ROCK POINT -- The body of former CIA Director William E. Colby washed up near a Southern Maryland beach yesterday, eight days after he disappeared while canoeing on the murky waters near his summer home.
Police said they found no sign of foul play, and believe the 76-year-old Colby drowned after falling into the mouth of Neale Sound during a solitary outing at the southern tip of Charles County.
"This is being investigated as a fatal boating accident," said Lt. Mark Sanders of the state Natural Resources Police. "The reason he was found this morning is quite simply that nature took its course and his body floated up."
The medical examiner's office in Baltimore is expected to release the results of an autopsy as early as today.
After starting a search of the Wicomico River at dawn, Natural Resources Police Cpl. Leonard Sciukas saw Colby's windbreaker and dark hair just above the surface at 8: 05 a.m. yesterday.
The body was in marsh grass in about two feet of water, roughly a mile and a half from Colby's yellow vacation cottage and a quarter-mile south of where his green fiberglass canoe was found beached on a sandbar.
"From the looks of it, he had come up about an hour or two before," Sciukas said.
"It was near the targeted square where we had been looking, but there was no way we could have found him underwater unless we were really lucky."
Sciukas said the water was so cold that it slowed the body's rise to the surface, preserving it in waters that reached a depth of 30 feet in places.
Colby was found in khakis, a blue and white striped polo shirt, brown socks and a red windbreaker. He was not wearing shoes or a life vest, police said.
More than three dozen federal, state and county rescue workers had searched a roughly 1-mile-square area for more than a week, sending scuba divers into the waterways, rescue dogs along the shoreline and helicopters overhead. Authorities were scaling back the rescue mission in recent days, which was hampered by the opaque waters that turned the effort into a blind search.
Colby, who headed the CIA from 1973 to 1976 after a career of risk-filled secret missions, in recent years retreated to a quiet community near Rock Point for weekends and holidays.
Sometimes at sunset he would canoe a three-quarter-mile route, turning around at the confluence of Neale Sound and the Wicomico River.
Colby was such an experienced boater and strong swimmer that his wife, Sally Shelton-Colby, insisted last week that he was still alive.
'A magnificent life'
But shortly after 9 a.m. yesterday, Shelton-Colby identified her husband's body as it lay on a narrow beach covered with oyster shells and driftwood.
"Bill had a magnificent life," she told reporters a couple of hours later, in a voice that quaked with emotion only for a moment.
"There was not much that was left undone for him. He left the world a lot safer and better place than when he entered it."
Colby's two adult sons had joined in the search last week, along with dozens of volunteers from the watermen's community around Cobb Island.
Colby headed the CIA's Saigon office during the Vietnam War and directed the Phoenix project, a covert mission against the Viet Cong. Colby's candid comments before a congressional committee about the CIA's role in Phoenix -- intended to expose Communist agents operating in South Vietnam -- prompted President Gerald Ford to demand his resignation in 1976.
For the residents around Rock Point, the search for Colby brought unusual activity to the otherwise quiet waterfront community.
Some people began to suspect, as the days passed, that Colby had been a victim of foul play.
But others quickly pinned his absence to the treacherous local waters.
"I've been out there when the wind kicks up out of nowhere and it's a very scary feeling," said Derek Veney, 37, who lives in nearby Issue and every summer heads along the same routes Colby took in a 16-foot Carolina skiff.
"You try to get to shore quick, 'cause you don't know which way the current is going to take you," he said. "You're just like a tumbleweed out West."
Residents who knew Colby said he was quiet and unobtrusive in town, and many had no idea about the life of intrigue he led before settling in their neighborhood.
Johnny Carter, owner of the Cobb Island Lighthouse marina where Colby kept his sailboat, Eagle Wing II, said he was glad at least there was some resolution to the former spy's disappearance.
"Thank God they found him, otherwise there would have been conspiracy theories for thousands of years to come," he said as he watched Colby's 37-foot sloop rock gently in its slip. "It wasn't a conspiracy at all.
"Just a very unfortunate accident that happened to a very kind man."
Pub Date: 5/07/96