NEW YORK – Shele Covlin's body was found in the bathtub of her Manhattan apartment by her 9-year-old daughter on Dec. 31, 2009. Her young son was still asleep in his bed.
The only obvious sign of trauma was a cut on the back of her head, and investigators initially thought she had slipped. For religious reasons, her Orthodox Jewish family objected to an autopsy, and Covlin was quickly buried, the official cause of her death listed as undetermined.
But the case was only just beginning.
Covlin, 47, was a kind, joyful and careful mother to Anna and Myles, who are now 11 and 5, her family has said. She doted on them, but at the same time, she was strict about their education. Her relatives described the gray-eyed blonde as an adventurous, thoughtful woman of faith.
"She was my dearest, closest confidante in the world," her sister Eve said during a memorial service. "She was my childhood roommate who knew all of my secrets and personality quirks. I sought her advice countless times on all different life issues and I always believed she would be there for me through thick and thin."
Covlin was also highly successful, working alongside her brother and father in finance; shortly before her death, the trio had recently left their longtime posts with Merrill Lynch to work at UBS.
She had been married to Roderick Covlin, known as Rod, for years. But her relationship with former trader had soured, and he had moved into an apartment across the hall in their Upper West Side building. When she died, they were embroiled in a "bitter and acrimonious" divorce, according to court papers.
But it went beyond that, according to some of the papers: She'd scheduled a meeting with an estate planning attorney for Jan. 1, 2010 — the day after she was found dead — where she sought to change her will to remove her husband as the benefactor. He stood to lose millions of dollars.
"She was fearful for her life, believed Rod intended to kill her, and there was some urgency to make changes in her will. Two individuals, including the attorney, scheduled to meet with her," according to the documents filed in Surrogates Court in Manhattan.
Meanwhile, investigators further probed the woman's death. About a month after she was buried, the family dropped objections to an autopsy. Authorities took the unusual step of exhuming the body from Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. On March 1, 2010, the medical examiner's office began work.
On April 8, the death was officially ruled a homicide. The cause of death was compression of neck.
Turns out, Shele Covlin had been strangled.
Accusations have swirled. Shele's father has called her estranged husband "an animal," according to an interview he gave to The Journal News newspaper. In an unusual twist, a flurry of court documents over divorce proceedings, custody of their children and her estate filed in several different courts in New York City and Westchester County have called Rod Covlin the prime suspect in his wife's death.
But no arrests have been made, no indictments handed up.
The Manhattan District Attorney's office declined to comment on the status of the investigation. But Covlin recently hired prominent defense attorney Robert Gottlieb to handle the criminal probe. In an interview, Gottlieb said he'd spoken personally to the assistant district attorney handling the case, and there was no sign his client was going to be indicted imminently on a murder charge.
"There is no basis to even consider charging Mr. Covlin with the tragic death of his wife," he said. "There has been a great deal of false statements spread by Shele's family members that have been intended solely to falsely convince the public that Mr. Covlin is responsible for his wife's death."
Gag orders in some of the proceedings prevent both sides from saying much about the case. Shele's family did not return phone messages seeking comment. A memorial website set up in her honor urges anyone with information on her death to report it to police.
"I keep thinking to myself that Shele will walk through that door, dressed in one of her gorgeous designer outfits and I'll once again hear her cheerful voice and contagious laugh or just hug the sister I loved more than words can say. I know that will never be," her sister Eve wrote, according to the website.
Things haven't been easy for the children, or for Rod. He's mired in a custody dispute with her family. He moved into his parents' house, where he is living with Anna and Myles, and his guardianship was recently suspended by a judge in Westchester County after information on the criminal investigation surfaced. Calls to their home were not returned. Covlin was a founder of the U.S. Backgammon Federation, an organization for enthusiasts of the board game, but its website says he resigned in the spring of 2010, "to devote himself to some personal priorities."
Anna and Myles are trying to get on with life, but it's difficult, the girl's attorney said in court papers filed a few weeks ago on the custody issue.
"Each time there is a leak, each time the gag orders appear to be violated, and each time Anna is dragged in the wake of what her father's detractors naively think is only reaching him, Anna loses another friend, another play date, another opportunity to live normally, as she has been trying so hard to do. Anna's pre-teen squabbles with friends end in 'at least my father is not a murderer,'" attorney Jo Ann Douglas wrote.
She called Anna a "gregarious, friendly young lady whose social life, sleepovers and other peer events all had the very appropriate place in her life and are now virtually gone."
There's a lot of money at stake: about $4 million surrounding Shele Covlin's estate. The children will get at least half; Rod Covlin stood to get the other half.
But two insurance companies filed papers saying that if Covlin is arrested and found guilty, he isn't entitled to any money.
The New York County public administrator, who handles estate complications, has been named temporary custodian of Shele Covlin's estate. Shortly before the new year, the city agency did what law enforcement has not: publicly accused Roderick Covlin of killing his wife.
In a wrongful death suit, the administrator argued that Covlin intentionally killed his wife and shouldn't benefit from her estate. The attorney for the public administrator said the case was filed as a precaution because of a two-year statute of limitations. If Covlin is charged and convicted, he'll lose his share, which will go to the children. But either way, the lawsuit will proceed.
And the criminal investigation is continuing.