would be better off without him when I realized how relentless he was to get my family's money."

After two sessions and ten hours of interviews, Copeland concluded that Newman had characteristics of a borderline personality disorder, according to court records and an investigative report. A borderline personality is characterized by a pattern of instability in mood, interpersonal relations, and self-image and manifested by self-destructive, impulsive, and inconsistent behavior. Slobodow had become an enemy and thus had no redeeming qualities.

The boys, he concluded, were living with a mother who painted their father as a horrible person, but they needed and loved their father. "In other words," he would testify, "the kids begin to essentially have to create two distinct worlds for themselves to be able to operate psychologically."

ELSA NEWMAN'S CAMPAIGN TO CAST her husband as a sexual predator was failing. Officials in Montgomery County and the District had conducted independent investigations of the charges against Slobodow. They came to similar conclusions: The mother described the father as an abusive man who had little interest in his sons, but every time officials observed the father and the boys together, they saw a comfortable, happy threesome. The boys, on occasion, did mention acts that would constitute sexual offenses, but investigators deemed these accounts implausible and possibly rehearsed.

They began to wonder if Newman was mentally stable. DC detective Wallace wrote in a report of "concerns regarding Ms. Newman's mental state."

When Arlen Slobodow learned that his wife was taking their sons from one person to another for repeated physical examinations, he realized this was no longer a typical custody fight. "That made me sick to my stomach," he says. "That was sickness. I couldn't stand it anymore."

In August 2000, he filed an emergency motion for sole custody. A trial date was set for December. Newman fired Steve Friedman and hired Linda Delaney, her fourth lawyer.

Rather than try the case, Newman agreed in late December to negotiate a new custody agreement. During the negotiations, Margery Lemb Landry was often at the table; her husband was also on hand, fetching documents and making copies, according to attorneys.

John Landry attended most of the custody proceedings but said very little. He often had come to the Newman home on Overbrook Road when Slobodow was living there. Slobodow says that one day Landry walked into the house behind his wife and mouthed, "I'm sorry."

Landry declined to be interviewed for this story. "He would like to separate himself from this incident," says his lawyer, Neil Jacobs.

Under the custody agreement eventually negotiated, the boys would spend half their time with each parent, but most major decisions would be made by Slobodow. The agreement specified that neither parent "will say, by word or gesture, anything which would diminish the children's love, respect, or affection for the other parent, nor will they allow their friends or relatives to do so."

It was signed on December 20, 2000.

A FEW DAYS LATER, ELSA NEWMAN WAS having dinner with Katie Ashley, Steve Friedman's secretary. Newman had fired Friedman, but she had persistently tried to meet with Ashley. Over dinner at Ruth's Chris Steak House, Newman told Ashley how she would kill Slobodow if he got custody of the boys.

She would wear all black clothing. She would wear a black knit cap. She would shoot him on the streets of DC to make it look as though someone else had done it. Newman also mentioned to Ashley that Margery Landry had mob connections in Chicago and could get an untraceable gun.

Ashley had overheard Newman threaten to kill Slobodow on other occasions in Friedman's office, but never in such detail.

Ashley kept it to herself--for the time being. She also hired a lawyer.

LARS SLOBODOW ARRIVED AT THE British School in late January 2001 with stitches in his forehead. He couldn't wait to show his teacher. The 4H-year-old laughed and bragged about how he'd been jumping on his father's bed and bumped his head and had to go to the hospital. Herbie saw the accident and described it to the teacher the same way.

Slobodow had taken Lars to the emergency room and alerted Newman, who didn't go to the hospital. She says she went to the school that morning, where Lars whispered to her, "Daddy pushed me."

Later that day, Margery Landry appeared at the school during recess. She walked onto the playground and started whispering to Lars, who seemed to pull away from her. Landry then told the teacher on duty that Lars had been pushed down and hurt by his father and that the teacher had to report it as abuse. As she was leaving, she told the teacher to forget she had been there. The teacher reported the whole exchange to school officials, who declined to call in an abuse charge.

