It had been, everyone involved would say sadly, a beautiful day to go sailing. The sun was bright, the bay was flat and the wind was moderate, at 10 to 11 knots. The Present Moment left Annapolis and tacked across the Cheaspeake Bay, headed for Dobbins Island. There was kidding about who was going to be thrown overboard.
Harry B. Ellis Jr. owns the 41-foot yacht, and he was at the helm. It was a high-spritited group. Ellis, the ebullient head of a Washington counsulting firm, and his staff, their spouses and friends. Ellis had been to sea hundreds of times. He had sailed the Present Moment from Boston to Washington, to the Virgin Islands.
But for one of his 23 passengers it was a new experience. Theodoris (Theo) Scott, 29-year-old assistant to Ellis' office manager, had never been on a boat. She couldn't swim and hardly ever went near the water. Afterwards, her husband Clarence (Scotty) Scott remembered how much she had been enjoying her first sail. "She was excited. . . . She was happy."
But when the Present Moment returned to the Maryland Capital Yacht Club later that afternoon, all the joy was gone.
Theodoris Bertha Scott, mother of a five-year-old girl named Cherise Passion; was in the shock-trauma unit of a Baltimore hospital. She died that night. A medical examiner said the cause of death was drowning and refused to discuss the case.
Police arrested Ellis 20 days later, aboard his yacht at the club. His friend and colleague, Michael Farmer, sailed with Ellis the day of the accident, and he says it had all been in fun when Ellish picked up the 5-foot-1-inch, 105 pound Theo and dropped her overboard. The water was 10 feet deep and she went straight down. Five or six minutes passed before someone pulled her to the surface. Anne Arundel County police charged Ellis with manslaughter.
It took 20 days, in part because the case had begun as a routine drowning investigation, according to Scott's lawyer, Dorsey Evans, who says he called police and told them of the circumstances four days after the death. It also took time for the police to trace witnesses who had been on other boats near the Present Moment. The State Attorney's office is preparing to take the case before the grand jury.
The June 27 outing aboard the Present Moment was to have been like so many others in the summer-time in the Washington area: The boss invites his colleagues and employees out on his boat, and afterward there is the remembrance of a fine summer day on the water with friends. But the outing ended in the death of Theo Scott, who was well liked by everyone in the office.
And what has prolonged the pain for most of those involved is that criminal charges have been filed and at least one civil lawsuit threatened by her husband Clarence Scott. There is a touch of scandal in what Scott is claiming publicly: That he told everyone aboard the Present Moment, including Ellis, that his wife couldn't swim. Other passengers vehemently deny it. And so the afternoon that Ellis invited the office sailing has become a tragedy, with so many serious consequences and unanswered questions that most of those involved don't even want to discuss it.
This embitters the family of Theodoris Scott. "I want to know exactly what happened on that boat," her aunt Iretha Harley says. Clarence Scott, 30, is an anguished man, a Georgetown University medical student with a five-year-old daughter to care for, mourning the loss of the beautiful, spirited woman who was, he says, "my life." He hired lawyer Evans to investigate his wife's death. Cherise Passion -- the couple named her Passion after the feeling they had for each other -- wants to know if her mother is an angel.
Ellis won't talk to reporters; all inquiries are referred to his lawyer, who says he can't comment on the case. Ellis has been, Farmer says, "not morose exactly, but kind of on the edge ever since. He breaks into tears easily." Ellis, 57, heads the Washington office of Harbridge House, Inc., a research and management-consultant firm founded by three Harved Business School graduates in 1950. Its clients include the Department of Defense, Westinghouse Electric Corp. and the Ford Foundation. There are eight offices in the U.S., three in Europe.
Harbridge House has retained a law firm of its own to look into the drowning. Harbridge House's Robert Reed, directed to handle reporters' questions about the drowning, says: "The company is unable to comment on the incident itself." Reed is careful, however, to make one point: The outing -- which included mostly Harbridge House employes, their friends and spouses -- was a private affair and "not an office party." Reed, who did not sail that day, won't say who did. The Washington Post contacted five Harbridge House staffers who were on board. Only Farmer agreed to discuss the drowning in detail.
