03.15.13

The Hungry Murder Suspect

Albrecht Muth, accused of killing his frail old wife, is playing a bizarre cat and mouse game with his lawyers. His latest salvo is a baffling hunger strike. Sandra McElwaine reports.

He stands accused of a horrific murder in posh Georgetown, a savage and brutal attack that left his 91-year-old wife dead.

Now, after holding up his trial for months with bizarre legal machinations and weak from a hunger strike that has baffled and aggravated his court-appointed lawyers, 49-year-old Albrecht Muth is finally ready to face a jury.

Muth, a German citizen who claims to be an Iraqi brigadier general (the Iraqi embassy in D.C. flatly denies any attachment) allegedly choked and beat his elderly wife, socialite Viola Drath, to death in 2011. She was found bludgeoned in a second-story bathroom of her home while her husband was strutting around town festooned in full military regalia, complete with swagger stick and white cotton gloves.

At first, Muth told police his wife had died from a bad fall. In court, he switched his story and said she had been the victim of Iranian hit men who were targeting him because of his undercover work. He has clung to this outlandish tale for the last two and a half years, portraying himself as well-placed Iraqi operative with top-secret clearance who needs only the testimony of Gen. David Petraeus and a few classified documents to clear his name.

As hearings pick up again on Friday, their client’s hunger strike is only the latest challenge for Muth’s defense team. Because of Muth’s many legal machinations—fasting, demanding to serve as his own counsel, insisting on seeing State Department cables that would apparently establish his credibility and cloak-and-dagger status—his trial was moved from its original date, October 2012 to later this month. (During part of this period, Muth was committed to St. Elizabeth’s, a mental hospital, for observation and found competent to stand trial.)

“I am on a religious fast,” Muth told the court by phone from his hospital bed at his most recent pre-trial hearing last week, claiming that he is following instructions from the angel Gabriel and may well die before Easter. “The curtain is coming down, I shall exit the stage quietly,” he concluded at the end of a lengthy rant, requesting again to serve as his own defense counsel and to attend his trial on a stretcher like former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

He has not eaten since December, although he consumed ice cream and pudding last month; prosecutors and doctors surmise someone is surreptitiously supplying him with water and other types of liquid nourishment.

“The curtain is coming down, I shall exit the stage quietly.”

Before his incarceration, Muth loved to strut about into trendy restaurants, tossing around A-list names and inviting anyone he ran into to dinners in honor of Henry Kissinger, Paul Wolfowitz, and Anton Scalia. (In reality, only the justice had signed his guest book.) 

But it was an open secret that his 22-year-union with Drath, which Muth described as “a marriage of convenience,” was acrimonious and tumultuous. Her friends and family loathed Muth and begged her to leave him. The aging German journalist admitted she was lonely and thought she could handle the volatile situation. When she was 86 and Muth 42, she told police he hit her with a chair, smashed her head on the floor and sat on her chest, refusing to allow her to leave the house. Despite many similar alleged assaults and several protective orders, Drath never pressed charges. 

According to a close friend, shortly before her death Drath consulted German lawyers for advice about a divorce, finally fed up with living in fear. “He scared her for years,” said Viola Wentzel, daughter of the late West German chancellor Kurt Kiesinger. ”She would never admit it until that last time I saw her. It was a typical battered wife syndrome and a totally senseless murder.”

Judge Russell Canan asked Muth to abandon his hunger strike earlier this month. “You say you are innocent of these charges,” Canan said, according to a court report from Homicide Watch. “I hope you would have enough faith in the criminal justice system that you’d be vindicated.”

The judge also stated he might allow Muth to appear at his trial via video conferencing from his bed, but admitted the legal protocol for such action was far from clear. He said he would try to reach a conclusion by the next pre-trial hearing. (Medical officials estimate the cost of transporting Muth in a special ambulance would cost many thousands.)

Meanwhile, prosecutors are wrapping up their case, preparing to set out eight different episodes of violence and domestic abuse. Among them is an incident reported in the Georgetown Patch where Muth allegedly asked a witness to “do away with her,” referring to Drath. The witness said Muth even suggested a motive—that the witness make it look like a robbery gone wrong—when Drath was out for a walk.

Nobody has a clue how this will end or what Muth might come up with next. Muth could die before—or during—the trial. He could be found guilty or not guilty by reason of insanity. Or the whole mess could come down to a mistrial, creating even more chaos and confusion in this seemingly endless theater of the absurd.