This teacher and others had already been struck by Landry and Newman's pattern of behavior. At first Newman had been seen as an active parent, helping out in class and caring for her sons. She was going through a difficult divorce, she told everyone. She complained that her husband was abusing the boys, but in time her charges had come to seem far-fetched to the headmistress and teachers. In January and February, Newman began stopping parents outside of school to enlist their support in her custody case. She phoned parents at night as well. She and Landry would sit in a car and watch the school.

On February 15 the school's attorney sent Newman a letter barring her from the school without permission "because of significant disruptions caused by your recent visitations." School officials requested police protection.

IN LATE JANUARY OR EARLY FEBRUARY 2001, the FBI fielded an allegation that Slobodow was involved in a child-pornography ring. He was accused of putting photos of young boys on the Internet.

Slobodow says he was interviewed by agents who examined his computer. The FBI refuses to comment, but according to court testimony and documents, the investigation by an FBI Internet task force found no merit to the charges.

Meanwhile, Herbie was struggling through second grade, exhibiting behavior problems serious enough that the school suspended him for a few days. Officials were so alarmed that they called guardian Alan Town as well as both parents.

Town had been working on the case since July and had seen the turmoil escalate. He rushed to the school, interviewed teachers, and called an emergency court hearing February 16 on Herbie's behalf.

"This is, when I first met him, a happy, intelligent, perceptive, warm seven-year-old boy" whose behavior had drastically deteriorated, he told Judge S. Michael Pincus. "I just don't think I can wait anymore before taking some action."

Town described Newman's disruptive visits to the school. He recited the history of allegations made against Slobodow. He reported that Newman had been "untruthful" in an FBI polygraph test concerning the sources of the Internet-pornography charges.

Town said DC police were so concerned about Newman's repeated false accusations that they were considering asking that Newman's contact with the boys be restricted.

Finally, Town told the judge that Newman had plans to travel with the boys that weekend and he felt that "there is a very real threat" she would not return.

Judge Pincus granted Slobodow primary physical and legal custody of the boys for the time being and ordered that Newman not take them out of the Washington region.

"I don't want another Elizabeth Morgan case in my courtroom," he said.

UNBEKNOWNST TO THE JUDGE, Elizabeth Morgan already was involved in the case. In the view of prosecutors, her role would become "very relevant."

Newman had been in touch with Morgan in the summer of 2000, around the time allegations were first made that Slobodow was sexually abusing the boys. "We became friends," Newman says. Morgan won't go that far, though she acknowledges that they corresponded by e-mail and met for lunch. She has visited Newman in jail.

Morgan became famous in the 1980s after accusing her then-husband of sexually abusing their daughter, Hilary. To prevent his having contact with the girl, Morgan sent Hilary into her grandparents' care, and the three lived for years in New Zealand. Refusing to reveal their whereabouts, Morgan spent 25 months behind bars for contempt of court--the longest detention for civil contempt on record.

"It was a life-shattering experience," recalls Morgan. "I was raised as an American who believes that our justice system protects the weak."

Morgan says she went on a spiritual voyage and was led by "the power of pure light" to protect Hilary by removing her from the reaches of both her husband and the justice system.

Morgan has become an influential figure among women engaged in custody battles, particularly those who believe their husbands have sexually abused the children. She never turns away anyone who calls, she says.

When Newman sought her advice, Morgan responded in e-mail: "I don't have the answers. I only know the choices, which are grim: Give in and accept the incest, kill the abuser, or grab the kids and run."

ELSA NEWMAN FINALLY TOOK ONE ALLEgation too far. Failing to get the British School to report Lars's bed-jumping accident as abuse by Slobodow, Newman and Landry took the children to a pediatrician. By then the boys had changed their story and told the doctor their father had pushed Lars. As required by law, the doctor reported the allegation to DC police, who once again started an investigation.

The charge again landed on the desk of detective Q.E. Wallace, the veteran investigator with the department's Youth and Preventive Services Division. Wallace had fielded and investigated previous allegations. Though at first sympathetic to Newman, she had determined that each allegation was false. This latest pushed her over the edge.

