FLOWERS for Mrs. LUSKIN THIS WAS A MARRIAGE THAT SEEMINGLY COULDN'T GET WORSE. THEN CAME A BUMBLING BALTIMORE HOOD BEARING A GIFT.

December 15, 1991|By Arthur Jay Harris

On March 9, 1987, a blue Honda Accord coasted to a halt in front of Paul and Marie Luskin's two-story, columned red brick mansion on a golf course in Emerald Hills, the most expensive home in this ritzy Hollywood, Fla., neighborhood. The deliveryman walked briskly to the door of the $600,000 house, rang the doorbell and spoke roughly into the intercom: "I got a flower delivery!"

"Who is it from?" asked Marie from behind a locked door. She had reason to be cautious. She and her husband were in the middle of a divorce that had become one of the area's ugliest. The file would eventually fill eight boxes piled to the ceiling in its own corner of the Broward County Clerk's Office, the most voluminous divorce file in the county's history. Legal bills alone would cost the Luskins an estimated $4 million. Marie had had the 37-year-old Paul jailed twice in the previous three months for failure to pay temporary alimony. She knew of no reason why someone would send her flowers.

"There's no card," said the deliveryman gruffly.

"No card?" Marie asked. "Well, where is it from?"

"Emerald Hills Florist. For Marie Luskin." Marie thought it over for a few seconds. Curiosity got the better of her. "OK, wait a minute." She opened the door. In walked a man holding a flower pot of pink azaleas. Suddenly he pulled a nickel-plated .38 revolver from behind the flowers. He stuck the gun barrel in her face. She started screaming.

"Shut up!" barked Milton "Sonny" Cohen, a self-described "stick-up man" and bank robber from Baltimore with a criminal record dating back to 1954. He was a head taller than Marie, and wore a T-shirt and slacks, with greasy brown hair hanging down his neck. He had the meanest eyes she had ever seen. He placed his hand over Marie's throat, then her mouth.

"Give me all your cash!" Cohen yelled. Marie told him it was upstairs. Holding Marie from behind by her long blond hair and pressing the gun to her temple, he bypassed the elevator and forced her up the grand stairway to the 1,700-square-foot master bedroom. In the dressing room in front of the custom vanity, Marie knelt down, pulled out a small metal box and opened it. Inside was a single $100 bill, her passport, some earrings and inexpensive collector coins. There was also a drawstring pouch in which she said there was a diamond necklace worth $50,000. Cohen didn't open it. He yelled at her again. "Where is your f------ money? I'll blow your f------ brains out if you don't give it to me!" Marie screamed back: "It's in the bank! It's in the bank!"

What happened next is unclear. Cohen says he "popped her on the head" from behind with a blackjack. Marie thought he hit her with the gun butt. In any case, she wound up lying on the carpet, feigning unconsciousness, blood seeping from her wound. Cohen ran downstairs, scooped up the pieces of the flowerpot that carried his fingerprints and fled. He left behind the drawstring pouch and the $100 bill.

The Hollywood police saw the assault on Marie Luskin as a botched robbery attempt, a simple home invasion. But they couldn't figure out why the invader took nothing. Marie saw something more sinister: She told them that her estranged husband and possibly his father may have been behind the attack because of their messy divorce.

The police interviewed Paul Luskin, CEO of the 13-store Luskin's chain (unrelated to the chain his Baltimore cousins run) and his parents. They found them solicitous, concerned, willing to help. There was no reason to trouble them further.

Seven months later, a federal grand jury in Baltimore made headlines by disagreeing: The botched robbery was actually a botched murder-for-hire solicited by Paul Luskin. A federal informant -- one of the alleged hit men -- had given the grand jurors a very different version of what happened when Marie let the "florist" in. That was no gun butt that struck Marie, the informant said. It was no blackjack. It was a bullet. The informant, Baltimore City Jail prisoner James Manley, said Marie had been shot. She just didn't realize it.

In the space of six months, Paul Luskin was indicted, tried, convicted of conspiracy to murder his estranged wife, and sentenced to 35 years in prison. The twin motives: money and revenge. Luskin, the prosecution said, was desperate to stop his wife from using the divorce to grab control of the family fortune.

To this day, Paul Luskin, father of two, former millionaire, big-time fund-raiser for Republican candidates, and current federal prisoner, insists the murder-for-hire scheme never existed. He was, he claims, victimized by a vengeful wife, a wily con angling for a shorter sentence, and hungry prosecutors looking for a big fish to fry.

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