Viola Drath, Albrecht Muth's strange marriage
WASHINGTON (AP) — She was a 91-year-old expatriate journalist with a deep fluency in foreign affairs and a taste for fashion and art. Her husband, German-born and four decades her junior, boasted of wide-reaching connections in international circles, claimed to be an Iraqi army brigadier general and strolled the neighborhood in a military-style uniform while puffing cigars.
The peculiar marriage of Viola Drath and Albrecht Muth, by turns tempestuous and detached, ended last August when Drath was found dead inside the couple's fashionable row house. Her husband, who reported finding her body, was charged with murder.
The slaying of an elderly socialite in the tony Georgetown neighborhood captivated Washington. But the substance of the allegations has so far been overshadowed by bizarre twists and turns that have lent the case a circus-like atmosphere and veered it off-course.
Muth, 47, has fired his lawyers, suggested the killing was an Iranian hit and demanded the right to wear in court a military uniform that prosecutors say was actually tailor-made for him in South Carolina. He has gone on hunger strikes, likened himself to Moses and Jesus and reported visions of the archangel Gabriel. As prosecutors seek an indictment, a judge has sent Muth to a mental hospital and ordered a psychiatric evaluation before he can stand trial. An assessment of his mental competency is expected next month.
Friends say they were befuddled by the marriage. Drath was a stately presence in political and social circles; Muth appeared a much-younger poseur. They say she gravitated to him to placate her loneliness after her first husband's death while he glommed onto her social status to gain access to a world of dignitaries. It was a marriage, Muth has said, of "convenience." But it was also tainted by allegations of domestic violence and interrupted by Muth's affair with a man.
"My own view was it was kind of odd for a woman of her heritage and a woman of her brains to marry a young guy like that. What is it — a 40-year difference?" said Warren Adler, a novelist who met Drath when she wrote on culture and fashion for a magazine, "Washington Dossier," his wife edited.
She told him it was comfortable; he left it alone.
Drath's family wouldn't discuss the relationship, but one daughter said the death of a mentally sharp woman whose energy and intellectual heft belied her age has been devastating.
"She had many years ahead of her. We had many plans, and it's just left a huge hole," Fran Drath said.
Drath, who was born in Dusseldorf, Germany, and moved to America with her first husband after World War II, balanced varied passions as a young woman: She wrote plays and books, including one on former West German chancellor Willy Brandt, studied painting and covered art and fashion. She was also passionate about German-American relations, proposing negotiations on German reunification and authoring columns for The Washington Times and Handelsblatt, a German newspaper.
She took fact-finding missions to foreign countries, lectured at colleges and served on commissions. She organized dinner parties and celebrations, including a 60th anniversary commemoration of Victory-In-Europe Day where guests were greeted with a bagpipe serenade, according to a Washington Times report at the time.
"I would not characterize her as particularly a socialite. She was more intellectual. She wore hats which people didn't wear, and she was always beautifully coiffed and dressed in what I always thought of as old-world tradition," Adler said.
She met her first husband, Col. Francis Drath, a U.S. Army official and deputy U.S. military governor of Bavaria, when she was hired to be his interpreter in Europe. It was instant love, their daughter recalled. The couple wed after the war and settled in Nebraska before moving to Washington in 1968 because of Francis Drath's Selective Service System job.
They were devoted companions. After Francis's 1986 death, Viola Drath spoke openly of her loneliness.
"I think she wanted what she'd had before, which is somebody who loved her, somebody who shielded her, somebody to stand up against the world for her," said friend Donna Shor, who writes a society column for Washington Life magazine.
Added Fran Drath: "My mother did not want to be by herself. She missed a great companion."
Enter Albrecht Muth.
Muth claims to have encountered Drath in the early 1980s. At the time, he says, he was helping organize foreign press relations for Republicans in Washington. In Muth, she seemed to have found an intellectually curious younger man knowledgeable about Germany and international affairs, a daily partner for heady, topical conversation.
"I changed her life," Muth wrote in an email shared with The Associated Press. "Opening up vistas she could now take, could have taken decades earlier."
Details of his biography remain murky, but a 1990 wedding announcement in The Washington Post identified Muth as a prelaw honor student and godson of an East German politician. They were wed by a Virginia Supreme Court chief justice. Muth says he first asked U.S. Supreme Court Antonin Scalia to officiate.
In conversation, he'd smoothly name-drop foreign politicians and discuss international affairs with a fluency that made him seem authentic. Unsolicited, he'd dash off cryptic emails sprinkled with acronyms and intimations of inside information. Hours before his arrest, he shared with the AP an email to someone with a Pentagon address discussing both his wife's death and Iraqi government turmoil.
"I have to take a slain wife out to Arlington, mourn her, then find her killer," he wrote.
Muth, with his military uniform, erudite speech and regal airs, fancied himself a "lead actor in a drama," Shor said. He played the role of the "perfect butler" at dinner parties, said George Schwab, a friend of Drath's and the president of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.
"He always struck me as being the perfect waiter, the way he served with one hand in the back," Schwab said. "Everything was just perfect as if he had gone to school."
After attending a dinner party he organized, Shor contacted him to fact-check something for an item she was writing.
"He said, 'No, you must not write about that dinner,'" Shor recalled. "And I said, 'What?' And he said, 'I said anything said there was off the record.'"
Shor was flabbergasted, believing nothing particularly interesting had been shared.
Over the years and in different circumstances, prosecutors say, he claimed to be an East German spy and CIA operative, among other identities. He sometimes sported an eye patch, the better to support a tall tale about having lost an eye while protecting the U.S. ambassador to Paraguay. He showed off certificates purporting to designate him an Iraqi brigadier general, but prosecutors say those were store-bought.
In reality, authorities say, Muth was unemployed, supported by a monthly allowance from his wife. The Iraqi embassy says he's not connected to the government or military.
Some of Drath's friends say she recognized Muth's claims as fantasy. Shor recalled he was once up for an honor and Drath asked her to intercede and prevent him from winning — fearing he'd be humiliated and exposed as a fraud. Schwab once inquired of Muth's eye patch; Drath said Muth was "just trying to call attention to himself."
Beneath the formal demeanor were signs of trouble.
Muth was charged with assaulting Drath by banging her head against the floor and striking her with a chair in 2006. A man with whom Muth has acknowledged a romantic relationship received a protective order in 2004, alleging Muth threatened to kill him.
The morning of Aug. 12, Muth called 911 after finding his wife unresponsive in an upstairs bathroom. He emailed reporters an obituary, stating Drath had died of head injuries from a fall. But her death was called a homicide. Detectives grew suspicious.
There were no signs anyone had broken into the home, Muth became anxious when police observed scratches on his forehead, and a neighbor reported hearing a faint cry and "sinister laugh," a police affidavit says. Upon Drath's death, police said, he presented her family with a forged document stating that he was entitled to part of her estate.
He was charged Aug. 16 with second-degree murder. He has proclaimed his innocence and, at his first court hearing, a public defender called the evidence lacking. Muth later fired his lawyers in part for failing to relay his messages to the White House and Defense Department, though a judge this month declared him temporarily incompetent for trial and directed the attorneys to step in amid concerns about his mental and physical health.
Meanwhile, the case now turns on whether Muth is competent for trial and, if not now, when he might be.
A doctor has described him as "delusional;" others see an abusive swindler.
Schwab, for one, said he tried to warn Drath away from Muth.
"I kept on saying, 'Viola, my fear is your life is at stake.'"
Her reply: "I know, I know — but I am in control."