Details about the last minutes leading up to the tragic suicide of a promising Missouri politician – a serious candidate for governor – emerged on Thursday.
Moments before Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich shot and killed himself last week, he was upset, as he had been for days, focused on untrue remarks that had been made about his religion, namely that he was Jewish. He was actually Episcopalian.
He spoke on the phone to an aide to former Missouri senator John Danforth, who was concerned about him. He told her that he was outraged over the rumors and was thinking about how to handle them. Then he threatened to take his life, the Kansas City Star reported.
He passed the phone to his wife, Kathy, and while she was talking to the aide, Schweich committed suicide.
“Seconds later, I heard Kathy say, ‘He shot himself!’” Martha Fitz, the aide, told the newspaper on Thursday in a written statement.
“Kathy then called 911 on another line while I stayed on the first line with her until the paramedics arrived,” she added.
Danforth, a former Missouri attorney general as well as a U.S. senator and ordained Episcopal priest, was a mentor to Schweich.
What apparently set Schweich off was what he called a “whisper campaign” by Missouri Republican Party chairman John Hancock that Schweich feared was designed to hurt his gubernatorial run in Missouri. He said Hancock told donors he was a Jew.
Last month, Schweich, 54, announced he was seeking the Republican nomination for governor in 2016 against contender Catherine Hanaway, a former Missouri House speaker. He was polling well but, in the past few weeks, he seemed to be growing agitated over what he considered political dirty tricks.
He alleged that Hancock made anti-Semitic comments about him – calling him a Jew – to smear his name before a primary in which many voters are evangelical Christians. He said his grandfather was Jewish and “taught him to never allow any anti-Semitism go unpunished,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial page editor Tony Messenger said last week in a written statement.
Then, a political action committee called Citizens for Fairness aired a radio advertisement comparing Schweich to the Barney Fife character played by Don Knotts in “The Andy Griffith Show” and calling him a weak contender for the Republican party.
“For a politician, he had very thin skin. He didn’t take criticism well,” Messenger, who knew Schweich some six years, told The Washington Post in a telephone interview last week. “If something was on his mind and he wanted to say it, he said it.”
Earlier in the morning on Feb. 26, Schweich called two reporters from the Associated Press and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and invited them to a press conference at his home that afternoon. He said he wanted to clear things up. He never did.
Since then, Hancock has said he doesn’t have a “specific recollection” about any religious comments, but that if he did say Schweich was Jewish, it wasn’t meant in an anti-Semitic way. “It’s plausible that I would have told somebody that Tom was Jewish because I thought he was, but I wouldn’t have said it in a derogatory or demeaning fashion,” he told the Associated Press.
Schweich’s chief of staff, Trish Vincent, told the Kansas City Star she had growing concerns about his emotional state.
“Tom was distraught,” she told the newspaper in a statement. “He also said he had not slept and had been physically ill most of the night. I tried to counsel him on how to handle the situation, but he dismissed my advice and the call ended shortly thereafter.”
Vincent called Kathy Schweich, but she didn’t answer. Then she phoned Fitz to see whether she could help reach her.
Minutes later, Kathy Schweich called Vincent back and said that Tom Schweich had been on the phone all morning.
“While I was talking with Kathy,” Vincent told the newspaper, “Tom came into the room and inquired who she was talking to. Kathy said it was me and that I was concerned about him. I told her I would let her go and to advise Tom that I would be checking back after lunch to see if he wanted to keep his afternoon appointments. Our call then ended.”
Then Kathy Schweich called Fitz. A few minutes into the conversation, Tom Schweich took the phone. He spoke with Fitz for a few minutes about how he should address the rumors. She advised him to leave it alone. Moments later, he took his own life.
Authorities said Schweich died from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
During Schweich’s eulogy on Tuesday, Danforth blamed the suicide on political “bullies.” He called the attack ad “bullying” and agreed the alleged religious remarks were anti-Semitic, urging others to pledge not to “put up with any whisper of anti-Semitism.”
“Tom called this anti-Semitism, and of course it was. The only reason for going around saying that someone is Jewish is to make political profit from religious bigotry,” Danforth said during the eulogy, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“The death of Tom Schweich is the natural consequence of what politics has become,” he added. “I believe deep in my heart that it’s now our duty, yours and mine, to turn politics into something much better than its now so miserable state.”