Mystery over D.C. woman’s attack continues


Marine biologist David Guggenheim came home in April to find his wife bloody and semiconscious in their apartment. (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)

When David E. Guggenheim arrived home one recent evening, he said, he was greeted by a uniformed D.C. police officer standing guard in the hall near his apartment and a squad of grim-faced detectives working diligently inside.

Guggenheim, a noted marine biologist and explorer, said he was startled. That night, May 22, he had been visiting his hospitalized wife, Svetlana Guggenheim, who is recovering from brain surgery, with fractures healing in her skull and left eye socket and a short-term memory that’s foggy at best.

David Guggenheim, by his own account, is a suspect in the mysterious assault that nearly killed her in April. As for the police, he said, “I didn’t know whether they were here to ask me some more questions or to finally just take me away in handcuffs.”

They were there with a search warrant, trying to get to the bottom of a criminal case that is downright weird: How did Svetlana Guggenheim, 46, a self-employed Russian translator, suffer a cracked cranium and a broken face in the couple’s Northwest Washington apartment? Although she is unable to talk, she has indicated that she recalls nothing about the assault — that it is as much a mystery to her as it is to others.

Despite David Guggenheim’s contention that he has an airtight alibi, authorities continue to focus on him, he said. After police finished searching the one-bedroom apartment in Kalorama about 11 o’clock that evening, he said, he spoke briefly with Detective Antoine K. Weston, the lead investigator.


Svetlana Guggenheim, wife of David Guggenheim. (Courtesy photo)

“He told me, ‘Look, you can ask me questions,’ ” Guggenheim, 53, recalled. “I said: ‘Why now? Why are you here tonight?’ . . . And he said, ‘Well, there’s new information.’

“And I said, ‘What is it?’ And he said, ‘I can’t tell you.’ ”

The affidavit that police gave to a judge requesting the search warrant and outlining evidence to justify it is sealed in D.C. Superior Court. But after about three hours, as detectives were leaving the apartment, they handed Guggenheim a copy of the search order, listing the items that the warrant permitted them to take.

They seized four cellular and land-line telephones, three desktop and laptop computers, nine external hard drives, 10 flash drives, a wireless router, the memory card from a digital camera and an array of other data-storage devices.

Why? “They wouldn’t tell me,” Guggenheim said. And they’ve been similarly mum with reporters inquiring about the case.

The “Ocean Doctor,” as he long ago branded himself, stands about 5-foot-9, with an athletic build and short gray hair. He’s a stylish, media-savvy scientist — a marine-biology action figure, far less content in a lab than he is aboard a one-person submarine, plying the sea depths. He said he revels in sharing his adventures and the marvels of ocean life as a TV and radio guest and (for a fee) with rapt listeners in public auditoriums.

He is incapable of violence, he said.

He said he didn’t hurt his wife, he wouldn’t hurt his wife and he wouldn’t induce someone to do it for him. There’s no insurance on her life, he said, nor any enmity between them, although the two recently endured a stressful personal financial calamity, according to documents in federal bankruptcy court.

Guggenheim said his wife has no enemies and always locks the apartment when she’s alone. Yet when he arrived home April 7 after a four-day trip, he said, he found her semiconscious on their bedroom floor, clad only in a blouse, her face swollen and her long dark hair matted with dried blood. Nothing had been stolen, he said.

Lying wrinkled nearby in the bedroom was another blouse of hers, also stained with dried blood, Guggenheim said. And he said he saw a pair of his undershorts and one of his shirts on the bathroom floor, soaked with what he thinks was urine.

Also strange: Authorities have said in court that early in her treatment at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, Svetlana Guggenheim indicated to a nurse that her husband of 18 years had beaten her. Recently, though, while still in the hospital, breathing through a neck tube and communicating with gestures and scrawled notes, she made it clear that she has no recollection of blaming her spouse.

And she indicated that she can’t truly imagine him ever harming her.

The tracheostomy tube in her throat allows her to breathe but prevents her from speaking. Since undergoing surgery to treat a subdural hematoma, she hasn’t been able to breathe consistently on her own, and the lid of her damaged left eye is still distended and shut. She could be hospitalized for weeks to come, her husband said.

After police were done searching the couple’s apartment, at the Connecticut Gardens complex in the 1900 block of Kalorama Road NW, David Guggenheim said, he had another question for Weston:

“I asked him if I’m still a suspect. And he told me, ‘You’re a person of interest.’ ”

He’s that, all right: an interesting fellow.

Financial troubles

Guggenheim, who is well-regarded by his colleagues, does not owe his celebrity in marine biology to any big scientific achievements. His prominence stems from his years of public outreach — his many speaking engagements and media appearances, his podcasts and seemingly bottomless Web site — all aimed at conveying “the awe and wonder of the world’s oceans” to lay people, he said.