And at the Maryland Capital Yacht Club, where Ellis, is a popular member, the Present Moment, a $100,000 Freeport, rides at its pier. The sailors who belong to the club are affluent and prominent in their professions. s"You have to be somebody to be a member," the club's administrative assistant, Rose Brice, said. Club Commodore Ed Falkenhayn says that around the yacht club there is sympathy for Ellis and sorrow for the victim. "It's a terrible tragedy."
Ellis, and just about all of his 35 staff members, attended the funeral of Theo Scott. He tried to speak to Clarence Scott, but Scott wouldn't look at him. "Ellis was suffering," Theo's aunt recalled. Harley said he knelt and folded his hands in front of the casket. Her niece was buried in her white wedding dress with the blue embroidered flowers, in a cemetery in Salisbury, Md., the town where she grew up, the daughter of a presser and a school custodian. It was July 2, seven days before Theo Scott's 30th birthday.
She was the youngest of five children. Her childhood on Maryland's Eastern Shore had not been easy. "She grew up poor. She picked crops," her husband said. Her father died 10 years ago; he had been hit by a car. After graduation from Salisbury High School, she moved to Washington and became a secreatary.
She met Clarence Scott seven years ago. He had just finished a stint as an Army medic."I thought she was the most goregous girl I'd ever seen," he recalled. They were married a year later. The couple's dream was that Scott, the son of a beautician and a carpet layer, would become a cardiovascular surgeon. "She made me promise when I got out of medical school I'd get her a maid and retire her forever. She wanted a house with columns and a long winding driveway and a fountain out front. I could've pulled it off." They lived in a well-kept rowhouse at 1113 N St. NW.
Theo came to Harbridge House one year ago. The firm has a 12the floor suite of offices, with beige carpeting and glass and wood-paneled walls, in a new building at 1301 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Theo started as a secretary and was promoted to administrative assistant to the office manager. She earned $15.500 a year, money that helped to put her husband through medical school.
Ellis has been with Harbridge House since his graduation from Harvard Business School in 1955. He grew up around the water, in the Boston suburb of Scituate and is a Navy veteran who piloted a small boat during the World War II invasion of Italy, rescuing the wounded under fire. "He's very, very fine, hard-working, very tough," his 37-year-old colleague, Farmer, said. "He's a very alive type person."
It was unusual for Ellis to invite his staff sailing, Farmer said. "He is more likely to take others out."
The invitations wre printed on the boat's letterhead: "The crew of The Present Moment: Cap'n Harry and 2nd Mate Sandy invite you to said on The Present Moment. . . . We'll sail whichever way the wind blows -- up the Bay or down. . . ." Sandy is Sandy Rubico, Ellis's office manager and girlfriend. Attached to the invitation were two pages of sailing instructions that included this advice: "If you cannot swim, consider wearing a life jacket."
There had been kidding around the office among some people in anticipation of the outing. "All week people were saying they were going to throw Theo in," Clarence Scott's lawyer said.
Farmer, himself an accomplished sailor, said that before the Present Moment sailed, Ellis counted the number of persons aboard, counted the life jackets and borrowed four from another boat so that everyone would have one. But no one, including nonswimmer Theo Scott, wore a life jacket that afternoon. "It might have been peer pressure," Farmer said. Sailing time was set for 11 a.m., and the scotts showed up just as the boat was pulling away. "Another five minutes, and they would have missed it," Farmer said.
Theo wore a halter top, shorts, moccasins, sunglasses and her long hair pinned under a hat. She and Scotty sat next to each other in the cockpit amidship. Ellis headed the boat toward Dobbins Island in the Magothy River, about four miles north of the Bay Bridge. The island is a popular spot for afternoon boating to anchor, and the plan was to stop there for lunch and swimming. They reached the island about 2:30 p.m.
About a dozen people went swimming, Farmer said. Everyone else sipped drinks -- beer and wine and soda, according to Farmer -- and, with much laughing and talking, they prepared to break out the food. Clarence Scott says he drank three of four beers, his wife a couple of glasses of wine. No one drank heavily, according to Farmer. "I was on the stern, just watching people. There was quite a lot of horseplay going on. A bunch of people had already been thrown in. People were kidding Theo about throwing her in, and she said she'd throw them in. She was enjoying it."
