- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2012

For two decades, Viola Drath and her husband, Albrecht Muth, lived among the relatively secluded houses on a quiet Northwest Washington street.

It wasn’t until police threw open the door of the cream-colored Q Street home on a hot night in August that the eccentric — and at times abusive — life of the bizarre couple was thrust into the spotlight.

Drath, 91, was found dead in a bathroom. Her husband of 20 years, a German man about half her age who often dressed in military garb and presented himself to acquaintances as a secret agent or a diplomat, was taken into custody and charged in connection with her killing.

On Wednesday, Mr. Muth, 47, is scheduled to appear in D.C. Superior Court for his second mental health update. Court papers filed ahead of the hearing say that doctors who talked with Mr. Muth last week concluded that he is not competent to stand trial.

The widower was admitted to St. Elizabeths Hospital on Feb. 15 after he started a lengthy hunger strike and told officials he communicated with angels. He also attempted to fire his attorneys so he could represent himself.

Court documents filed last month quoted the chief executive officer of St. Elizabeths suggesting that Mr. Muth could be faking his bizarre behavior to avoid prison time. The subsequent filing quotes test results that suggest Mr. Muth understands the charges he is facing and the potential penalties, but that he lacks a rational understanding of the proceedings. He continues, for example, to insist that Drath was killed by agents of the Iranian government.

Those who knew the couple said they remember a man just as odd in his Georgetown home as he is behind bars. Some could only hazard a guess as to why a woman known for her proud and energetic demeanor would tolerate and marry such an eccentric man. Many agreed that, regardless of the reasons that brought the two together, the marriage would be Drath’s downfall.

“When you saw this guy, Doctor Strangelove comes to mind,” said Laura Bowling, a neighbor who lives directly across the street from Drath’s home. “The sad part is, this was a fine woman, but her legacy will go into the annals of the bizarre.”

‘Overwhelmed’ by him

A native of Germany, Viola Drath began a career in journalism in Nebraska, working as a correspondent for the German paper Die Weltpost and for KUON-TV in Omaha.

When her first husband, Col. Francis S. Drath, was appointed deputy director of the U.S. Selective Service System in 1968, she moved with him to Washington. From 1975 to 2002, she worked as a foreign correspondent for the Handelsblatt financial daily newspaper of Germany.

She was known for her contributions to the German unification process and her analysis of postwar foreign policy between the United States and Germany.

Drath worked in Washington as a journalist and college professor. She wrote several books and authored dozens of columns over a span of two decades for the commentary pages of The Washington Times. She reportedly married Mr. Muth, also a native German, in 1990, four years after the death of her first husband, to whom she had been married for nearly 40 years.

“I think she was lonely,” said Kevin Chaffee, senior editor of Washington Life magazine and former society editor for The Washington Times.

“She was a very elderly lady, very generous and charming. Then there was this guy who was like an albatross around her neck.”

Less is known about Mr. Muth.

According to an email Mr. Muth sent to The Times prior to his arrest, Drath — whom he called a “grand dame” — was introduced to him in the early 1980s during a conference. Their wedding several years later would be one “of convenience,” he said.

“I kept on begging her not to marry him,” said George Schwab, president of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and a close friend of Drath’s. “I warned her.”

Drath told him it was Mr. Muth’s enthusiasm for news, his briefings on current events and her feelings that it was “never a dull moment” that justified her staying with a man more than 40 years her junior.

“She was overwhelmed by him in a sense,” Mr. Schwab said.

He was known in his neighborhood for his habit of stalking along Georgetown sidewalks in a tan, custom-made, military-style uniform and puffing on a cigar.

Mr. Muth claimed to be a secret agent and a staff brigadier general with the Iraqi army. He also went by the name Sheik Ali Al-Muthaba and blogged about Middle Eastern military issues, including those relating to Iraq.

In 1994, he gave a lecture at American University as part of the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, under the title of special adviser to U.N. Undersecretary-General Vladimir Pertrovksy.

Six years later, Mr. Muth, now a “publicist,” attempted to arrange a visit to Washington by Pakistan’s ambassador to Turkey, Karamatullah Khan Ghori.

In 2002, under the title of executive director of the Eminent Persons Group, Mr. Muth held a press conference on the small-arms trade in Africa. The organization was an elite, independent commission made up of 24 people with close ties to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

An indictment filed in court lists Mr. Muth’s given name, as well as the moniker “Count Albi.”