“I’m not sure I would call it building a brand, but some might call it that,” he said. The Ocean Doctor persona — an impassioned, highly energetic public advocate for marine conservation — was a way to raise money for his oceanographic work and to generate income. “People don’t gravitate to a cause, and they certainly don’t open their wallets, because of a good intellectual argument alone,” he said.

“They do it because something has touched them emotionally. . . . So getting my name out there, getting my face out there, doing media, is definitely important. And that’s what I try to do — really reach for the imagination and the heart.”

In the sour economy, however, financial support for his projects has declined sharply, as has his income, Guggenheim said. He said this contributed to “a perfect storm” of money woes that drove him and his wife into bankruptcy in the winter.

He said he thinks that their crushing personal debts, and the friction that can occur between spouses as a result, are part of the reason he is under suspicion by police, who he said have brought up the bankruptcy while questioning him about the assault.

“Which is why I’m a little nervous talking about it in any detail,” Guggenheim said of the bankruptcy case, filed in federal court in December and resolved in March, shortly before Svetlana Guggenheim was attacked. The couple listed $418,018 in total debt, nearly half of it unpaid balances on 13 credit cards, and $12,777 worth of possessions.

The two said in court papers that their bank accounts were overdrawn or almost empty and that they owned no real estate, motor vehicles, boats or luxury goods. They said they also owed $146,617 in federal and city income taxes dating back four years.

“I worry that people might twist that information,” Guggenheim said in declining to discuss how he and his wife wound up with $185,054 in credit card debt but relatively few personal belongings to show for it. Of that debt, $110,755 was in his name, $29,042 in hers and the rest on joint cards. The trouble resulted partly from self-financing some of his work after outside funding shriveled, he said, but “that wasn’t the only factor.”

He said the spending involved nothing illegal or unsavory.

“I know the police are thinking about that,” he said, “because, I guess, what are the motives in a marriage for violence?” As for his and his wife’s relationship, he would only say that “it isn’t perfect” but that they weathered the bankruptcy with a minimum of rancor. In March, a federal judge in Washington wiped out their $271,402 in nontax debt, which also included student loans and health-care bills.

Becoming the Ocean Doctor

Long before he was the Ocean Doctor, Guggenheim said, he was a child in suburban Philadelphia riveted by the old TV ad­ven­ture series “Sea Hunt.” He learned to scuba dive at age 15 and went on to study environmental science at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1980 with bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Another mystery: On Nov. 28, 1976, when he was in college, Guggenheim said, his father, a mechanical engineer, disappeared while boating alone on Delaware Bay. William Guggenheim, 49, is presumed to have fallen off his 23-foot power vessel while fishing and drowned in the frigid water. His body never turned up.

While he was a partner in a consulting business in 1991, David Guggenheim said, he visited Moscow with an environmental delegation and was smitten by the group’s Russian-born interpreter, Svetlana Pavlichenko. Guggenheim, who was married, soon sought a divorce, court records show, and two days after it was finalized in 1994, he and Pavlichenko, now Svetlana Guggenheim, were wed. They have no children together.

He received a doctorate from George Mason University in 1999 and is now a senior fellow at the nonprofit, Washington-based Ocean Foundation. But the title does not come with a salary. Traveling the world as a researcher and undersea explorer, he said, he depends on his independent project budgets for most of his income.

The rest comes from his “dynamic, multimedia” speaking engagements (typical fee: $3,000) and Web sales of Ocean Doctor T-shirts, tote bags, mugs, hats and other “unique merchandise and apparel for ocean lovers of all ages.”

“I like fundraising because I get to tell people with passion what I do and why it’s important,” he said. “But the last several years have not been fun.”

Svetlana Guggenheim, in her Russian-translator business, is also battling a tough economy, he said. Combined, the two earned $49,853 last year.

Telling his side

As Guggenheim has told the story again and again, he and his wife left Washington separately in late March and early April. She was away on business, in Tampa, Salt Lake City and Chicago; he traveled to New York for an Ocean Foundation event and visited friends and relatives in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Their trips overlapped only briefly, Guggenheim said, with his wife returning home Wednesday evening, April 4, the day after he departed by train for a reception at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. She had been gone since March 22, the day after the couple’s nontax debt was discharged in bankruptcy court.

David Guggenheim has since prepared a detailed chronicle of his whereabouts and his communications with his wife and others during his trip.

The alibi timeline — typed and formatted, with footnotes — runs six pages, not counting an appendix of train, hotel, restaurant and cab receipts and affidavits signed by two people attesting that they spent time with him.

Alibi timeline, page 2:

“Just landed in DC,” Svetlana Guggenheim told her husband in a text message Wednesday, April 4, at 6:28 p.m. His schedule had him in New Jersey then, bound for a Bruce Springsteen concert at the Meadowlands. After reminding his wife in a return message that he planned to go to Pennsylvania next for a family Passover observance, he texted her again at 7:45 p.m: “Everything good?”

“Yeah!” she replied at 9:12 p.m. “Thank u 4 leaving the apartment looking nice!”

