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Upon Reflection: Albrecht Muth and Viola Drath
While the accused murderer undergoes a competency evaluation, the author looks back at some odd encounters with him and his wife.
On the map, Courtroom 312 at DC Superior Court is about three miles from the 3200 block of Q Street in Georgetown. In terms of social environment, it is a whole culture away from the leafy, historic neighborhood. Undoubtedly, 312 is not where either Viola Drath or Albrecht Muth thought their relationship would end up. But even on Valentine’s Day they were there, in spirit if not in body, the subject of a preliminary hearing in a homicide. Drath was not there because she was found beaten to death in August. Muth, who was arrested and charged with the murder, was not in the courtroom because he was in the hospital, suffering from starvation, claiming the Archangel Gabriel ordered him to fast.
None of us can know exactly what’s happening in Albrecht Muth’s head. His doctors say he suffers from psychosis and call him “delusional.” Is that medically accurate, or is Muth simply crafty, smart in a bizarre and Machiavellian way? He told one doctor his training in the Iraqi Army prepared him for long stretches without food, that “like a camel” he could subsist on water. But there’s no evidence he was in the Iraqi Army.
Judge Russell Canan wants to solve the mystery. He ordered Muth to St. Elizabeths, the city’s psychiatric hospital, for a competency evaluation. Sources confirmed he is there now. Skeptics wonder if this is what Muth is gaming for: that if he goes to trial and is convicted, but is found incompetent or insane, he could be sentenced to life at St. Elizabeths rather than in one of the hardcore federal prisons used by the DC Department of Corrections.
I sat in Courtroom 312 on Valentine’s Day, not only as a writer and observer, but as someone who was acquainted—a bit—with both the victim and the suspect. Muth and I worked on a project together years ago, and my then 12-year-old son, Spencer, and I went to his home for a dinner party. He and Drath lived a few blocks from us in Georgetown. We weren’t friends. I didn’t pursue a friendship because even though we became friendly enough, Muth and Drath were so bizarre, we had so little in common, and his behavior toward my young son made me suspicious and uncomfortable.
I met Muth and Drath for the first time in 2005 at a reception at the Embassy of India that was held on behalf of Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. Muth had reached out to me and asked if I would interview his friend Gandhi for my Q&A Cafe interview program. I agreed, and so I was invited. He’d also asked me to bring my son, which I did, because I liked to expose him to the perks of living in an international city like Washington. When Muth introduced himself, I was struck by his height, his round face, his ramrod deportment, his archly proper manners even in a city of diplomatic etiquette, and the trim of his pinstriped suit. He was impeccably turned out. He appeared well off. He spoke English with an Austro-Germanic accent.
The large reception room was not crowded. Muth gestured across the way and said, “Let me take you over to meet my wife.” He led us to a group that included a man, a young woman, and an elderly woman. When Muth turned to the elderly woman and said, “This is Viola Drath,” I assumed it was anybody but his spouse—she could be his grandmother—until he added, “my wife.” I hope the shock didn’t register on my face, but it must have, because her reaction to me was cold and imperious. I looked into the face of Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca.
Much has been made about their age disparity—she was 44 years his senior—but it showed. This wasn’t Demi and Ashton or Goldie and Kurt. This was the Duchess of Alba and Alfonso Diez (though in that case, the age difference is only 25 years).
It’s possible in Washington to meet a lot of interesting couples, and to wonder how they found each other or why they are together. Muth and Drath win the prize. I was undeniably curious about them. The only name that came up that we had in common was Mark Malloch Brown (now Lord Malloch Brown), who at the time was deputy secretary-general of the United Nations. The mention of his name caused Muth’s manner to darken considerably. He said Brown ruined his friendship with UN secretary general Kofi Annan, with whom he said he was very close before Mark came along.
The interview with Arun Gandhi went off without a hitch. Both Muth and Drath were in the audience. He was again in a well-cut suit. She was coiffed and soigné, and, again, imperious. There were no air kisses or warm hugs.
When the program ended, Muth approached me and said, “Viola and I would very much like you to come to dinner at our house, and please bring your son. I will follow up.” He did. Promptly. I said Spencer would not be comfortable at a grownup’s dinner party, but Muth assured, “There will be young people there.” Spencer was reluctant, but when I promised there would be other young people he relented. “It will be a neighborhood dinner. Get your homework done early and we’ll be home before bedtime,” I told him.
The night of the dinner party, it poured. Rain flooded the gutters. We drove the few short blocks to Muth and Drath’s house. It was a tall, narrow townhouse with a bay window and curtains drawn. I was skeptical that our hosts would have friends with children Spencer’s age, but I was open to the possibility.
