NEW YORK, N.Y. – For more than five years after a finance executive was found strangled in her bathtub, suspicion swirled around her estranged husband.
But Roderick Covlin denied involvement, and law enforcement officials eyed but never charged him until Monday, when he pleaded not guilty to murder in a case full of dramatic twists: a death initially seen as accidental and later ruled a homicide, an exhumed body, a divorce that was reaching a crucial point and a trail of accusations in civil court papers.
Covlin was “stunned” by his arrest Sunday, said his lawyer, Robert Gottlieb.
“There can be no credible evidence, because he did not kill his wife,” Gottlieb said after Covlin’s arraignment.
Prosecutors and police declined to comment on what development had prompted charges in Shele Danishefsky Covlin’s 2009 death. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. cited only “an investigation over the ensuing years.” New York Police Department Inspector Michael Baldassano said the case had “taken extensive police work and forensics.”
A half-dozen of Shele Covlin’s relatives watched as her husband was taken to court Monday to answer for her death. They declined to comment afterward.
Forty-seven-year-old Shele Covlin was a money manager at UBS, part of a finance family in which she worked alongside her brother and father. Her 42-year-old husband, known as Rod, had been a trader and was a noted figure in the backgammon world, having helped found the U.S. Backgammon Federation.
After years of marriage and two children, their relationship was falling apart. He had moved into an apartment across the hall in their Manhattan building, and they were embroiled in a bitter divorce, court papers show.
And Shele (pronounced SHEHL’-ee) Covlin was due to meet an attorney on Jan. 1, 2010, the day after she was found dead, to cut her husband out of her will. He stood to get half her roughly $4 million estate, with the rest going to their children.
“She was fearful for her life, believed Rod intended to kill her, and there was some urgency to make changes in her will,” documents filed in Surrogate’s Court say.
Then their daughter, now 15, found Shele Covlin lifeless in the tub.
With the only obvious sign of trauma a cut on the back of her head, investigators initially thought she had slipped and fallen. After her Orthodox Jewish family objected to an autopsy for religious reasons, the cause of her death was listed as undetermined.
But as an investigation began, her body was exhumed and autopsied with her family’s permission. Medical examiners concluded in April 2010 she had been strangled.
And her relatives — and later, a court agency — said Roderick Covlin, was to blame.
Shele Covlin’s father scorned his son-in-law as “an animal” in a newspaper interview, and the family fought him for custody of the children. His guardianship was suspended after information on the criminal investigation surfaced; his parents have custody.
And the Manhattan public administrator, who handles complicated estates and was named temporary custodian of Shele Covlin’s, filed a 2011 wrongful-death lawsuit accusing her husband of killing her.
“It’s just been a very bitter, personal battle” in multiple courts, Gottlieb said.
Roderick Covlin, meanwhile, has been living in suburban New Rochelle. He was held Monday as Gottlieb prepares an argument for bail.
This story has corrected the pronunciation of the deceased’s name.
Associated Press writer Tom Hays contributed to this report. Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @jennpeltz.