In a report to DC Superior Court, Wallace described Newman's "increasingly desperate and bizarre" behavior. "On at least one occasion, Ms. Newman reported that the children were injured by their father during a period of time when no visitation occurred," she wrote. "These incidents continued to be very concerning to your petitioner and the other professionals involved and raised concerns that Ms. Newman may be trying to cause injuries to the children to support her allegations against Mr. Slobodow."

She recounted Dr. Bruce Copeland's finding that Newman had a borderline-personality disorder and that "the more pressure the mother experiences, the more the quality of her thinking deteriorates."

Wallace said she feared that Newman would harm the boys or flee with them and that "the potential risks to the children continue to increase as Ms. Newman exhausts all known mechanisms to obtain custody of her children."

The detective further stated that Elsa Newman had mentally abused Herbie and given him "negligent treatment or maltreatment." Wallace recommended that Slobodow get full custody. The District of Columbia court agreed and barred Newman from seeing her sons except for supervised visits twice a week at the Child and Family Services Agency in DC.

Shortly after the order was signed on February 22, 2001, the boys moved in with their father on Capitol Hill.

UNDER THE COURT ORDER, ELSA NEW-man had to pack one week of mothering into two hours in a Southwest DC government building. She prepared for days and showed up carrying bags full of toys, books, and food.

"I looked like an immigrant," says Newman. "Nobody could believe I was on a supervised visit." Neither could she.

It was a shock for a hands-on mom whose life revolved around her kids. No more soccer games, Hebrew school, or movies together. Someone would watch her every move while she was with the boys.

Newman liked to arrive early at the government building and clean the room before her visits. She hooked her dog's leash to the outside railing so the boys could pet him. She made Lars a cake for his fifth birthday and brought Herbie's violin, which he had stopped playing. She brought plastic bags of kiwis, strawberries, blackberries, red peppers, and Flintstone vitamins. Mother and sons spent the hours playing games, reading stories, and talking. Newman gave a blessing in Hebrew.

A cousin of Newman's, who prefers that her name not be used, accompanied her on a visit last summer. "It was this cold, institutionalized room with dirty walls and a big bare table," the cousin says. The boys' appearance concerned her. "They looked tired, pale, and unwashed. They had on black nylon socks with sneakers." She noticed dirt under their eyes. She alerted the social worker, who was taking detailed notes on the visit.

The boys warmed up quickly to their mother. They hugged her and sat on her lap. But Herbie seemed scared of the cousin. "He flinched like I was a hot plate," she says. "He recoiled as if I might hit him."

When Slobodow arrived to retrieve the boys, Lars asked to stay longer, but the social worker told him his father was waiting. Newman kissed the boys goodbye.

NEWMAN PRESENTED A DIFFERENT persona in the offices of her lawyer, Steve Friedman, where she would scream and vent her frustrations--and more than once threatened to kill Slobodow.

Friedman had represented Newman during the summer of 2000, when the authorities were peppered with abuse allegations. She had fired him in the fall, he says, because he demanded that she prepare for court dates. Newman fired her fourth lawyer, Linda Delaney, in January 2001 and came back to Friedman in February.

Friedman attacked the DC ruling that Newman have only supervised visitations. In July 2001, on jurisdictional grounds, a DC judge threw the case back to Maryland, which restored its previous ruling of joint custody.

Now, preparing for a crucial September 4 custody hearing, Newman was again in Friedman's office, where she started the morning screaming at one of his associates. She grew progressively agitated. Friedman tried to calm her down. He and his associate on the case, Beth Rogers, worked all weekend to prepare for the hearing on Tuesday.

But Friedman was troubled.

FIRST THING TUESDAY MORNING, STEVE Friedman phoned circuit-court administrative judge Paul Weinstein and told him he felt compelled to make a disclosure about his client in the Newman case. Weinstein suggested that he call Judge Louise Scrivener, who had worked on the matter.

Friedman went to Scrivener's chambers and told her about Elsa Newman's threats to kill her husband. Lawyer-client privilege usually requires that an attorney keep communications to himself, but when a client makes what the lawyer considers a credible threat, Maryland's rules of professional conduct allow for its disclosure. Newman had said she refused to let her children be tortured and that she would kill Slobodow rather than letting him have custody, Friedman told Scrivener.

