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Man in chains was host to Washington society

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WASHINGTON -- Count Albi shuffles into the courtroom in sneakers, spectacles, prison blues and a milk-chocolate crew-neck sweater, with a thin chain running between his legs like a cinched-up rodeo bronc.

The Count appears rather undernourished for a nobleman, but then again you don't find many other titled heads locked up in a psychiatric hospital, conversing daily with the Archangel Gabriel and alternating a hunger strike with a demand for sandwiches, while awaiting a ruling on whether he is sane enough to go on trial for murder.

Washington is on track this year for the fewest homicides in a generation, but the ones that do occur are unique. In this case, the Count was 47 at the time of his alleged crime; the victim, his wife, a socialite and writer named Viola Drath (better read this twice) was 91.

From a seat near the back of the hushed little chamber on Judiciary Square, I watch the defendant slouch against the wall, eyes closed, oblivious -- or pretending to be -- to the goings-on. His head is shaved at the temples and there is a sort of Adolf Hitler comb-over covering the upper dome. A thin goatee completes our picture of the slim East German in the dock.

The Count's real name is Albrecht Gero Muth and he is no more a count than was Basie. Last year, it is alleged, Muth -- who also styles himself a brigadier-general in the Iraqi Special Forces, and who often paraded around the capital and at Arlington National Cemetery in a dress uniform of his own design -- crowned his spouse in the upstairs lavatory of their pastel-cream townhouse in this town's most elegant neighbourhood.

The backstory is Sunset Boulevard with Viola Drath as Gloria Swanson. For 20 years, the January-and-December couple enjoyed, as The New York Times once put it, "the worst marriage in Georgetown."

In 1992 and again in 2006, Muth, who often drank heavily, was charged with assaulting Drath. In 2011, having allegedly killed her, he claimed that the murder was a botched assassination attempt on his own person by the Iranian secret police.

He was arrested while wandering the Georgetown streets, having just filed an obituary of his late wife to The Washington Post.

Before he either did or did not destroy his bride that night in the bath, Muth and Drath assembled a salon that was lit by the brightest suns of the Washington social circuit, reportedly including sundry ambassadors, various cabinet sub-secretaries and old Kennedy aides, Vice-President Dick Cheney and even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia -- whom the brigadier general claimed (falsely, according to Scalia) had been his guide on his path to a mid-life conversion to Roman Catholicism.

Using the Count Albi alias and letterhead, Muth established an Eminent Persons Group that corralled funding from the billionaire George Soros, numbered a former prime minister of France among its blue-blooded membership and submitted a few credible reports on arms trafficking and the Iraqi situation to the United Nations.

So, if Albrecht Muth was crazy, it wasn't because he didn't know enough; he just knew too much.

Last February, the court ruled the count/general was not competent to stand trial. In November, despite his intermittent refusal to eat and his claims of receiving instructions from Gabriel on high, that decision was reversed when doctors determined his refusal to co-operate with his attorneys was achieved "under volitional control rather than as a result of a psychotic process." Now they are going through the whole rigamarole again in the courtroom.

Taking the stand on this first morning of Albrecht Muth's competency hearing is a distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association named Robert Phillips. Dr. Phillips, speaking as an expert for the prosecution, tells the court Muth possesses "an absolute mastery of the legal system. There is nothing wrong with his mechanisms."

He has, the psychiatrist says, "a belief system that is fixed and can't be shaken when confronted with reality. When he speaks with you, he is, by his own grace, allowing you to spend time with him. He was unswerving in his assertion that he was a brigadier-general in the Iraqi army."

"I don't think he has great problems in the world he has created for himself," the expert goes on. "He does have a number of psycho-social problems, problems with his support system and family and problems with loss of spouse."

Sometimes the armour cracks. Phillips tells us Albrecht Muth once admitted to him that he wasn't really Count Albi, and he confessed he had fibbed when he said he gained the title when the previous holder bequeathed it to him with his dying breath after having fallen from an elephant.

"He pretty well lies about everything," Dr. Robert Phillips says.

To these claims, the man in chains and the chocolate sweater offers no reaction at all. He is, this morning, motionless, even when it is noted that the years he claims to have spent in post-Saddam Iraq were in fact passed in Florida, working as a desk clerk at a Miami hotel.

"Mr. Muth is a character," the good doctor understates.

Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 8, 2012 A17

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