Suicide try tied to illness

April 16, 1994|By JoAnna Daemmrich, Kim Clark and Michael A. Fletcher | JoAnna Daemmrich, Kim Clark and Michael A. Fletcher,Sun Staff Writers

As her political career unraveled amid mounting legal pressures, Baltimore Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean fought an increasingly desperate battle with depression culminating in a near-fatal overdose of alcohol and prescription pills, her lawyers said yesterday.

Despondent and under the care of a psychiatric hospital for much of the past three months, the indicted comptroller attempted suicide at least two other times before she swallowed large quantities of anti-depressant drugs Thursday night. She remained in intensive care last night at Union Memorial Hospital, but her condition improved from guarded to stable.

"This is a very sad and tragic occurrence for her, her family and all of us," her attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, said at a news conference yesterday afternoon. "Mrs. McLean has suffered from severe and profound depression for a very long time -- predating not only her current difficulties but going back years."

Mrs. McLean, 50, has struggled with depression most of her adult life, Ms. Gutierrez said. The comptroller, who promoted herself as an experienced businesswoman to rise to the third most powerful position in Baltimore government, spent the winter in and out of a private mental health institution while a grand jury considered the case against her.

"Her family, her lawyers, the people supporting her have spent the bulk of the past 2 1/2 months trying to assist her and ensure her physical safety," Ms. Gutierrez said, adding that Mrs. McLean remains under close watch to avoid another suicide attempt.

Mrs. McLean, who is on an unpaid leave of absence, was indicted in February on charges of stealing more than $25,000 in public funds and trying to steer a $1 million city lease to a building she owned with her husband, James. She has pleaded innocent to the charges.

State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli said yesterday that he intends to proceed with the theft and misconduct charges against Mrs. McLean.

"As far as we're concerned, this doesn't change the case, and we're preparing for a June 8 trial date," he said.

Mrs. McLean appeared to be in fairly good spirits when she spoke with her lawyer earlier Thursday evening. Ms. Gutierrez said she was arranging an appointment to discuss Mrs. McLean's defense for the first time.

Two hours later, police officers found Mrs. McLean in a "semiconscious" state in the den of her 10th-floor luxury condominium in the Colonnade in North Baltimore. Four empty vials of anti-depressant drugs were scattered beside an empty glass and a bottle of scotch on the kitchen table, police said.

Mrs. McLean's blood alcohol level was .122 percent, above the legal limit for determination of intoxication in driving cases, Ms. Gutierrez said.

Mrs. McLean left a two-page handwritten note for her husband, with whom she once ran the now-defunct Four Winds & Seven Seas Inc. travel agency. It wavered between apologizing for causing him trouble and blaming him for failing to be supportive enough.

Yesterday, elected officials, business associates and friends of Mrs. McLean responded in shock and sorrow to news of her suicide attempt. All said they were surprised to learn that the woman who prided herself on appearing successful and poised, who rose from political obscurity to be seen as a potential mayoral candidate, had a long battle with depression.

"My heart is heavy for her," said Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, a 4th District Democrat.

Tucky Ramsey, a friend of the McLeans, also expressed sadness. "I feel very badly that the situation has reached the point that Jackie felt she was no longer a contributing member of society.

"I hope she is able to get the kind of treatment that is necessary."

Said Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, who has known the comptroller since both won races in 1983 to represent the 2nd District, "I feel really bad for her. I know her to be a very competent and forceful woman. It just seems out of character."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was out of town yesterday and could not be reached. His office said the mayor was "aware of the situation," but would have no immediate comment.

Both Ms. Gutierrez and William H. Murphy Jr., her law partner, refused to discuss whether the suicide attempt would have any impact on the criminal proceedings beyond potentially delaying Mrs. McLean's May 2 rearraignment. Mrs. McLean did not appear for her arraignment last month, but her lawyers entered the innocent plea and scheduled a second arraignment date.

Mrs. McLean was recovering yesterday and no longer was hooked to a respirator, but she could barely speak, her attorneys said. Her husband, sister, brother and brother-in-law were spending time by her side, Ms. Gutierrez said. The family issued a brief statement asking for prayers, but no calls or other contact by the media.

"We love Jackie, and we are deeply concerned that the constant media coverage has been harmful to her and will prolong her recovery," the statement said.

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