Later that morning, the custody hearing began as scheduled. Newman, Slobodow, and their attorneys were in the courtroom. John Landry was there. Witnesses were waiting. Judge Ryan opened the proceedings. Friedman said he believed his client had a good case and would prevail.

Meanwhile, Judge Scrivener had been seeking advice from other judges. She also had conferred with the county's bar counsel, who apparently advised her to tell Judge Ryan of Friedman's disclosure.

Minutes into the hearing, a clerk called Judge Ryan to his chambers to speak with Judge Scrivener. He returned to the bench and said, "She has told me--that is, Ms. Newman has told Mr. Friedman and others--that if she does not obtain custody of the children that she would kill the children rather than expose them to the torture of Mr. Slobodow, and that she had hired a hit man to kill him--that is, to kill Mr. Slobodow.

"And Mr. Friedman felt he needed to disclose that information, and he did," Ryan said.

Newman jumped up. "I'd never heard this before," she said. "It is wholly untrue. . . . I think [Friedman has] put in motion a dastardly, untrue statement."

Friedman stood and said that Newman had made the threats to his associate and to his secretary.

Said Ryan, "This isn't something that happens in the courtroom on a routine basis." He listened as Newman said she was a "devoted mother," but he had to shout her down several times before ruling that she once again would be allowed only supervised visits with the boys.

Newman rose again. "And now," she said, "I have again lost my parental rights with a ruling, with no evidence in a record and no attorney that I trust beside me. . . . But this is not American justice for me and my kids."

ELSA NEWMAN WAS NOT ALONE IN BElieving that the American justice system discriminates against mothers. In fall 2000 her case came to the attention of Justice for Children, a national child-advocacy organization. She also got in touch with women who believe the "patriarchal" judicial system punishes mothers who bring charges of sexual abuse against their husbands. In their view, when women allege during a custody battle that a spouse has abused the children, some judges assume the allegations are fabricated.

Newman discovered Small Justice--a documentary about the subject--and held a private screening at her house in Bethesda. She read The Hostage Child, a book of case studies that mentions Elizabeth Morgan's case. She copied a chapter and used it in lobbying for a change in Maryland laws concerning the reporting of sex abuse.

"It's easy to see us as strident, wild-eyed feminists who say mothers are good and fathers are bad," says Michelle Etlin, coauthor of The Hostage Child, "but that's not what's happening."

Newman found a willing ear in Joan Pitkin, a state delegate from Prince George's County who works on child-abuse legislation. Newman's case "horrified" Pitkin. "Some judges don't understand the dynamics of child abuse and family violence," Pitkin says. "They defer too easily to experts who are biased toward the alleged perpetrator or to GALs [guardians ad litem--attorneys appointed to represent the interests of children in court] with whom they have close relationships."

Pitkin says Newman's case proves the point. Alan Town, the boys' court-appointed guardian, has been holding two confidential reports by Dr. Jill Scharff, the first psychiatrist to see the boys. Newman claims that the boys disclosed the abuse to Scharff in detail.

"It's like they buried it with Jimmy Hoffa somewhere," Newman tells us.

Town says that Scharff's reports would be no help to Newman's case and adds, "Be careful what you wish for."

ARLEN SLOBODOW WAS TRYING TO come to grips with life as a single father. "I didn't have 100-percent confidence at first," he says.

When he moved to Capitol Hill in December 1999, he was sad that his marriage had ended but relieved to be apart from Newman. He started going to movies, volunteering, taking classes, dating. He had outfitted the boys' room in his house and bought them clothes for his place but expected to see them only on alternate weekends.

Now he was a full-time father. He moved in August to a small house on Tone Drive in Bethesda so they could attend the well-regarded public Bannockburn Elementary School. He volunteered there; other parents said he appeared to be a gentle, caring father.

In October of last year, one of Newman's friends alleged that he was sexually abusing his boys. This time the charges were brought in Maryland. They were researched by an investigator who had no contact with DC officials. She interviewed the boys and found no merit to the charges.