In the three decades I’ve lived in Georgetown, I’ve been to dozens of homes and dozens of cocktail parties, and I’ve always known at least a few of the guests. We were the last to arrive, and apart from Muth and Drath, I didn’t know anyone. As for young people, that would be accurate if a 22-year-old Georgetown University graduate student counted as a contemporary of my 12-year-old, who gave me a decidedly unpleasant look that said, “Thanks loads, Mom.”
The room was a time capsule from the late 1980s. The decor was the brown wood, heavy upholstery, and lace trim of an earlier era, with many silver-framed photographs (mostly of Viola) that featured assorted dignitaries of years long past. I got the impression Drath may have had her heyday in the Reagan years, waning a little with Bush 41. The folks in the photos skewed State Department, military and diplomatic, in posed side-by-side photos from countless receiving lines, perhaps the occasional reception or office visit. There were similar photographs of Muth, but I don’t recall any of them together as a couple.
Muth, again in a handsome suit, rushed to greet us, manners in high gear: “What can I get you? Let me introduce you,” and so on. The guests were couples, older, mostly from the neighborhood. Looking back, they were as befuddled as I was. None seemed to have a deep or abiding relationship with the hosts. Everyone talked in that stilted getting-to-know-you fashion of the first drink before dinner. Where do you live? What do you do? Do you know so-and-so? What about this rainstorm? Muth stood at one end of the room, while Drath, in a high-collared black cocktail dress, stayed at the other. There was no intimacy between them. He was the greeter, bartender, and server. She said nothing more than “hello” to me or my son.
Many in the media make the mistake of calling Muth and Drath “Georgetown socialites,” but they were not. Maybe they aspired to that—I have a feeling they did—but they weren’t in the mix. Besides, living in a townhouse in Georgetown does not make one a socialite. It doesn’t work that way. Georgetown clicks merrily along in spite of its past myths. I’ve lived there 35 years, and it hasn’t changed much at all socially. There are people who entertain, people who don’t, people who work elsewhere and come home to Georgetown. It’s an address. A village. It’s not a social status.
At this point in my acquaintance with Muth, there was no hint of his claim to being in the Iraqi Army or of being a sheik. He dressed like a diplomat and presented himself as one, though apparently without portfolio. He seemed to be in awe of Drath. She was the star. He moved everyone and everything and every conversation toward her. This doesn’t mean I believed the relationship was on the level, or that they were having sex, or even sleeping in the same bed, but my impression was that however odd they might be, there was some element of it that worked for them. Could I figure out what it was?
We were called to dinner with a flourish from Muth and descended one by one down narrow stairs to a compact, dark, candlelit dining room. It conjured an Addams Family cartoon. Cue the organ music. The table was beautifully and grandly set with large silver candelabra, good linen, flatware and crystal. In Munich or Salzburg this might be routine for an at-home weeknight dinner. In Georgetown it felt over the top, but still lovely.
Dinner was the most peculiar part of the evening, a farce worthy of Noël Coward or Dominick Dunne. It began with the seating. Drath sat at the head of the table, and my son was at the other end, with Muth on his left, which prompted mother and son to exchange a meaningful look. I was in the middle of the table, a few seats away but close enough to tell Muth “no” when he went to fill Spencer’s glass with wine. As he had been greeter and bartender earlier, Muth was now cook and waiter. Up, down, up, down. He dashed to the kitchen, brought out a course, served it, sat and ate, and then repeated the routine. He was a whirlwind.
Drath seemed about as happy with Muth as my son was with me. She made little complaints and demands about the food, the service, what was or wasn’t on the table. He responded with a nod or a bow, but became somewhat fretful. Dinner conversation traveled along the usual Washington pathways—politics, global affairs, the military, gossip—but whenever I tried to engage Drath in conversation, she answered in one or two words and abruptly turned to another guest. I was not on her radar, but more than that, I couldn’t figure out where this entire dinner fit on the radar. There was something else going on, and my guess is the other guests sensed that, too, but there was nothing we could say about it. The hosts weren’t the topic of discussion. Everyone was friendly, but there were no jokes, no laughter, no conversations shared by the whole table. The candles burned down to stubs, the room grew dimmer, wax dripped onto the tablecloth, and when only one candle still had a faint flicker, dinner was over. We were invited upstairs for cordials.
