Police confirm Merrill shot himself

June 24, 2006|By ANNIE LINSKEY | ANNIE LINSKEY,SUN REPORTER

Maryland Natural Resources Police, after receiving an autopsy report on the death of publisher and former diplomat Philip Merrill, have concluded that Merrill tied an 8-pound anchor to his leg and shot himself in the head while sailing on the Chesapeake Bay on June 10.

Four days after declining to speculate on Merrill's cause of death when his body was found off Maryland's Eastern Shore, the police issued a two-page news release confirming the family's statement Tuesday that Merrill had taken his own life.

"It has been determined that Merrill died as a result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head," the police statement said.

Police also confirmed that blood had been found near the stern of Merrill's 41-foot yacht Merrilly and that he had purchased a shotgun within a week of his disappearance.

Col. Mark S. Chaney, superintendent of the Natural Resources Police, and agency spokesman Sgt. Ken Turner did not return phone calls yesterday afternoon.

Chaney did not mention Merrill's gunshot wound at a news conference to discuss the body's discovery, and he maintained the agency's position that foul play wasn't involved.

A Merrill family spokesman, Tom Marquardt, expressed hope that release of the report would allow the family to move on.

"The family is really looking forward to closure at this point," said Marquardt, the executive editor of The Capital newspaper of Annapolis, which Merrill owned.

Pieces of the investigation had been leaked to news organizations over the past week, and much of what was in the police news release had already been reported.

"The family understands the nature of the news business," Marquardt said. "They were hoping for one report, rather than having it stretched over several days."

The search for Merrill, 72, began June 10 after several people noticed the yacht adrift near Plum Point in Calvert County.

Andrew J. Carta, one of the first people to board the boat, said yesterday that the yacht's boom was secured when he found the boat about 7:30 p.m. When boats are under sail, the boom is typically free to move back and forth. Initially, many had speculated that Merrill had been struck in the head by the boom and knocked overboard, something not possible with the boom secured.

Carta said he also saw "drops [of blood] here and there spread out in the back of the boat." The blood was dry, he said.

Carta said he took down the jib, anchored the boat, and tried to lower the mainsail while another person called for help.

A Natural Resources Police officer boarded Merrilly at 8:15 p.m. and found Merrill's wallet with "a large amount of currency" and his cell phone, according to the police statement.

Thirty-five minutes later, a police investigator went to Merrill's home and learned that he had set off earlier that day and had not returned when expected.

Police also learned that Merrill purchased a Mossberg Model 500 12-gauge pump-action shotgun within a week of his disappearance, according to the police news release. Police said they searched Merrill's home and boat and have not found the weapon. Police have not said whether Merrill left a note.

In Tuesday's statement, the family said that Merrill had undergone heart surgery about a year ago and that in recent weeks his "spirit had dimmed."

Sources close to the investigation said Merrill bought the gun at an Annapolis-area store.

Meanwhile the Natural Resources Police led an intensive recovery effort that lasted nine days and involved numerous agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard, local fire departments, and volunteers.

Merrill's body was found Monday, and police said yesterday that an 8-pound mushroom anchor was tied to Merrill's lower left leg. A boater found the body floating a mile off Poplar Island, nine miles north of where the boat was spotted.

Small mushroom anchors are typically used to secure dinghies and small rowboats, and wouldn't have enough heft to be useful in preventing a boat the size of the Merrilly from drifting.

The state's medical examiner ruled that the cause of death was a shotgun wound to the head, according to Shirl Walker, a spokeswoman for the office. The shotgun was pressed directly to the head, Walker said.

The family, in its statement, asked that Merrill be remembered "for the first amazing 71 years of his life."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

To read the full text of the Department of Natural Resources statement on the Merrill investigation, go to www.baltimoresun.com/merrill.

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