ON DECEMBER 7, 2001, EVERYONE INvolved in the custody case--all the detectives, psychologists, lawyers, British School teachers, and both parents--were in Montgomery County court to continue the proceedings that had been postponed that September day when Stephen Friedman disclosed Newman's threat to kill her family.

Newman appeared calm. She testified that during the summer, when the children had been with her half time, she had taken them to see the movie Shrek, to hear concerts at the Smithsonian, to enjoy the rides at Six Flags amusement park.

She said she had never been the one who raised sexual-abuse allegations about her husband. Most of the witnesses told a different story. Dr. Copeland said there were times when Newman had a "distorted" view of reality. Witness after witness testified that she was troubled and that the children would be better with Slobodow.

Elizabeth Hoffman, supervisor of Montgomery County's Sexual Abuse Assessment and Treatment Unit, said that the boys would be best off with their father.

"They love their mother, they miss their mother," she testified, "and I say this with deep sadness. I say it because I feel it's in their best interests."

DC detective Wallace testified, "I became very concerned that Ms. Newman would enter into a murder-suicide kind of a pact, not necessarily just to murder the children but herself and the children, to be with them whether life or death."

Judge Ryan ordered that Newman see her sons only at the Family Trauma Center. Slobodow would be their primary parent.

DECEMBER 14, A WEEK AFTER RYAN granted custody to Arlen Slobodow, Elizabeth Morgan was the featured speaker at a forum in Bowie sponsored by Justice for Children, Delegate Joan Pitkin, and others. Elsa Newman and Margery Lemb Landry had helped organize the event.

Morgan lectured on the evils of child abuse. "Osama bin Laden had nothing to teach me about evil on September 11," Morgan told the women, according to news reports. She compared Maryland's family-court judges to the Spanish Inquisition in their potential to inflict cruelty.

Morgan reiterated the three options she held out for women who believe the system is not protecting their children from sexual abuse: Give in to incest, pick up the child and run for your life--or get a gun and shoot the abuser.

ON THE FIRST WEEKEND OF JANUARY 2002, Elsa Newman, Margery Landry, and John Landry drove to New Jersey to attend the wedding of Newman's niece. Newman had asked Slobodow to allow her to take the boys, which would have left him alone in his house on Tone Drive. He said no.

Newman and the Landrys attended the wedding on Sunday. Late that night, the Landrys drove back to Bethesda, leaving Newman in New Jersey. It was snowing when they pulled into their driveway.

LARS SLOBODOW WENT TO A CLASSmate's birthday party that Sunday. Arlen took Herbie to play tennis at a neighborhood court. When they picked up Lars, the birthday boy gave Herbie a goody bag, which made him happy.

Slobodow had a video shoot scheduled first thing the next morning. Knowing he would be late because he had to take the boys to school, Slobodow loaded his equipment into the car at 8 PM and took the two with him to deliver it to the sound man.

They were home by 8:30. Slobodow put the boys to bed, then went to bed himself to get a good night's sleep before the shoot.

In the Capitol Hill house, Lars and Herbie had shared a room. Now, in Bethesda, each had his own room. Lars sometimes had trouble sleeping and would climb into bed with his dad, which he did that night--until he was awakened by gunshots.

MARGERY LEMB LANDRY HAS BEEN behind bars since police arrested her as she headed out to work the morning after the shooting. "They've got everything but a written confession," says one of the lawyers in the case.

Since the shooting, investigators have tested the contents of the fanny pack found at the crime scene. It contained pornographic videos and magazines and a box of bullets. Prosecutors say Landry's fingerprints are on the contents. They suspect that she intended to plant the bag in Slobodow's bedroom.

Although interviews with Slobodow and the lawyers in the custody case led detectives to suspect Elsa Newman had played a role in the incident, they had no hard evidence. Newman was in New Jersey at the time of the shooting. Newman's call to Landry's cell phone at the police station was not sufficient cause for arrest.

Prosecutors reviewed the September 4 hearing transcript, in which the judge had revealed Stephen Friedman's disclosure that Newman had made threats to kill her husband in front of him and his staff.

