Haunted by One Question: Why?

By Elizabeth Williamson and Eric Rich
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 22, 2006

Colleagues and acquaintances of publisher and diplomat Philip Merrill's struggled yesterday to understand what drove Merrill, who apparently shot himself while aboard his sailboat June 10, to take his life.

Former CIA director R. James Woolsey, a family friend, said he was stunned by the news of the apparent suicide. "It still doesn't seem real to me,'' Woolsey said late yesterday as he prepared a eulogy for a memorial service today. When he last saw Merrill, on Memorial Day, "he seemed his normal, happy, exuberant, engaging self.''

ESPN sailing commentator Gary Jobson had known Merrill since 1978, when the Capital newspaper, owned by Merrill, paid him $50 for each of his sailing articles. The two sailed together frequently.

Jobson last saw Merrill on June 4 at an annual party the Merrills held at their home on the Severn River, where Merrill set out on his final sail.

"It will haunt me whether his actions were in his head at that moment in that party with all his friends," Jobson said. If they were, he said, "it's a shame he didn't reach out."

Merrill, 72, whose Annapolis-based publishing holdings also included Washingtonian magazine, disappeared after leaving his home near Annapolis on his sailboat, Merrilly. He was found dead in the Chesapeake Bay on Monday. A source close to the investigation said Merrill was found with a small anchor tied around one or both ankles and with what investigators think was a shotgun wound to the head.

He apparently took his life after struggling with a heart condition for more than a year, his family said Tuesday. Maryland Natural Resources Police said in a statement yesterday that they declined to comment on the substance of the family's statement or to provide findings until the state medical examiner's office releases its autopsy report next week.

"I did actually consider that it might have been suicide . . . Phil was so intense," said Richard Carlson, a former ambassador who was a teammate of Merrill's in war games run by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the late 1980s. Carlson last saw Merrill two weeks before his disappearance. Shortly afterward, Carlson discussed his concerns about suicide with a mutual friend.

The friend "thought it was possible, too," Carlson said. "I wondered whether he chose the spot because he liked sailing so much and he liked that boat so much."

Tom Marquardt, executive editor of the Capital, last saw Merrill a few days before his trip. "We would have conversations that did not indicate that there was anything amiss," he said, although the publisher had sometimes said recently that "he didn't really know what to do with the rest of his life, as he would say."

Yesterday, Marquardt, who has been with the Capital since 1977, struggled with a deluge of calls and messages from reporters and Annapolitans who have followed the saga.

Merrill left his job as president of the Export-Import Bank of the United States last year, about the time he had bypass surgery. Since then, his family said in a statement Tuesday night, they had seen "a clear departure from his lifelong optimistic outlook and irrepressible spirit."

"We were concerned for his welfare but never imagined that he would consider taking his own life," the family said in the statement.

Until the week he died, Merrill went to the Capital every Monday, presiding over meetings and writing the occasional fiery editorial. Marquardt recalled a second visit in the week Merrill died, but he cannot remember exactly when.

That week, "we talked about politics, [energy] deregulation . . . the normal conversation," Marquardt said.

"No doubt that Phil was slowing down, [but] we thought he was just enjoying life a lot more," Marquardt said.

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