Socialite Murder: Viola Drath and Albrecht Muth’s Tumultuous Marriage
Sandra McElwaine investigates the slaying of 91-year-old journalist Viola Drath in her Georgetown home.
A slaying in the nation’s capital will inevitably turn heads, and a murder in leafy Georgetown earns a special infamy. But no story in recent memory is more sordid than the crime that took place inside a small Victorian bow-front row house on Q Street in August.
Last month Albrecht Gero Muth, a 47-year-old German citizen who posed as an Iraqi brigadier general, was accused of savagely beating and strangling his fragile 91-year-old wife, Viola Drath. He then purportedly presented her family with a forged document saying he was entitled to $150,000 upon her death. He is currently in jail without bail, charged with second-degree murder.
With Muth’s preliminary hearing scheduled for Sept. 9, the bizarre story continues to stir up outrage around the globe. Neighbors and deliverymen claim to have had their suspicions about what went on behind the couple’s heavily draped windows, and the crime has horrified the community. Friends who never understood the unlikely union between the elegant, sophisticated journalist and outlandish, bellicose, much younger man had long viewed the relationship as tempestuous and fraught with problems.
The victim’s grandson Ethan Drath owns Sherman Pickey, a preppy boutique around the corner from his late grandmother’s house that sells nautical rope belts and bow ties for men, and colorful, dressy clothing for women. Neither he nor any of his family will talk on the record or discuss the case.
There was a long history of violence during the marriage, and Drath obtained several protective orders against Muth, her second husband, reporting that he physically abused and threatened her. In 1992 he pleaded guilty to attacking Drath, and in 2002 he moved in with his gay lover, Donald Davis, after a particularly nasty altercation. Several years later, after Davis obtained a protective order because, he said, Muth threatened to kill him, Muth moved back in with Drath. When she was 86 and he was 42, Drath told police Muth assaulted her with a chair, banged her head on the floor, sat on her chest, and refused to let her leave her house. But despite the alleged beatings and warnings of friends, she declined to press charges.
“To understand Viola, you have to understand she was a typical upper-level World War II German war bride,” says Jerry Livingston, who first met the late writer through different German groups and associations in the '70s. “These women were submissive; they wanted to please. She was very intelligent, knowledgeable about politics, and managed to launch a career for herself in the U.S.”
Born in Dusseldorf in 1920, she met and married her first husband, Francis Drath, deputy U.S. military governor of Bavaria, after World War II. They moved to Nebraska, where he became a professor of American literature at the University of Nebraska, and Viola studied philosophy and Germanic literature, earning a master’s degree.
Drath maintained close ties with her native country, and when they moved to Washington in 1968, she began writing for a variety of German newspapers and magazines, including Handelsblatt, a leading business journal, to which she was still contributing at the time of her death. “There was a grande-dame image about her,” recalls the magazine’s current Washington bureau chief, Markus Ziener. He claims she played a significant role in Washington’s diplomatic milieu and was deeply involved in German reunification, and that she was extremely influential in Republican circles as an adviser to George H.W. Bush and was “close to Henry Kissinger.” She also wrote several books, a column for The Washington Times during the ’80s and ’90s, and pieces for Dossier, a local glossy. When her husband died in 1986, she was “devastated” and “terrified of being on her own,” according to longtime friend Viola Wentzel, daughter of the late West German chancellor Kurt Kiesinger.
Drath met Albrecht Muth at various German functions, and she and the tall, good-looking American University student were married in a private ceremony in Richmond, Va., in 1989. Muth told police it was “a marriage of convenience.”
“Her children were opposed to it, and they were right,” says Wentzel. “He was a nut. When I asked her why she married him, she said, ‘He amuses me, he’s very bright, and I hate being alone.’”
Her friends despised him. Wentzel says Muth used Drath solely for her connections and money, though she struggled to maintain her lifestyle and keep up appearances. And though she has been dubbed a socialite in the media, she was not really wealthy or social. “To call her a socialite is garbage. She was a very minor figure. Anyone who calls her that doesn’t know anything about Washington,” says Wentzel.
