Family says publisher Merrill apparently took his own life

June 21, 2006|By ANNIE LINSKEY | ANNIE LINSKEY,SUN REPORTER

Philip Merrill, the newspaper publisher and former diplomat whose June 10 disappearance during a lone sailing trip on the Chesapeake Bay prompted an intensive search, apparently committed suicide, the family said in a statement last night.

"During the course of the [Department of Natural Resources] investigation into the disappearance of Phil, we have come to learn that the events that occurred on June 10 were in all likelihood the result of his own efforts to take his life," the family said in the statement, which was released in response to media inquiries.

A law enforcement source close to the investigation said that Merrill, 72, had apparently suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Police had previously said that they did not think Merrill was the victim of foul play, and speculation had focused on an accidental death.

The family statement said Merrill "underwent significant heart surgery over a year ago and was on several medications as a result of it."

In recent weeks, family members said, they noticed that "his spirit had dimmed" and that he "was fatigued and unmotivated, a clear departure from his lifelong optimistic outlook."

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

An autopsy was to have been performed yesterday on the body of Merrill, who was found about a mile off the shore of Poplar Island, near Maryland's Eastern Shore. The result was to have been released yesterday.

Dr. Mary Rippel of the state medical examiner's office declined to speak with The Sun yesterday evening. A worker at the state medical examiner's office said yesterday afternoon that the office was "waiting for further police examination" before announcing the autopsy result. Asked how the process was proceeding, she said, "We're looking at the circumstances."

Col. Mark S. Chaney, superintendent of the state Natural Resources Police, also declined to comment, saying only, "That is an announcement for the medical examiner to make."

A Baltimore native who learned to sail at age 7, Merrill was well-known, and the search for his body attracted national news coverage. He was chairman of Capital-Gazette Communications, which publishes The Capital newspaper of Annapolis and Washingtonian magazine, and was known for his gruff style in the newsroom and mercurial temper. His wife, Eleanor, has taken over as chairwoman.

"We were shocked at the news and found it very difficult to accept. However, Phil lived his life openly and honestly," the family statement said. "In this spirit, particularly out of respect for friends and colleagues, we feel his last actions must be understood for what they were."

A 10-day search for Merrill ended Monday afternoon when a boater found his body floating near a shipping channel southwest of Poplar Island. The Talbot County island is about 17 miles southeast of Annapolis, between where Merrill set sail in Arnold and where his 41-foot-long boat was found that evening, near Plum Point in Calvert County.

The longtime sailor was not in the habit of wearing a lifejacket, and Natural Resources Police said none was found on the body.

Family members said he had gone out on the water for his final sail in heavy winds. When two people riding personal watercrafts discovered his unmanned boat, a multiagency rescue mission began that included searchers, motorboats and sonar scanners from the Natural Resources Police, Coast Guard, and the Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City fire departments.

At a news conference Monday, Chaney declined to answer questions about whether blood had been found on Merrill's boat or about whether there were signs of trauma on his body.

"This is still under investigation, and we're going to wait for the results of the autopsy with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner," Chaney said.

Asked about the possibility of foul play, he said, "Again, our position has not changed. We are going to await the results of the medical examiner's office, which will be done tomorrow [Tuesday]."

Chaney noted that Merrill's body was found "a considerable distance south of his general route of travel," from his Severn River home to Kent Island, the Thomas Point lighthouse and back.

Based on what Merrill's family had told police, Chaney said, police had concentrated on his normal travel route. The body was found "just inside the buoy marker, near a shipping channel, about a mile off the shoreline" of Poplar Island, Chaney said.

Chaney declined to answer questions about Merrill's boat. "The boat is still in our custody," he said. "We're doing examinations on that boat and have been, and we will be glad to release some of that information to you once the investigation is concluded."

Merrill served under multiple presidents and was assistant secretary-general of NATO in Brussels, Belgium, in the early 1990s. Until last year, Merrill was president and chairman of the Export-Import Bank of the United States.

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