Detectives called Friedman and ultimately learned that his secretary, Katie Ashley, had been the first to hear Newman's threat, over dinner during Christmas 2000. Friedman told police Ashley would testify only before a grand jury, so prosecutors subpoenaed her. Before the grand jury, Friedman argued that Ashley's conversation with Newman was protected by lawyer-client privilege. The judge ruled otherwise, and Ashley was compelled to testify. She subsequently spoke to detectives.

Ashley told them about Newman's threat to get a hit man to kill her husband. The gunman would wear a black ski mask and use a pistol. Based on those comments, a warrant was issued for Newman's arrest. Police staked out her house on Overbrook Road. When she arrived home Thursday, they cuffed her and took her to jail.

FOR THE WEEK THAT SLOBODOW WAS IN the hospital, the boys stayed with his parents, who had flown into town, in the Embassy Suites hotel in Friendship Heights. After Slobodow was released from the hospital, the county rented a house for them not far away because police and others thought the Tone Drive house was unsafe. Slobodow was in tremendous pain from the wound and the broken bone. His girlfriend at the time came to help out, as did the woman Slobodow had hired earlier to accompany him while he was with his sons.

About two weeks after the attack, Slobodow took Lars and Herbie to a Child Protection Services office in Rockville, where they were interviewed alone by Elizabeth Hoffman, head of the sex-abuse division.

Before the cameras and Hoffman, the boys described what happened the night of the shooting--how they had seen their father and the woman they called Aunt Margie struggling. Herbie was animated and played both parts. Lars mostly told the story through his eyes.

"It was chilling to watch," said an attorney who saw the videotape. It was compelling enough to make prosecutors consider having the boys testify in court. It was heartbreaking enough to make one of the detectives, watching on a monitor, start to cry.

ON JANUARY 25, ELSA NEWMAN APpeared in Montgomery County Circuit Court to ask to be freed on bond. Her attorneys argued that police had no evidence.

Prosecutor Kay Winfree argued that the cell-phone call the afternoon of the shooting was Newman checking on whether Landry had accomplished her mission. Without naming Katie Ashley, Winfree described the conversation in which Newman detailed how she would kill her husband.

Judge Nelson Rupp denied the bail request. Newman hung her head and was led off by sheriffs. Four days later, she was back in court for a hearing on her divorce from Arlen Slobodow.

Newman entered the court by the side door; she was being held in a cell just beyond it. Every time she entered or left, the sound of the heavy metal door rolling open or closed would fill the courtroom. Newman looked severe and drawn, wearing a sweater over her prison blues. She did not testify but constantly whispered in her attorney's ear.

Slobodow had difficulty walking to the witness stand, wincing in pain when he got up or sat down. He testified that he had left the family home in December 1999 and never moved back in and that there was no hope of reconciliation. Judge Ryan granted the divorce.

After the hearing, Slobodow approached three reporters in the back of the courtroom. "I'm glad it's over," he said.

IT WAS A RAINY DAY IN APRIL WHEN NEWman took the witness stand in a Montgomery County Circuit courtroom. She wore a gray skirt and maroon turtleneck. The handcuffs had been removed.

This was Newman's third request for visitation at the detention center. She spoke softly about the book she's writing for Herbie and Lars and the 12 letters she'd sent during her time in jail. A month later the boys still hadn't received any; lawyers were reviewing them. Newman told the judge she'd sign whatever she had to to see her sons. "I've lived a long life," she said. "It's not my life I'm worried about; it's these children."

That worry came through every time Newman called The Washingtonian. At times she sounded as if she was crying. If she got cut off--which happened after 15 minutes--Newman apologized in the next call. She chatted about her friends, her mother, the courts. But mostly her boys.

Newman hasn't seen Herbie and Lars since Christmas day. She calls herself their "institutional memory" and thinks they'll feel abandoned. Slobodow says the boys' therapist told him the kids shouldn't visit the detention center. That's torture for Newman--she sees children visiting inmates all the time. "I don't really understand the wisdom," she says. "It's important for them to see that their mom is alive and well and still loves them." She calls it "punishment" by the system for the divorce case.

