Arrest little solace to slain pair's friends

May 21, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writers Gregory P. Kane, John Rivera and Dennis O'Brien contributed to this story.

They were supposed to go to Bermuda this weekend, a two-week vacation planned since Christmas to break away from a breathtaking pace that propelled them to the top of a specialized legal profession.

Instead, Jose E. Trias and his wife, Julie N. Gilbert, are being mourned as gentle, private people who dedicated their lives to charity through their unique understanding of complicated tax law.

The couple was found shot to death Monday in their weekend retreat in Arnold lying face down and naked in their upstairs bedroom -- each with a bullet fired into the back of the head. The motive, police said, was robbery.

News yesterday that a suspect had been arrested and charged relieved those who knew the couple, but only heightened their frustration that the pair would be killed during a simple break-in.

"It's just as stupid as we thought it was," said Robert A. Potter, a spokesman for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, where Mr. Trias was vice president and general counsel. It is the largest private philanthropy in the country.

Known to take suitcases full of books on history, classical literature and biographies on their getaways, Mr. Trias, 49, and Ms. Gilbert, 48, were remembered as intellectuals -- he graduated from Yale, she from Harvard -- with a love of law, music, art and science, who could simplify the most arcane legal verse.

She persuaded people with her intellect. He ended boardroom disputes with brief, reserved comments that struck a common chord.

He was soft-spoken and serious. She was upbeat and overflowing with optimism. She signed her memos, "Good Thoughts."

"These were just nice people who didn't have any problems," said Sheldon S. Cohen, who hired Ms. Gilbert directly out of Harvard Law School 20 years ago. "They helped other people who had problems."

The couple met a decade ago as adversaries. Ms. Gilbert represented the Smithsonian Institution and Mr. Trias represented a man who wanted to donate gemstones to the museum. There was a dispute over the appraisal.

The lawyers worked out a deal, started dating and were married within a year. They moved into a house in Bethesda.

A sanctuary of peace

Five years ago, they bought a two-story gray-shingled weekend house on Father Urban Lane in the Winchester-on-the-Severn community of Arnold for $725,000. The 2,300-square-foot house on 6.5 acres on the banks of the Severn River was a sanctuary from their hectic lives.

They went every weekend, arriving either on Friday or Saturday and staying until Monday morning.

Their final weekend there ended with them being killed, their lives and fate violently forced into the national spotlight -- a cruel paradox for this intensely private couple.

A private memorial service is scheduled for this afternoon at the Hughes Institute in Chevy Chase.

Mr. Trias was born in Hato Ray, Puerto Rico, in 1944, the son of Jose Trias-Monge, who helped the territory draft the 1974 constitution in 1952 and became the chief justice of its supreme court in 1974.

Mr. Trias attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and Harvard College before going to Yale. He did free legal work for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund and traveled to Chile in 1982 as part of Americas Watch, an international human rights organization.

He divorced his first wife, Elizabeth Clover, in 1984, with whom he had two children, Alexander, who is a freshman at Yale Law School, and Maggie, 14, who attends Sheridan School in Northwest Washington.

He joined the prestigious law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in 1971, became a partner in 1978 and stayed until 1991. The firm generated $620,000 in profit per partner that year, according to American Lawyer magazine.

Accepting Hughes challenge

Dr. Purnell W. Choppin, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, said he had to persuade Mr. Trias to leave the firm to join the foundation in 1992, where last year he earned $383,000, including benefits, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

The foundation, founded by Howard Hughes in 1953, has $7 billion in assets and is second only to the federal government's National Institutes of Health in sponsoring basic medical research.

Friends said he was seeking a new challenge to build upon work he did with the institute while he served as outside council since 1985. He had helped expand the institute and resolved a long-standing dispute with the Internal Revenue Service.

At the Sheridan School, Mr. Trias served on the board of trustees and was to take over as chairman at the end of this month.

"I can remember a time when the exchanges in the board room were both contested and tempers were short," headmaster Hugh C. Riddleberger recalled. "Jose did not get in the middle of the fray. When he chose to offer his input, he was able to defuse the situation so everyone could see what the right solution was."

'An interesting young woman'

Ms. Gilbert was born in New York City in 1945 and graduated from Newton College and the University of Virginia before going to Harvard.

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