“Okay,” she mouthed, squeezing his fingers.
For nearly a month, until a few days ago, D.C. police had barred David Guggenheim, a noted marine biologist, from having any contact with his wife, the apparent victim of a mysterious assault in early April. Detectives have made it clear that they consider him a suspect. “Which is absurd,” said Guggenheim, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Ocean Foundation and a media-savvy lecturer, explorer and TV guest.
“I would never in a million years lay a hand on her or anyone else,” he said.
Svetlana Guggenheim, recovering from a subdural hematoma in MedStar Washington Hospital Center, has told police she has no recollection of how she was injured. Her husband was a daily presence at her bedside in early April. Then, for more than three weeks, as Svetlana Guggenheim slowly improved from semiconsciousness to being dimly aware of her surroundings, she lay alone in an intensive-care unit, isolated from her spouse of 18 years. She has no other relatives in the region.
“They are supposedly keeping me safe from you,” she told him in a note last week. In another note, she wrote that she had been “going crazy” worrying about him.
Authorities have said that Svetlana Guggenheim blamed her husband for her injuries and asked to be protected from him. But she has no recollection of doing that, she contends. Even though the two are reunited, they remain caught in a tortuous, confusing criminal investigation that’s more than just a whodunit.
It’s a howdunit, a whydunit, a whendunit — a what-the-heck-happened?
A brutal discovery
David Guggenheim, 53, is a high-energy, multimedia advocate for marine conservation. You can book him for a speaking engagement; you can download his podcasts; you can peruse his extensive Web site. He was featured on the CBS News program “60 Minutes” in December, scuba diving with correspondent Anderson Cooper in the Caribbean, exploring a renowned coral reef. “The Ocean Doctor,” he has dubbed himself.
He told police he returned from an out-of-town trip last month and found his wife semiconscious on the floor of their Northwest Washington apartment.
Clad only in a blouse, her face swollen and discolored, her tangled hair matted with dried blood, Svetlana Guggenheim, a 46-year-old Russian interpreter, was unable to speak, having suffered a grievous blow to her head.
Her skull and left eye socket were fractured and her upper arms were bruised, possibly from being violently grabbed. This indicated to doctors at MedStar Washington Hospital Center that she had been assaulted. Six weeks later, although she is out of intensive care, she is still breathing and taking nourishment through tubes in her neck and stomach. Her fractured left eye socket remains swollen, the lid shut. When she feels up to communicating, she scribbles little notes.
Her grown daughter from a previous marriage, Anna Pavlichenko, who lives in Florida, visited Svetlana Guggenheim in the hospital in early April, then returned on Mother’s Day. During that visit a week ago, Pavlichenko said, her mother jotted a note blaming her injuries on a person she is vaguely familiar with, an acquaintance of someone she knows. She did not identify him by name.
Pavlichenko, who gave the note to the U.S. attorney’s office, said her mother used four words to describe the incident in which she was hurt: “Sheer horror! Sheer horror!”
Questions but no answers
On Thursday, investigators tried for the first time to take a formal statement from Svetlana Guggenheim, having waited weeks for her to recuperate enough to respond to questions lucidly. An assistant U.S. attorney and a D.C. police detective arrived at the hospital with a laptop computer and asked her to type answers to some questions, the gist of their inquiry being: What happened to you?
“I don’t remember.”
That’s what she told them. And that’s what she later told this reporter, scratching out notes and nodding and shaking her head: She recalls no attack, no attacker, not even the cross-country business trip she took, separate from her husband’s trip, just before she suffered her injuries. She arrived home Wednesday, April 4, after traveling for two weeks; David Guggenheim reported finding her on the bedroom floor of their Kalorama apartment when he returned Saturday, April 7, after four days on the road.
What about the assailant she described in the Mother’s Day note, the man who is an acquaintance of someone she knows? On Thursday and Friday, when asked if she recalled such a person, she shook her head, looking puzzled.
David Guggenheim said police have treated him as a suspect almost from the beginning, despite what he said is abundant evidence that he was in New Jersey or Pennsylvania depending on when her injuries occurred. He said detectives have questioned him twice at the 3rd District police station. During the latter session, he said, one detective grew aggressive, telling him, “Chances are, you did it.”
Then, on April 19, nearly two weeks into his wife’s hospitalization, he was barred by police from seeing or speaking to her. The reason: An attorney for the city wrote in a legal filing that Svetlana Guggenheim had instructed the hospital to keep her husband away. In court, the lawyer produced what he said was a nurse’s note indicating that Svetlana Guggenheim had accused her husband of inflicting her injuries.
At the time of the court proceeding, on May 11, investigators had yet to attempt to interview her at the hospital.
“False and absurd,” David Guggenheim said of the city’s courtroom assertions. Calling the nurse’s note “extremely suspect,” he said the allegation chilled him. “I’ve been alone in a submarine at the bottom of the Bering Sea, 2,000 feet down,” he said. “Trust me, this was much more terrifying.”
He said he doesn’t have a attorney because he hasn’t found a top-notch firm in his price range. He said he offered to give investigators a pile of cellphone records and hotel, restaurant and travel receipts to prove he was hundreds of miles from Washington when his wife got hurt. He said a detective told him, “Well, just hold onto them.”
After authorities made it clear to Guggenheim that he is a suspect, and after the city argued publicly to a judge that Svetlana Guggenheim had implicated her husband, Detective Antoine Weston and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jodi Steiger Lazarus finally met with the victim Thursday.
