Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Claus von Bulow Case

The First Coma

Alexandra Isles
Alexandra Isles

By 1979, after 13 years of marriage, tensions were running high between Claus and Sunny, and they had each talked publicly of seeking a divorce. Although they were friendly and spent time together, all appearance of intimacy or fondness between them was gone. Claus was frequently in New York, living at Sunny's luxurious Fifth Avenue co-op apartment. He was openly courting Alexandra Isles, the beautiful former soap opera star (she worked on the gothic soap Dark Shadows), and they were talking of marriage.

But Claus was unhappy living off Sunny's wealth. He liked the benefits of her money, but he disliked being perceived as a kept man. He had a nice allowance from a trust Sunny had set up — $120,000 per year in interest income — but it was barely enough to enable him to live in the manner to which he had become accustomed. Claus wanted his own life, although Sunny continued to want him by her side.

Alexandra Isles was an expensive friend. She was not merely a soap opera actress, but a young woman who came from a family at least as wealthy as the Crawford clan. She expected to be wined and dined, and if Claus was expecting to marry her after leaving Sunny, $10,000 per month would not suffice.

Claus and Alexandra conducted a stormy on-again, off-again romance, with Alexandra finally giving Claus an ultimatum to leave Sunny. He hedged — Sunny was not a stable woman, he told his lover — and the relationship temporarily soured.

The Von Bülow family came together in December 1979 to celebrate Christmas at their posh Newport, Rhode Island, mansion, Clarendon Court, and the family seemed united and happy. But on the day after Christmas, life for the von Bülow family changed forever.

Sunny and Alexander retired to the family library that day and drank a couple of glasses of spiked eggnog, a Crawford family tradition. Shortly afterward, Sunny became weak and disoriented. This was unusual, but not terribly surprising. Sunny could not handle alcohol. One or two drinks could cause a visible change in her demeanor, although whether she was a problem drinker remains in dispute.

Many people who knew her well said she rarely drank, although Claus insisted that Sunny had a drug and alcohol problem. His claims are reported in the numerous medical files on Sunny and would be testified to in court. One of Sunny's friends testified that she and another friend, a recovering alcoholic, attempted an AA intervention with Sunny, but were politely rebuffed.

In depositions, other friends agreed with Claus: Patricia S. Patterson, a friend of Sunny's for more than 20 years, said Sunny's "one failing was that once she took one drink, she would not know how to stop. She would get heavily intoxicated; her speech and movements would become completely uncoordinated. She would overturn pieces of furniture, bang her head against door frames, and on occasion, simply collapse in the ladies' powder room."

With Sunny obviously in her cups after the glasses of egg nog, Alexander helped his mother to her bedroom and, assuming she was overcome by alcohol, retired for the evening.

Alexander left early the next morning to play tennis. His mother was not awake when he left, but that too was not unusual; Sunny reportedly spent most of the day in her bedroom. When Alexander returned from tennis, he found Maria Schrallhammer in tears.

Newport Courthouse, RI (CORBIS)
Newport Courthouse, RI

Sunny was ill, she said, and Claus was unwilling to summon medical help, saying she'd merely had a rough night and was sleeping it off. He ordered Maria not to disturb Sunny.

Years later, in a civil trial deposition, Claus told his version of what happened the night before. Once in the bedroom, he said, Sunny began arguing about Claus' work, which she felt was interfering with their relationship. He testified that he was working for Artemis International Art Advisors at the time, and Sunny resented him traveling around the United States and Europe visiting potential clients.

Sunny was also upset that Ala was leaving right after Christmas to fly to Austria to be with her fiancé.

"We started talking and spent a lot of time in argument and Sunny was, by now, very depressed," von Bülow testified. "We discussed splitting up. I was trying to have a discreet separation which would not be known to the world, not known to our child [Cosima], to see whether Sunny would find it was better having me as a husband, because we had no other problems... than the issue of work versus marriage."

Later, as she was walking past the von Bülows' bedroom, Maria said she heard moaning as if someone were quite ill. Ignoring Claus' orders to leave Sunny alone, she entered her mistress's bedroom to find Sunny lying in one of the two twin beds, unconscious. Claus lay nearby in the other bed, dressed but shoeless, nonchalantly reading. Maria tried to rouse Sunny, but was unable to wake her.

The two argued about whether to call a physician; Maria's lifetime of training, which taught her to obey her betters, came into play, and she acquiesced to Claus' demands.

"I remember nothing that is remotely on the lines of [Maria's] testimony ... Maria was concerned" that Sunny had gone through a rough couple of nights and had a bad cough, Claus said. And he said the maid did urge him to call a doctor to come to the house to check on her.

But his wife was never "moaning" in Maria's presence, Claus said in his deposition. There was only an "odd snore," he insisted. And he said Maria made no effort to try to arouse her. Several times over the next few hours, Maria checked in on her mistress, only to find Sunny's condition unchanged. Still, Claus, maintaining that his wife had a sore throat and had been up all night, refused to call a doctor.

Once Alexander heard the story, he rushed to his mother's bedside, only to find her breathing erratically.

"I heard a rattling sound inside the bedroom," he said in testimony at Claus's second trial. "I saw my mother lying in the bed. My stepfather... was standing at the foot of the bed. I walked over to my mother. I tried to wake her up. I grabbed her and I shook her. I called her name," he said. "My mother wouldn't wake up."

The 20-year-old looked at his stepfather, who finally appeared concerned about Sunny's condition.

"What should we do?" Claus asked his stepson.

"Call a doctor!" the young man replied, and Claus picked up the telephone and begged a local physician to make the house call.

Dr. Janis Gailitis arrived at Clarendon Court within 15 minutes and immediately phoned for an ambulance. Shortly after he arrived, Sunny aspirated vomit and stopped breathing. Gailitis cleared her air passage and began CPR. Sunny began breathing on her own again, but was comatose and unresponsive.

Gailitis, a Latvian émigré, had treated Sunny a few times previously for minor ailments and as a general practitioner was not equipped to diagnose the cause of Sunny's coma. He accompanied Sunny to the hospital, stabilized her and then called in the experts.

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