Scott said he warned Ellis and the others that his wife couldn't swim. "I told them 'If you throw her in, all I can do is collect the insurance because she can't swim.'" But Farmer and others say no one knew that Theo couldn't swim.
Lance Marston, another Harbridge House staffer, said: "It was so innocent. People were having a lot of fun. It was almost a dare. She (Theo) said 'If you go in, then I'll go in.' I went downstairs to change and when I came up she was in the water. . . . At no time was there any indicattion that she couldnht swim. . . . It was an accident. There was absolutely no malice intended."
Farmer says that Ellis asked Clarence Scott if he could throw his wife in. "He didn't say yes or no, but his body language suggested it was all right." Ellis grabbed Theo and dropped her in the water, feet first, according to Farmer. She was laughing, he said.
Scott said he didn't have the chance to stop Ellis -- a stockily built man over six feet tall -- from dropping his wife in the water. "I had my backed turned. All I could see was Harry throwing her overboard."
The laughing aboard the Present Moment stopped. Theo Scott hadn't come up."Everybody thought she could swim, that she was kidding by staying down so long," Farmer said. "It was staggering. Unnatural. I've never seen anything like it. She just went straight down and didn't come up." n
Six or seven people, including Scott and Ellis, jumped in after her. The water was muddy, and it was difficult to see. "When I got there, there was nothing," Scott said. "I dove two or three times. I was just looking for her." Someone else pulled his wife to the surface, five or six minutes later. She came aboard with no life signs, Farmer said. He and Scott, the medical student and former Army medic, performed CPR together. "She responded beatifully," Farmer said.
The Coast Guard was called and Theo was brought ashore at Gray's Marina, about a mile from Dobbins Island. "She was holding my hand," Scott said. "She said, 'Scotty please. Scotty, please.'" It was about 3:30 p.m. An Anne Arundel County ambulance was waiting.Scott insisted on staying with his wife. He argued furiously with the paramedics, who wanted him to get out of the ambulance and called Anne Arundel police for help. Scott was allowed to stay, according to Officer Howard Ebbert, who wrote his report: "It was felt that a violent confrontation would cause more harm to the patient."
Ebbert listed the drowning as "accidental." Scott's lawyer, Evans, says his client did not initially mention the circumstances because, Evans says, he was afraid that would complicate things and slow his wife's treatment.
Present Moment returned to the yacht club, where there was a message that Theo had been helicoptered from North Arundel Hospital in Glen Burnie to the shock-trauma unit of the University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore. Ellis drove to the hospital and met Clarence Scott. "The doctor told me there was very litle he could do," Scott said. His wife died at 9 p.m.
He drove to Salisbury that night to give his wife's mother the news. "She was my baby," Catherine Brooks Williams, 56, said. Harley, the aunt who loved Theo like her own daughter, heard the next day when she got back from Atlantic City. "They didn't pull any punches. They said she was drowned -- man threw her overboard."
Harley, 58, says she has a "horrible fear of the water," sand that her niece was the same way. "She'd always get dressed up to go to the beach. She'd put her hair up and her makeup on. She looked like she was going to a ball. I'd say, 'Honey, you're going to the beach.' She'd say, 'I'm not going in the water.' Harley says she imagines the drowning of her niece. "I can see her now, with her mouth open and her not knowing how to hold her breath. . . . It's pitiful. Everytime I go across the Bay Bridge now, it botherss me."
And as the lawyers prepare their cases against Harry B. Ellis Jr., captain of the Present Moment, head of the Washington office of Harbridge House, Ellis' friend and colleague, Michael Farmer, still remembers how the weather and promised such a perfect afternoon and how inconceivable it seemed that such a day could end in death. "Harry's about as good a sailor as I've ever seen. . . . He had been to sea for weeks on end, in stormy weather. He has every safety device ever invented, the best radar, a depth sounder, radios of every size, overboard equipment. And nothing had ever happened."