In the summer of 1992, a blond woman in tailored business clothes began to appear on the street corners of West Baltimore, joining the lines of junkies waiting to buy heroin.
In the all-black neighborhood of Franklin Square, the newcomer's presence was striking.
"My daughter used to have to walk right past where they distribute the drugs each day on her way home from work," recalled Joyce Smith, the Franklin Square Association president.
"I remember her coming home one day that summer and saying, 'Mama, you wouldn't believe it. There's a white woman with a real nice haircut, nice clothes, too, up there in the line.' "
For at least two years, Susan Mary Fila, a Baltimore lawyer with a promising practice, shuttled between two lives.
In the city's courtrooms and law offices, she impressed colleagues as smart and confident. Her personal life appeared unremarkable; she lived on a tree-lined street in Ellicott City with her parents and sometimes dated other lawyers. She seemed destined for success.
The residents of Franklin Square, though, knew her secret, and were all too familiar with the perils of drugs. Last month, Ms. Fila's life unraveled when she was charged with trying to kill her law partner, Charles Lamasa, 46. She is accused of trying to keep him from discovering her alleged embezzlement from him and their firm to buy drugs.
In the months before, Ms. Fila, 42, apparently misled clients, misspent their money, botched routine legal work and stole funds from her partner and firm bank accounts, according to charging documents, Mr. Lamasa and police. She is accused of writing bad checks, reneging on promises, and lying to co-workers and friends about her deteriorating appearance and erratic behavior.
"All of the money she had access to was used to feed her addiction," said Gregg Bernstein, an attorney representing Ms. Fila. "She has had a very substantial and serious heroin abuse problem for a long time."
Now Ms. Fila faces disbarment and prison, and her arrest and addiction soon will be the talk of Sally Jessy Raphael Wednesday and other television shows. Prosecutors expect a grand jury indictment this week.
Ms. Fila's fall is particularly poignant because, after some early stumbles -- a teen marriage, drug use, a brush with the law -- she had reclaimed her life. It seemed she had left her past so far behind that few suspected she was a woman acquainted with trouble.
A picture of how her life spun out of control has emerged from a review of court records and interviews with Baltimore detectives, lawyers, clients and friends. Ms. Fila and family members declined requests to be interviewed.
"This is just absolutely bizarre," said Gary Strausberg, a lawyer who trained Ms. Fila early in her career. "This is not the Susan I knew and worked with. It's scary to think this could happen to someone as talented and bright as her."
But such tales are not surprising to those familiar with the grip of heroin. "The true addict is very creative about hiding their habit and finding ways to keep it fed," said Jim Meehling, a drug addiction counselor in Baltimore. "They lie. They steal. They'll destroy everything of meaning -- family, work, everything."
Difficult teen years
The daughter of an electrician and a homemaker, Ms. Fila was the youngest of three children growing up in Ellicott City. While attending Howard High School during the late 1960s, she became pregnant at age 16. She married the father, another student, and gave birth to a son. After her junior year, she left school and lost contact with most of her friends.
"It seemed she not only dropped out of high school but dropped out of life," said Debbie Lanham, a longtime friend.
The marriage foundered and by early 1977, Ms. Fila was involved with David L. Bledsoe, a Towson resident who introduced her to heroin, according to federal prosecutors and friends. In February 1977, Ms. Fila, Mr. Bledsoe and seven others were charged with importing heroin from Mexico. Months later, at 24, Ms. Fila married Mr. Bledsoe.
She was convicted on one count of drug conspiracy; her husband was acquitted. The young woman was placed on probation and ordered to attend a drug abuse program, court records show. Three years later, the judge found that she had fulfilled the terms of probation and wiped her criminal record clean.
Ms. Fila clearly put her mind to changing her life.
She enrolled at the University of Baltimore in 1984 at age 32, graduating with honors. She divorced Mr. Bledsoe in 1986, and moved back with her parents. They helped provide stability for her son and freed her from the burdens of running a household when she began law school that year at the University of Baltimore.
She was named to the Law Review, an honor reserved for top students, and graduated magna cum laude.
When she applied to practice law in Maryland, Ms. Fila called old adversaries: Robert Schulman and Joshua Treem, the federal prosecutors who had tried her drug case.