Anna Pavlichenko, who is Svetlana Guggenheim’s daughter from a previous marriage in the former Soviet Union, said in an interview that she exchanged texts with her mother Thursday afternoon, April 5. “I’m trying to get some rest,” Svetlana Guggenheim told her just before 3 p.m., wrapping up their digital chat. Pavlichenko, 25, who lives in Florida, replied: “Ok :) then ill give you a call later when I’m home.”

Not long after the mother and daughter stopped texting that Thursday, David Guggenheim was in West Trenton, N.J., waiting for a train to Pennsylvania, according to one of the affidavits accompanying his timeline. He said he spent Thursday night with his brother, Alan R. Guggenheim, in a Philadelphia suburb.

Pavlichenko said her mother did not answer phone calls that Thursday evening or text messages the following day. At 4:49 p.m. Friday, Pavlichenko sent a text to David Guggenheim, who said he was still with his brother, on their way to a Passover seder at the Four Seasons hotel in Philadelphia.

Alibi timeline, page 4:

“Have u talked to mom today?” Pavlichenko asked.

“No,” Guggenheim told her. “She didn’t respond to my messages. You?”

“Same,” she replied.

“I’ll call her,” Guggenheim wrote.

He said he left a voicemail, telling her “the child and I are worried, so please get in touch.” Two hours went by with no word from his wife as the Guggenheim seder continued at the Four Seasons. “Glass one of four,” he tweeted at 6:40 pm. “Happy #Passover, all.” Then a few minutes later, another text arrived from Pavlichenko.

“Did u ever hear from mom?”

“No,” Guggenheim replied. “Left her text and voice messages.” He added, “I am a bit worried,” to which Pavlichenko responded, “Same.” She told him that she had been trying to reach her mother for more than 24 hours, and Guggenheim wrote: “Hmmm. If I don’t hear anything soon, I’ll head back to. . . DC.”

In an interview later, he said, “I have a room full of Jewish relatives who know exactly where I was” that Friday night. After texting an acquaintance and calling the resident manager of Connecticut Gardens, asking if they knew the whereabouts of Svetlana Guggenheim (they didn’t), he caught a Saturday morning train out of Philadelphia and made it to Kalorama by early afternoon, he said.

What awaited him there, he said, was “horrifying.”

A fateful day

Whoever is responsible for Svetlana Guggenheim’s injuries appears to have entered and left the second-floor apartment without much exertion.

There’s virtually no way in or out except by the door, and David Guggenheim said he saw no sign of forced entry when he got back to the apartment that Saturday, April 7. The building manager, Stephanie Barret, said in an interview that she had delivered some small packages to the apartment the day before, placing them just across the threshold, and locked the deadbolt with her key as she left.

She said she doesn’t recall whether the deadbolt was locked when she arrived, nor did she notice whether a semiconscious woman, caked with dried blood, was lying on the bedroom floor. A fleeing attacker could not have locked the deadbolt without a key. And David Guggenheim said the couple’s three keys are accounted for.

He said he used his key to open the deadbolt, sidestepped the boxes just inside the door and glanced around for his wife.

Alibi timeline, page 6:

“1:00pm: Arrive home to find Svetlana on floor of bedroom; called 911 Emergency Services. 1:15pm: (Approximately) Paramedics and Fire arrive on scene; Svetlana and David transported to Washington Hospital Center.”

“Just terrible,” he said. “Terrible, terrible. . . .

Recently, the OceanDoctor.org site added a new link — for visitors to donate by credit card to a legal-defense fund that Guggenheim said was set up by friends of his. Police have classified the attack on his wife as an aggravated assault, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

The defense-fund link includes a screen-grab photo of Guggenheim talking with host Matt Lauer on NBC’s “Today” show May 23, the morning after detectives searched the apartment and seized almost every device with a digital memory.

On May 24, after also telling his story on CNN and ABC’s “Good Morning America,” he said, he hired criminal defense attorney Aitan D. Goelman, a former Justice Department lawyer who helped prosecute Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. Mc­Veigh. He said Goelman counseled him to stop holding forth publicly about his predicament.

But Guggenheim is media-friendly.

“What I’m worried about, very worried about, is what this kind of notoriety will do to my reputation,” he said. “Because even when the guy didn’t do it, he winds up tainted.”

As his wife slowly recuperates, he said, he can only wait — maybe for more questions, maybe for handcuffs, maybe for the arrest of someone else.

Or maybe for the case to go cold.

“I want to get up on stage, and I want people to see me and be excited about my message,” he said. “I want them to hear me. I don’t want their minds processing on some other channel, where they’re thinking, ‘Hmmm, does this guy look like a guy who could have done something like that to his wife?’ ”

The Ocean Doctor sighed.

“No, no, I don’t want to be that guy.”

Mary Pat Flaherty works on investigative and long-range stories. Her work has won numerous national awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.
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