By Eric Rich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Philip Merrill, the prominent publisher and former diplomat whose body was found floating in the Chesapeake Bay on Monday, apparently took his own life after struggling with a heart condition for more than a year, his family said last night.
Merrill, 72, was found with a small anchor tied around one or both ankles and what investigators believe was a shotgun wound to the head, according to a source familiar with the investigation. The source said Merrill had bought a shotgun in recent weeks.
"Obviously, he took his own life," the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation remains open. "This is not an accident."
The development was a startling turn in a tragedy that began June 10, when Merrill's boat, the Merrilly, was found under full sail but with no one aboard, drifting in a stiff breeze near Plum Point. A recreational boater found his body Monday near Poplar Island, more than 11 miles from where the Merrilly was discovered.
Merrill, who was famously brash and determined as the leader of the Annapolis-based publishing empire that includes Washingtonian magazine and the Capital newspaper, lately had become fatigued and unmotivated, his family said in a statement late yesterday.
"Over the past four weeks we observed that his spirit had dimmed," the relatives said.
Merrill had undergone heart surgery a year ago and was on several medications as a result, they said.
"We were concerned for his welfare but never imagined that he would consider taking his own life," they said. "Unfortunately, with the same resolve and single-mindedness that made him so effective as an executive he appears to have made his decision to carry out his actions with tragic consequences."
From the moment the boat was recovered, authorities said they did not suspect foul play. Although Merrill's expertise as a sailor contributed to speculation that an accident was unlikely, confirmation of an apparent suicide left some of his former associates stunned.
"To be honest with you, I'm speechless," said Tom Marquardt, executive editor of the Capital. "This ending does not change his accomplishments one iota."
Chuck Conconi, who worked alongside Merrill for 15 years as Washingtonian's editor at large, said: "It is the most improbable thing I could conceive of. From everything I could determine, he loved his life."
Merrill 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.
Recast as an apparent suicide, his death strikingly parallels that of John A. Paisley, a former high-level CIA employee. In 1978, Paisley disappeared while sailing across the bay. His body was found with a fatal gunshot wound a week later near Solomons Island in what was ruled a suicide.
The loss also recalls the death of former CIA director William E. Colby, who died from drowning and exposure in 1996 after apparently falling from a canoe off Charles County. His body was recovered more than a week later, and authorities said he probably had a stroke or heart attack before the accident.
Merrill left his waterfront home in Arnold, across the Severn River from Annapolis, about 2:20 p.m. June 10. His wife, Ellie, contacted authorities shortly after 6 p.m. because her husband had said he would be home by then. The boat was spotted about an hour later.
Family members said in a statement at the time that Merrill "had sailed the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Adriatic Sea and often in adverse conditions without incident. . . . He just couldn't resist a sunny day with the wind at his back."
Late yesterday, the family said that the "anger and shame" they felt on hearing the news had given way to "sadness and grief."
"It's impossible for us to imagine that the father and husband that we knew and loved was capable of this act," the relatives said. "Everyone who knew Phil had no doubt that he loved life and lived it to the fullest.
"We ask everyone to remember him as we will -- for the first amazing 71 years of his life."
Staff writers Annys Shin and Elizabeth Williamson contributed to this report.