It was Muth who apparently coveted that title. With no job and living on a $2,000- a-month allowance from his wife (recently cut, he told police, to $1,800), Muth for years strutted around Georgetown dressed in an Iraqi brigadier general‘s uniform—complete with medals, swagger stick, beret, and sometimes an eye patch, smoking a cigar and constantly inviting to dinner anyone he ran into. He would dangle the prospect of meeting well-known politicians or military figures, especially Iraqis, and always followed up with a volley of emails, once inferring Gen. David Petraeus was a guest of honor. (One big name he actually managed to bag was Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who did dine at Muth’s house, or at least signed the guest book, according to The Wall Street Journal.)
Occasionally, he turned up at the city’s trendiest restaurant, Café Milano, stupefying guests with his outré outfit. "You could tell he was a fake,” says maitre d’ Laurent Menoud. “He was like something out of a fable.”
The Iraqi Embassy, meanwhile, disavowed any connection with the would-be general, who referred to himself as Sheik Ali Al-Muthaba, issuing the following statement: "We are deeply troubled by Mr. Muth's claim of his service in the Iraqi military. He is not currently and has never been a member of the Iraqi Army. He does not represent the Embassy, its attachés, the government of Iraq, or any government institution in any fashion. In the past, the Embassy was aware of the claims made by Mr. Muth and made it clear to all concerned that they were false and demanded that they must cease."
Yet there is a disconnect, because Iraqi brass were ever present at his protocol-perfect parties, and the ambassador of Iraq hosted a large party for Drath’s 90th birthday last year, with Paul Wolfowitz as the so-called keynote speaker. (Neither Wolfowitz nor the embassy responded to phone calls or emails.)
Wentzel labels Muth “a total phony. He was an unhinged control freak who beat her, isolated her from her two daughters, and I begged her to get rid of him.” Until this past June, Wentzel says, Drath thought she could handle the situation and avoided the subject, but over lunch with Wentzel earlier this summer, Drath finally confessed “she was really scared” and had contacted some German lawyers, according to Wentzel. That was their last conversation.
On Saturday, Aug. 13, the day after police discovered his wife’s body, Muth marched into the bridal and tuxedo shop of Georgetown businessman Ed Solomon, pleading for cash and a place to stay, Solomon says. The astonished store owner had known Muth for years; his shop was where Muth purchased white-cotton gloves to enhance his uniform. Out of curiosity, Solomon and his wife had attended a couple of what he considered weird gatherings at Muth’s home. According to Solomon, Muth said, “My wife was murdered, I’m the prime suspect, and my house is a crime scene.” Muth told Solomon that he had spent the night in Montrose Park and was desperate for funds.
Solomon demurred and suggested Muth ask his Iraqi associates. Then Muth clicked his heels and said he would stop by the next day. He did, and once again Solomon managed to turn him away.
Muth listed the date of his wife’s death as Thursday, Aug. 11, the day before he claimed to have found her body. The timing of events has not been explained. He told police an intruder broke into the house, and he found his wife dead in the bathroom, though there was no sign of a break-in or robbery. He sent the following mail to friends: “I am sad to advise that my dear wife of nearly 25 years passed last night. Funeral arrangements are pending. ALBRECHT.” Then he sent an obituary to The Washington Post, saying she died of an injury from a fall, and that he was planning to speak to officials to convince them of his innocence, according to the paper.
But police discovered scratches on his face, and a chipped tooth, indicating a struggle, and announced that Drath’s injuries were inconsistent with a fall. On Saturday, the medical examiner ruled the death a homicide. There were no other suspects.
On Tuesday evening, Aug. 16, while he was walking near Solomon’s shop on P Street, Muth was arrested and subsequently charged with second-degree murder. On Wednesday, Dana Page of the District of Columbia’s Public Defender Service said in court that the government had no evidence, no DNA, no witnesses, and no statements linking Muth to the slaying. “The government is putting their spin on what the detectives said my client said,” Page said.
“He scared her for years, although she would never admit it until that very last time I saw her. There was some kind of tie. It was the typical battered-wife syndrome,” reflects Wentzel. Regardless of who is responsible, she says, “it was a totally senseless murder.”