When Newman talks to the boys by phone--which is supposed to be weekly--Slobodow listens in on a speakerphone. There are rules: No talk of the divorce. No talk of that night. No talk of her innocence or his guilt. He can hang up at anytime, and she says he often does. But Newman says she's happy just to hear their voices.

That's all she will get for now. At the April hearing, Alan Town, gatekeeper in the custody battle for almost two years, said Herbie and Lars don't need "one more stressor" in their lives.

The judge denied Newman's motion for visitation. A deputy sheriff cuffed her. As she was being led out, she turned to make eye contact with her friends in the courtroom.

"It's getting old for me," she said in a call from jail.

THE CASE IS STILL FRESH FOR KAY WINfree, the deputy state's attorney who will prosecute it.

Like Steve Friedman and Newman's latest attorney, Barry Helfand, Winfree has had her share of tough cases. She's been a prosecutor for 26 years, the first 23 in DC. She was hired by legendary lawyer Chuck Ruff and worked with Joe diGenova. She's got auburn hair and blue eyes and a zeal for putting criminals behind bars.

"I have no doubt that [Elsa Newman] somehow has convinced herself that Arlen Slobodow abused her children, but that is her delusion," Winfree said in court. "Itis not true. There is no evidence." She called Newman's abuse charges "figments of her imagination."

Winfree says the case against Elsa Newman is strong despite the lack of physical evidence: "Margery Landry was under Elsa Newman's complete control. Margery would do what Elsa wanted, and in this case she wanted those children. Margery was Elsa's alter ego. It was twisted and sick."

A few people believe the opposite--that Landry was in control and pushed Newman around. Steve Friedman says Landry wore the pants. And there is the lack of hard evidence linking Newman to the crime.

"Circumstantial evidence is more than sufficient to establish [Newman's] complicity in this shooting," Winfree says. "It is as diabolical as you can get."

Perhaps Newman's threats to Katie Ashley and the shooting of Slobodow are coincidental?

"If you want to call it coincidental, go ahead," Winfree says. "We don't believe in coincidence."

THE CRIMINAL TRIALS ARE SCHEDULED to begin later this summer, but there are rumors that prosecutors have offered Margery Landry a deal.

Instead of facing a possible life sentence, Landry could testify against Newman in return for less jail time. "She could be out in a few years rather than living the rest of her life behind bars," says a lawyer in the case.

Prosecutors say rumors of a deal are merely that--rumors.

It's also not out of the question that Newman could wind up testifying against Landry. If implicating her friend would help her get out of jail and back to seeing her children, she might be willing to go her own way.

"We might take different paths," her then-attorney, David Schertler, acknowledged after one of our visits with Newman in jail.

Newman says she has not spoken to Landry in the detention center but she has caught glimpses of her. Newman's attorney says that Landry has photos of Newman's sons in her cell.

ON APRIL 11, ELIZABETH MORGAN SENT a letter urging Judge Rupp to release Newman. Morgan and her backers say Newman was right in trying to protect her boys from her husband.

"She is now a cause célèbre," says her current attorney, Barry Helfand.

Still, there are only two pieces of evidence--Herbie's scrawled note and a report from his teacher--that suggest Arlen Slobodow might have abused his sons. None of Newman's five lawyers, Stephen Friedman included, ever produced a witness to substantiate Newman's claims. Even so, Newman makes her case with such persuasion that Friedman says, "I can't say to this day I disbelieve her."

Alan Town believes the system worked. "These were kids who didn't fall through the cracks," he says. "Some of the best resources were brought to bear on this case."

Meanwhile, Slobodow is trying to raise the boys and move on with his life, which he hopes will include another relationship. "The shooting kind of turns women off," he says.

LARS CELEBRATED HIS SIXTH BIRTHDAY this past spring. Arlen cooked up a pirate theme and painted the kids' faces.

The boys are getting along in school, but the battles of the past few years have far-reaching effects. When Herbie and Lars went to the temporary house set up by Blondes earlier this year, Herbie searched the closets. The landlady asked him why.

"I'm looking for someplace to hide,"he said.

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