I promised my son we would depart after a “polite moment” upstairs, and we did. We thanked our hosts, said goodbye to the other guests, pulled on our raincoats, ran to the car, jumped inside, closed the doors, and looked at each other with wide eyes that asked, “What was that?” I apologized to him the whole three-minute drive home. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I said, “but was that the strangest dinner ever?” “Yes,” he said, “I just want to go home.” I felt bad for putting him through it, but I was tricked by Muth with his promise of other “young people.” I should have known better, but in a way I was glad I had a witness with whom to relive the evening.
A few days later I began to hear from Muth. He wanted to do something with Spencer. He said he felt for him as a boy whose father had died, and he wanted to reach out. Could he take him to a lecture? No. Then on another day, could he take him to a movie? No. Then in another e-mail, could he take him to the Kennedy Center for a concert? No. I politely declined each invitation, and then he stopped asking. That was a relief. Without any hard evidence, with only my mother’s intuition, I felt we should distance ourselves from Muth and told Spencer if he saw him on the street just to pass him by. “You don’t have to be polite,” I said.
Five years passed before I saw Muth again, and when I did, I couldn’t believe my eyes. He was done up in some military outfit out of a Gilbert & Sullivan production, complete with gold braid and a baton under his arm. It was at Georgetown’s Cafe Milano, where I had stopped for lunch. He walked in behind me, went up to the desk, clicked his heels, and confirmed a reservation for later that evening. At first I wondered, “Who is that bizarre individual?” When I realized who it was, I mentioned him to the restaurant’s general manager, Laurent Menoud, who said the Muths were regulars and that Albrecht often appeared in uniform. But from where? What country? He’s German, but it wasn’t not a German uniform. Laurent shrugged.
A few days later, my neighbors announced they’d met the “most amazing character last night at Martin’s Tavern.” They went on and on about him, how well informed he was, how intellectual and erudite. When they started to describe his elaborate uniform, I knew it had to be Muth, but they said he introduced himself as Sheikh Ali Al-Muthaba, a general in the Iraqi Army. I asked if he clicked his heels when they met. They said yes. I rolled my eyes. I told them what I knew about the man, then jumped on the computer and Googled his new name. I found a website, clearly put together by him, which was rambling, self-promoting, but inconclusive. Just because he said he was an officer in the Iraqi Army did not make it so. I believe he also had a Wikipedia page, but it’s now long gone, along with the website.
I walked by Muth and Drath’s home—curtains drawn, as always—and wondered if they still lived there. I wondered if they were together. It didn’t seem to me to be a happy marriage, but that’s not always a cause for divorce. I certainly wondered what was going on with the uniform, the baton and the heel clicking.
A week or so later I saw him on the street ahead of me and, out of curiosity, circled back and started to walk behind him at the same slow pace. He was in uniform, tapping his baton at his side, puffing on a fat cigar. He was jaunty. As he approached the house on Q Street, I stood across the street and out of sight. He got rid of the cigar. But then he did something I found odd. Rather than go up to the front door and enter the house that way, he entered through the basement door. Maybe there was a perfectly logical reason, but I found myself wondering if Drath had him living in the basement, if he’d become more of a boarder and less of a husband.
The names Albrecht Muth and Viola Drath didn’t come up again until the murder, and while it was a shock, it was a lower-case shock. I was sad for her. I had a first instinct that was shared by many. I heard Muth was spotted hiding out around Georgetown, sleeping in Montrose Park, pestering a local business owner for money, wearing the same clothes every day, becoming distraught and desperate. Then he was arrested. People asked me if I knew them, and I had a hard time answering that question. Yes, I’d met them. Yes, I’d been to their home. But, no, I still hadn’t figured them out, which means I didn’t know them.
In the days after his arrest I heard lots of stories. The most interesting to me were about the various individuals who had also gone to the Muth house for dinner: once, but not twice. I heard that at the Washington Post, the reporters on the story were canvassing for newspaper staffers who had been to the house. Some well-known journalists had been guests, but they did not want that known publicly. That, too, was sad, I thought. Sad for Drath, because she was probably impressed to have them in her home. More impressed than having me. Still, I imagined the dinner scenario was much the same. Oh, so strange.
When the hearing in Courtroom 312 came to an end on Valentine’s Day, I approached one of Muth’s lawyers, Dana Page, of the DC Public Defender Service. I handed her my card. “I know he’s got to get well, but if the time were ever to be right I would like to do an interview with him,” I said. She looked at me like I was the biggest idiot in the building. After all, we’d just heard that he’d been getting his guidance from the Archangel Gabriel and God. “I’ll keep your card, but I’m not filing the request,” she said.
A new hearing date for Muth is set for March 14, when Judge Canan expects to receive the competency report from St. Elizabeths.
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