Hope Has Faded For Md. Publisher

By Elizabeth Williamson and Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Philip Merrill, the tenacious regional publisher and diplomat who never strayed from his beloved Chesapeake Bay for long, was presumed dead yesterday, two days after his unmanned sailboat was found about 20 miles from his Annapolis home.

Although acknowledging that "anything is possible," Maryland Natural Resources Police Superintendent Mark S. Chaney said investigators concluded yesterday morning that "we're now outside the window of probability of survival." The U.S. Coast Guard ended its search yesterday afternoon.

Merrill, 72, whose Annapolis-based publishing holdings included Washingtonian magazine and the Capital newspaper, was assistant secretary general to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the early 1990s and president of the Export-Import Bank of the United States from 2002 until last year. Throughout his working life, he took time away from his business interests to pursue diplomatic and intelligence assignments for the government. He served six administrations, mostly in the State and Defense departments.

Although Merrill was a devoted internationalist, friends and colleagues say, he remained most at home in this region, where, on land or sea, he reigned as benevolent but undisputed captain of his ship.

"Where else but in Washington would you find a person like Phil Merrill?" wondered Richard Carlson, a former ambassador who was on the same team as Merrill during war games run by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the late 1980s.

A businessman who went from running a collection of small newspapers to running an international bank, Merrill was somebody "who was in and out of government, who knew all these things that I didn't expect him to know . . . such a renaissance guy," Carlson said.

His presumed death raises questions about his publications, some of which are jointly owned by Norfolk-based Landmark Communications. Last night, as the Washingtonian's July issue went to the printers, the staff deleted Merrill's name from the top of the masthead and replaced it with that of his wife, Eleanor.

"He was in here Friday afternoon, and I said, 'Phil, we haven't been writing enough people stories,' " said John Limpert, Washingtonian's longtime editor. "He and Ellie were going to think about some good stories about people over the weekend."

"Everyone," Limpert added, "is trying to put themselves on that boat and figure out what happened."

Merrill's 41-foot sailboat, Merrilly, was found empty, under full sail and with its motor off, by two people on personal watercraft Saturday night. His wallet was found aboard, and police do not suspect foul play. Authorities would not comment on published reports that blood was found on the boat. Merrill was probably not wearing a life jacket, investigators have said.

Since Saturday, the search has focused on a nine-mile stretch of the bay between the mouth of the Severn River and Kent Island, a favorite route that Merrill often sailed alone when he couldn't persuade friends to join him.

Chaney said yesterday that police will search a 100-square-mile area from Annapolis north to Plum Point, where the boat was found, "until we find him." The recovery mission -- employing six boats, one equipped with sonar, and 15 officers -- covered about 10 miles yesterday.

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