NEW YORK — The 9-year-old girl woke up early one morning in December 2009 and found her mother facedown in a bathtub filled with bloody water inside of their Manhattan apartment. Above the tub, a cabinet door had been nearly pulled off the hinges.
The woman’s estranged husband, who lived across the hall, said the panicked girl called him, and he called 911. He told police he had tried to revive his wife. Investigators initially determined that her death was an accident. Within days, she was buried, without an autopsy, per the wishes of her Orthodox Jewish family.
But Wednesday, nine years after the woman, Shele Danishefsky Covlin, was discovered dead, a jury found her husband, Roderick Covlin, 45, guilty of her murder.
The verdict came after a yearslong investigation and an eight-week trial in state Supreme Court in Manhattan. Prosecutors portrayed Covlin as a heartless schemer who would stop at nothing to collect his wife’s money, who used his children as pawns in his machinations and even took steps to frame his daughter for the killing.
As the verdict was read, Covlin dropped his head and closed his eyes. The victim’s siblings and their spouses, who had attended the trial every day, embraced each other and wept.
“The wheels of justice turn very slowly, and we always had confidence that ultimately this day would come,” Danishefsky Covlin’s brother-in-law, Marc Karstaedt, said. “Finally, after nine years, we have justice for our beloved Shele.”
Covlin’s lawyer, Robert Gottlieb, said he would appeal the verdict.
The trial turned largely on circumstantial evidence that pointed to Covlin as the only person with a key to the apartment who had a motive to kill Danishefsky Covlin, a wealthy finance executive. Prosecutors said that Covlin strangled her to death because he wanted to inherit her fortune, then staged the crime scene to look like an accidental drowning. She had planned to cut him out of her will that same day.
“His primary motive was pure unadulterated greed,” the lead prosecutor, Matthew Bogdanos, told jurors in his opening statement.
Still, jurors were challenged in determining what happened on New Year’s Eve 2009, inside Danishefsky Colvin’s apartment at the Dorchester Towers, a luxury building on West 68th Street, a few blocks from Lincoln Center.
Police, who initially thought it was an accidental death, did not immediately dust for fingerprints or collect DNA. Nor did they secure items in the bathroom for evidence. They took no notes and spoke to only a few neighbors. They never searched Covlin’s apartment or the building’s common areas for evidence. They even allowed the family’s rabbi to clean the bathroom with peroxide, eliminating any evidence of blood.
Gottlieb said in closing arguments Monday there was no way to determine who murdered his client’s wife, largely because detectives botched the investigation.
“It is impossible to know beyond a reasonable doubt what happened to Shele Covlin, how it happened and why it happened,” he said.
Because Danishefsky Covlin was buried without an autopsy, the cause of death was undetermined for several months. But as suspicions grew regarding Covlin, the family had her body exhumed, and in April 2010, a medical examiner determined she had been strangled, her neck squeezed with such force it fractured the hyoid bone, causing bleeding in her right eye.
Still, it took five more years before prosecutors had enough evidence to arrest and charge Covlin, a self-proclaimed martial arts expert, with her murder.
Before her death, Danishefsky Covlin, who had been married to Covlin for 11 years, had confided in family members and close friends about his erratic and abusive behavior, according to testimony and evidence presented at trial.
She wrote her sister, Eve Karstaedt, in January 2009 that she was “very scared that at some point in the future all his anger and rage may result in something bad happening — he really can’t control his temper.”
The children’s baby sitter, Hyacinth Reid, testified that one day she heard Covlin screaming at Danishefsky Covlin so loudly inside their apartment that he could be heard in the hallway. Later, Reid said Danishefsky Covlin told her Covlin had thrown her to the floor.
In May 2009, Danishefsky Covlin filed for divorce, and, on the day she was killed, she was planning to remove her estranged husband from her will. That angered Covlin, who prosecutors say was often unemployed, and dependent on his wife and her family’s largess.
Prosecutors described Covlin as an impecunious professional backgammon player who risked losing his children and his lavish lifestyle if the divorce was approved. He wanted his wife dead, Bogdanos said, because he was set to receive about $5 million from her estate.
Danishefsky Covlin met Covlin at a Jewish singles party at Le Bar Bat, a bar in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in Manhattan in February 1998, prosecutors said. They were engaged in a matter of weeks, even though Covlin was 11 years younger than she was. Two years later, they had their first child, Anna.
Danishefsky Covlin was a senior vice president for private wealth management at UBS, while Covlin was an unsuccessful stockbroker who went to school, traveled for backgammon tournaments and had tried his luck in a number of failed financial ventures that Danishefsky Covlin helped fund, court records show. He also spent countless hours pursuing women for sex, prosecutors said.
On their 10th anniversary, Covlin told Danishefsky Covlin that he wanted an open marriage, and she objected, prosecutors said.
They separated in April 2009. She rented the apartment directly across the hall from hers for him because she did not want to disrupt the children’s lives. She also gave Covlin a set of keys to her apartment, a decision prosecutors said cost her her life.
For the rest of the year, the divorce and custody battle became increasingly bitter. Covlin, who had lost his job at Pragma Securities, a financial consulting firm, told a Family Court judge he could no longer afford to pay child support. In response, the judge prohibited him from spending money to attend backgammon tournaments. “All of which led to his growing, obsessive, all-consuming hatred of her,” Bogdanos said.
A month after they separated, Covlin tried to sabotage his wife, according to court records, telling her employer that she used drugs and had stolen money from their joint account. Two months later, he coached his 3-year-old son, Myles, to falsely accuse Danishefsky Covlin of sexual abuse, prosecutors said.
Patricia Swenson, a woman Covlin met online, testified that he told her in August that year that he wanted to kill his wife or to have her die some other way.
Prosecutors say that Covlin followed through on his word, but his attempts to obtain his wife’s money after her death stalled after he became mired in a legal battle with her brother, along with a custody dispute over the children.
For Covlin, custody of the children meant access to the millions of dollars his wife had left for them. In the end, however, his parents, David and Carol Covlin, of Scarsdale, became the children’s guardians.
Covlin, who moved in with his parents, assaulted his mother in September 2011, slamming her headfirst into a wall, and attacked his father two months later, according to court records. He also took $84,000 from his children’s college fund.
By the fall of 2012, Covlin had laid out several plans to kill his parents, but never carried them out, according to testimony and court records. “His anger and rage was uncontrollable,” another girlfriend, Debra Oles, testified, saying Covlin had tried to recruit her to help with his schemes.
In January 2013, Covlin instructed his daughter, Anna, who was then 12, to accuse her grandfather of rape, according to court records. But the girl balked.
Later that year, Covlin plotted to kidnap Anna and take her to Mexico, where he would pay someone $10,000 to marry her in order to emancipate her from her grandparents, prosecutors said in court papers. That plan also never came to pass.
While Covlin continued to concoct plans to get his children back and to regain access to their inheritance, he was the primary suspect in an ongoing murder investigation.
In one of his final acts before being arrested, court papers say Covlin devised a plan to frame his daughter for Danishefsky Covlin’s murder. In June 2013, he composed a false murder confession in her email account as if it were written by her.
“I lied,” Covlin wrote, pretending to be his daughter. “She didn’t just slip.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.