What she told them, and what she didn’t tell them, appeared to leave the two investigators annoyed and frustrated, she conveyed in notes. They are mired in a perplexing case rife with contradictory evidence.
For the first time since April 19, David Guggenheim was allowed to see his wife Thursday night after the detective and prosecutor departed without an accusatory statement. When Guggenheim returned to the hospital Friday evening, he brought this reporter with him. It was then, as her husband entered the room, that Svetlana Guggenheim smiled and reached for his hand.
He marveled at her improvement since early April. Back then, “I could say, ‘Squeeze my hand if you know I’m here.’ And half the time she would, half the time she wouldn’t. She was going in and out.”
Lying in bed with a tracheostomy tube Thursday and Friday, Svetlana Guggenheim recounted her meeting with Weston and Lazarus, communicating in scrawled notes and by gesturing with her head and hands.
“They made me get on the computer which was hard,” she wrote. When the investigators asked if her husband had assaulted her, or if she remembered making that allegation to a nurse, she told them she had no such recollections.
Asked by this reporter if she thought it was possible that her husband had beaten her, she looked fondly at David Guggenheim, standing beside the bed. She squeezed his hand and shook her head, mouthing, “No.” That’s also what she told the investigators. And she told them she has no memory of asking to be protected from him.
“The woman from the DA . . . was [ticked] off,” Svetlana Guggenheim wrote, referring to Lazarus. “She could not do a thing. She was standing . . . and fuming her anger.”
At one point during the questioning by Weston and Lazarus, the prosecutor accused her of not telling the truth, Svetlana Guggenheim wrote. “The way it was I told them they were looking for easy answers,” she wrote, meaning it was her impression that they hoped she would implicate her husband. Describing Weston, she wrote that “he was not happy.”
D.C. police, the U.S. attorney’s office, the hospital and the D.C. attorney general’s office, which handled the legal effort to keep Guggenheim away from his wife, all declined to comment on the case, citing the continuing investigation.
Guggenheim said he met his future wife in her native Soviet Union in 1991. He was visiting Moscow with an environmental delegation, and she was the group’s translator.
“I couldn’t keep my eyes off her,” he said.
After their wedding, he helped raise Pavlichenko, who’s now 25, a communications specialist for a health-care company. The Guggenheims have no children together.
“I don’t want to share a lot of information about our marriage,” David Guggenheim said. ”I’ll say it isn’t perfect, but we love each other.”
There’s no record in the D.C. courts of any domestic problems between the two. Pavlichenko said she testified before a grand jury last week at Lazarus’s request, answering numerous questions about her mother’s relationship with her stepfather.
“I told them my parents were always peaceful,” she said. “I grew up in the most calm, peaceful environment, where nobody yelled and there were no confrontations.”
The couple moved to the District in 2000 and have lived for the past year in a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of Connecticut Gardens, a six-story brick building, old but nicely maintained, in the 1900 block of Kalorama Road NW.
The Connecticut Gardens manager said video recordings made by the building’s security cameras in early April have been turned over to detectives.
Before the incident
As a self-employed Russian interpreter with private- and public-sector clients, Svetlana Guggenheim travels a lot. On March 22, she left the apartment for a two-week trip to Tampa, Salt Lake City and Chicago, her husband said.
On Tuesday, April 3, while his wife was still away, David Guggenheim said, he boarded a train to New York for an evening reception at the Museum of Modern Art.
The next day, he was in New Jersey visiting friends, he said. As he was about to head to a Bruce Springsteen concert at the New Jersey Meadowlands that Wednesday night, he said, he received a text message from his wife, saying she was home from her trip. He said she thanked him for keeping the apartment clean.
Pavlichenko, in Florida, said she and her mother exchanged text messages the following afternoon, Thursday, April 5, and arranged to chat by phone that evening. As the night wore on, Pavlichenko said, she called and called. But no one picked up.
By late Friday, with her mother still not answering, Pavlichenko said, she was very worried, and got in touch with her stepfather. David Guggenheim said he was at the Four Seasons hotel in Philadelphia that evening for a Passover Seder with relatives. He and his stepdaughter said they grew frantic as they called and messaged other people, trying for hours to get hold of Svetlana Guggenheim.
David Guggenheim said he had planned to return to Washington on Sunday, April 8, but hastily changed his itinerary. He said he caught the first train he could out of Philadelphia on Saturday and made it to Connecticut Gardens by early afternoon.
The deadbolt on his apartment door was locked when Guggenheim arrived, he said. The building manager had locked it with her key after delivering some packages to the apartment that Friday, leaving the parcels just inside the door. She said she doesn’t remember whether the deadbolt was unlocked when she got there. It was too long ago.
Guggenheim crossed the threshold, sidestepped the boxes, walked past the kitchen and looked into the bedroom, he said. What he saw left him “horrified” and dumbstruck.
Svetlana Guggenheim, wearing only the blouse, was flat on the floor beside their bed, face up, trembling and incoherent, her husband said. Seeing no evidence of a struggle, he said, he initially thought that she had hit her head in a fall. He said nothing had been stolen and there were no signs of forced entry.
“She had a horrible black eye. . . . The blood. . . . I mean, I just . . . I called her name.”
Then he called for help, he said.
Much later, as he surveyed the room, he said, he noticed that the lamp was on next to her half of the bed. Her favorite mug, a blue one from McGill University, her alma mater, was on her nightstand. Svetlana Guggenheim likes to read and sip tea before going to sleep, her husband said. The mug was empty, and a Russian-language novel lay nearby.
Was she in bed when it happened?
Like his wife, David Guggenheim shook his head.
“I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
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