A business executive and mother of two was found dead in what appeared to be a slip-and-fall accident, but savvy New York City investigators soon realized there was more to the case.
Shele Danishefsky Covlin, 47, was found dead at her Upper West Side apartment on December 31, 2009, just hours before the new year. Her husband, Roderick ‘Rod’ Covlin, called authorities, telling them he’d just pulled his wife from bathtub’s bloody water and could not resuscitate her.
Now-retired Detective Carl Roadarmel for the N.Y.P.D.’s 20th precinct Oxygen's New York Homicide that he responded to the scene to find Mrs. Covlin dead on the bathroom floor.
“There was water on the floor, and she had some blood running from the back of her head,” Roadarmel said. “And then there was a set of cabinets above, with doors and hinges, which was partially pulled off; it looked like she may have tried to grab the shelf as she was falling.”
For detectives, it looked like an open-and-shut case of an unfortunate accident. It was all the more tragic in that the deceased left behind a 9-year-old daughter, who’d initially found her mother dead, and a 3-year-old son.
Rod Covlin, having previously separated from Shele, lived across the hall of the building in a separate apartment and attempted to save Shele when the daughter sought help.
Who is Shele Covlin?
Shele’s death shocked her siblings and rocked the Jewish community in New York’s Upper West Side. According to her decades-long friend Mark Appel, Shele — who worked in a private wealth management firm — grew up in a traditional, Orthodox household and was a devout woman of the Jewish faith.
In fact, that was how she met Rod, a stockbroker, back in 1998: at a Jewish singles’ party. While raising their children, the couple was active at their local synagogue and within the Jewish community.
“She had a fine sense of humor and a strong interest in public service and charity events,” said Appel.
N.Y.P.D. Det. Robert Mooney hoped to glean more information from a postmortem examination, despite investigators’ belief that Shele’s death was an accident. However, Mooney was surprised to discover that Shele was buried within 24 hours of death due to Orthodox burial customs and not afforded an autopsy.
Multiple members of Shele’s family were unconvinced that their loved one died during a slip-and-fall, prompting them to contact private investigators.
“Everybody had a little bit to add about what they knew about Rod and Shele’s relationship,” said private investigator Michael Swain.
Relatives said the marriage began to crumble in 2008, when Rod struggled to hold down work and compulsively spent money on backgammon gambling. Rod often traveled around the country and stayed up all night to compete in various tournaments online.
But with the gambling trips came women whom Rod saw outside the marriage. “Shele managed to see an open e-mail, and she realized that he wasn’t being faithful to her,” said Swain.
They agreed to divorce, though Rod moved just across the hall for the sake of the couple’s children. However, things didn’t get better. Shele alleged to those closest to her that she feared Rod was stalking her by going into her apartment when she wasn’t home and snooping around on her mobile phone.
Rod also set up a camera operation in the hallway to see his estranged wife’s comings and goings.
More than a week following Shele’s death, and after hearing her family’s concerns, police and private investigators re-visited the apartment. Taking a closer look at the broken cabinets in the bathroom, investigator Swain started to think that Shele’s death was no accident. “I was convinced this was a staged crime scene,” Swain told New York Homicide.
What happened to Shele Covlin?
Orthodox Burial Rules Prevented Shele Covlin's Autopsy
But to re-open the case and investigate it as a homicide, detectives needed Shele to undergo an autopsy. Though an autopsy — and further, exhuming a body — went against the family’s Jewish beliefs, relatives ultimately allowed authorities to conduct a postmortem examination.
Months later, it was determined that Shele died of asphyxiation by neck compression.
Looking into Rod and Shele’s divorce filings, it was apparent to detectives that Rod was financially dependent on his wife. Rod told a judge he had no money, and the judge prohibited Rod from playing backgammon games anymore.
Rod soon began calling Shele’s employer to accuse her of stealing and telling others she used drugs. He even accused Shele of sexually abusing the children, though the allegations were unsubstantiated, with investigators determining Rod coached his son into making the false claims.
In the course of the investigation into Shele's death, the judge ruled that because of investigators’ findings, Rod could no longer be alone with the children, and so they were sent to live with Rod’s parents.
As detectives continued with their investigation, they discovered Rod stood to inherit $5.2 million in the event of Shele’s death, given that their divorce was not yet official.
"Shele’s trust and estate attorney told us that she made an appointment to go and see him on New Year’s Day in 2010, the same day that Shele was found dead,” Det. Mooney told New York Homicide. “And she was going to take Rod out of her will.”
Rod Covlin refused to cooperate with police, prompting officials to look into his phone and email records. That data showed Rod was in regular contact with a woman based in Jacksonville, North Carolina: Debra Oles, a married mother of three who met Rod through backgammon gambling.
Rod and Oles entered into an extramarital affair months before Shele’s homicide. She regularly visited him in New York, and there were deleted computer messages between the lovers on the night in question. But the evidence against Rod was merely circumstantial, and because of this, Shele Covlin’s murder investigation went cold.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2014 that detectives caught their much-needed break when Oles contacted New York City detectives. Just months after she and Rod called it quits, she told investigators that Rod claimed to kill Shele to gain custody of their children.
“Rod Covlin’s motivation in all of this is always about money,” Det. Mooney argued.
Rod could not collect his former wife’s millions until the district attorney’s office cleared him as a suspect. But detectives learned that just before her death, Shele created a trust to be set aside for the children, and to access the children’s monies, Rod needed to obtain legal custody.
Mooney told New York Homicide that Rod tried coaching his kids to accuse his parents — the children’s legal guardians — of abuse, going as far as asking his daughter to simulate a rape by using a foreign object on herself to frame Rod’s father of sexual abuse.
Though the minor daughter refused, Rod drained the kids’ college accounts, resulting in a fight with his parents. Investigators believe that’s when he saw his parents as standing between him and the money he so desperately wanted, making them a target for murder.
Per Oles’ statements, Rod schemed to have his young daughter spike the grandparents’ tea with rat poison. “He also considered setting his parents’ home on fire,” according to New York Times investigative reporter Jan Ransom.
Not only were Oles’ statements to police damning, but she also came with several hard drives filled with messages and data from Rod’s electronic devices. Detectives doubled down on their efforts to charge Rod with his wife’s murder.
The nail in the coffin, so to speak, came as an email draft written by Rod in his young daughter’s name, confessing to Shele’s murder. The forged statement said the child angrily pushed Shele to her death after the pair argued earlier in the day.
“That a father would attempt to frame his own daughter, it is unimaginable,” said Ransom.
Police knew they had to act fast, and even though the case was largely circumstantial, a grand jury decided to indict Rod on charges of second-degree murder. He was arrested on November 1, 2015.
Where is Rod Covlin now?
Following his arrest, Rod confessed to the murder to a cellmate, with video surveillance showing Rod describing how he killed his wife.
“I worked on 1,500 murder cases in the years I was in the police department,” said Det. Mooney. “He’s the worst human being that I ever had to encounter because he did so many bad things to his own children in his infinite greed.”
In March 2019, more than 10 years after Shele’s murder, Rod was found guilty as charged, much to the relief of Shele’s relatives.
“They got what they deserved, they got justice,” said private investigator Michael Swain. “It was a good feeling to see that.”
Rod Covlin is currently serving 25 years to life in prison.
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