A mother's death leads investigators to estranged husband's deadly plot

Shele Covlin was found dead after an apparent slip in the tub in 2009.

January 27, 2023, 10:57 AM

In early hours of Dec. 31, 2009, the sun rose over Manhattan, marking the last day of the decade. While New Year's Eve preparations got underway in Times Square, an entirely different type of chaos began to unfold that morning in an upscale apartment on the Upper West Side: 47-year-old mother of two Shele Covlin was found dead after an apparent slip and fall in the bathtub.

On the surface, Shele Covlin seemed to be the picture of Manhattan success – a stunning, vibrant woman with a young family and a booming career in finance. However, her relationship with her husband Rod Covlin, who was 11 years her junior, had unraveled by late 2009.

A new "20/20" revisits the death of Shele Covlin and premieres Friday, Jan. 27 at 9/8c on ABC and the following day on Hulu.

"She discovered that Rod was having an affair…It wasn't just one affair, it was several," Shele's sister Eve Karstaedt told ABC News in 2019.

Though Shele would later file for divorce, she had arranged for Rod to live across the hall for the ease of the couple's children.

PHOTO: Shele Covlin
Shele Covlin
Jill Lotenberg

The morning of Dec. 31, 2009, Rod Covlin says he received a panicked call from the couple's nine-year-old daughter and raced to the apartment where he says he found a horrific scene – Shele floating in a tub of bloody water. Rod says he quickly removed Shele from the bathtub and after calling 911, he began CPR.

When EMS arrived on the scene, it was determined that Shele had been dead for a significant amount of time. Rod told investigators Shele had likely slipped and fallen while bathing – referencing a cabinet door above the bath that appeared pulled off the hinge.

Due to Shele's Orthodox Jewish religion and because investigators suspected an accidental death, she was quickly buried without an autopsy.

PHOTO: Rod Covlin
Rod Covlin

For Shele's family, grief made way to suspicion one week later when they received Shele's death certificate back, listing her cause of death "undetermined." After learning this, her family encouraged investigators to exhume Shele's body so a full autopsy could be performed. The results were shocking: Shele had a broken hyoid bone - a small, easily breakable bone in the neck region that is often associated with a chokehold.

The manner of death on her certificate was changed to "homicide."

PHOTO: Crime Scene Photo from the morning of December 31, 2009.
Crime Scene Photo from the morning of December 31, 2009.

Despite the autopsy results, it would take five years for investigators to collect enough evidence that would lead them to charge Rod Covlin with Shele's murder. Rod's day in court arrived in the winter of 2019 - nearly a decade after the murder of his wife.

Prosecutors presented to the jury the plausibility of what they called a "staged" crime scene, relying on photos from the morning of Dec. 31, 2009 to make their case. In a life-size replica model of Shele's apartment bathroom, private investigator Michael Swain walked ABC News' Deborah Roberts through what he saw as some of the questionable elements that Shele's death was an accident - such as Rod's claim that Shele likely ripped a cabinet door off its hinge on her way down.

"Was it possible? Sure," Swain said. "It was possible, until I actually got into the bathroom myself. I realized how high this cabinet is. I realized how far away from the tub it is."

Swain also noted the presence of a hand towel – but not a bath towel.

"If somebody's coming in to take a bath, I sort of want, would want to see a bath towel someplace," he said.

Rod Covlin was found guilty of the murder of Shele Covlin and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. After a rejected appeal last year, Rod and Shele's daughter Anna penned a letter to the District Attorney maintaining her support for father and her belief in his innocence.

Rod Covlin is currently serving out his sentence in Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo, New York, and maintains he had nothing to do with Shele's death.