“I’ve been around a good long time with people who have titles,” Mr. Chaffee said. “I just knew he was a fantasist.”

Troubling signs

David Jones, an editor with Voice of America and a former managing editor at The Times, recalled a black-tie affair at the couple’s home — one of many gatherings Mr. Muth presided over that participants described as being oddly formal and unusual. Mr. Jones became interested in something Mr. Muth said and had wanted to pursue the detail for a possible story.

“As she was handing me my coat, … Viola whispered in my ear: ‘Don’t believe anything he says. Call me tomorrow, and I’ll explain.’ “

When Arnaud de Borchgrave, a director and senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and editor-at-large with The Times, went to a dinner at Drath’s home, he recalled the woman appearing “embarrassed, looking at us with a ‘What can I do?’ type of expression” as her husband presided over the meal.

During the years his wife contributed articles to The Times, Mr. Muth corresponded hundreds of times with the paper’s editors. Most emails were rambling observations about daily life in a war-torn Middle East, or cryptically alluded to secret missions abroad.

Others were more personal, such as dinner invitations, birthday party plans or life advice for Drath, and on several occasions indicated Mr. Muth had overstepped his bounds.

After Mr. Muth forwarded to several journalists, including some from The Times, an email containing Drath’s personal feelings on the 2007 killing of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Drath chastised him in a later email for the “breach of privacy.” He also forwarded that email, reminding her that “there is no general assumption of privacy in any dealings with me!”

On March 13, 2009, Drath was sent a letter by Merrillee Carlson, at the time the president of the Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission, now known as the Military Families United.

In the letter, Ms. Carlson stated that her organization would be withdrawing their backing of Drath’s Iraq Liberation Day event because of “communications that cross the professional boundary” that were sent by Mr. Muth.

“As you know, I have expressed concern regarding previous event activities and communications with Mr. Muth,” Ms. Carlson wrote. “The actions of Mr. Muth have made it clear to us that it is not possible to participate in this event in a matter which is productive or effective.”

Ms. Carlson did not return messages seeking comment about the incident.

Undue influence?

In the 20 years Mr. Muth was married to Drath, his name appears in court documents related to abuse charges. Mr. Muth said in the email sent to The Times before his arrest that a protective order had been filed against him by a man with whom he had carried on a romantic relationship while he was married to Drath. That record was not found.

According to court records, in 1992, Mr. Muth pleaded guilty to simple assault against his wife, and in 2006 an argument between the two escalated into Mr. Muth hitting Drath with a chair and pounding her head into the floor.

Though Drath was “highly regarded by people who knew her,” it was obvious, Mr. de Borchgrave said, “she was totally under his domination.”

The hundreds of emails contain no answers as to why she remained with Mr. Muth. A spokeswoman for the family said Drath’s relatives were not available at the time for interviews, nor did they respond to individual phone calls seeking comment.

Louise G. Roy, a clinical psychologist in Washington, said the significant factor in the relationship between Drath and Mr. Muth was the age difference.

“We’re falling into the area of elder vulnerability,” Ms. Roy said. “Was she vulnerable to exploitation? She was certainly vulnerable to abuse.”

“It’s also quite possible the dynamics changed once he got her to trust him,” Ms. Roy said. “At that time when he was in his 20s, he probably could just be her friend, behave like her friend. That might have been OK for a while, but as we know, circumstances change, dynamics change.”

Robert Bullock, principal of the D.C.-based Elder & Disability Law Center, did not know the couple, but said that while the relationship might have appeared to be unusual, it was not necessarily cause for immediate action.

“He took care of her. So what if it was a marriage of convenience, as long as he didn’t cross the line in terms of undue influence or exploitation?” said Mr. Bullock, who has practiced elder law exclusively for 15 years.

According to an autopsy report by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Drath suffered a fractured rib, torn right thumbnail, and injuries to her neck and in both eyes — evidence of a possible strangulation.

Only hours after reporting his wife’s death, Mr. Muth gave family members a letter dated April 11, 2011, that stated he would collect $150,000 upon his wife’s death.

Mr. Schwab recalled seeing Drath last summer, a few weeks before her death. At one point he inquired about the status of Drath’s married life.

Her response: “I think I am on top of the situation.”

• Meredith Somers can be reached at msomers@washingtontimes.com.

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