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Associates of Clay persist in fears his death was murder


Despite the state medical examiner's official ruling that Robert Lee Clay's death was a suicide, friends of the prominent businessman say they will continue their efforts to show that he might have been murdered.

A cash reward posted last month by Clay's associates has been increased to $60,000 for information about the May 16 fatal shooting of Clay, 58, whose daughter found his body in his Reservoir Hill office. In addition, they are hiring a forensic scientist to review the medical examiner's investigation.

"There's not a person who knows Robert Clay who believes in their heart of hearts that this was a suicide," said state Del. Jill P. Carter, a longtime friend of Clay. "There was a rush to judgment on suicide."

But Chief Medical Examiner David Fowler is trying to dispel suspicions about the investigation and the belief that Clay was murdered.

Fowler acknowledges that he has heard speculation that the minority business pioneer died of more than one gunshot wound to the head, a theory that has fueled suspicion that Clay did not shoot himself. Fowler says that his report, released Thursday, showed that there were two head wounds - an entrance and an exit wound - caused by one bullet.

"There were two holes, but only one bullet," said Fowler, whose state office operates independently of any city agency, including the Baltimore Police Department.

Clay's friends, however, say they do not believe he was capable of killing himself. They say the delay in concluding how he died suggests a sloppy police investigation.

"We don't believe it was suicide," said Pless Jones Sr., a contractor and friend of Clay's.

The police have not released records of the Clay investigation and say they typically do not in suicide cases.

Fowler says his office's conclusion took more than a month because of several factors that are normal for such investigations. The police were conducting DNA and other tests to determine whether Clay was alone in his office, and medical examiner investigators also followed up Clay's family's suspicions that he was killed.

"We were waiting to get back all of the lab testing that was being performed on this case," Fowler said. "This was a very careful and thorough investigation. It would have been negligent of us not to investigate the family's suspicions."

"None of the evidence supports anyone else being present at the time" of Clay's death, he said.

But the medical evidence is still not enough for those who knew Clay best and say he had too much to live for to take his own life.

"It is very difficult for us to believe he committed suicide," said Arnold Jolivet, president of the American Minority Contractors and Businesses Association Inc. in Washington. "We want to make sure the truth is being told."

Members of Jolivet's group, which represents minority contractors, have contributed an additional $10,000 to increase their reward for information about Clay's death to $60,000. Jolivet said the group is also close to hiring a "well-known" forensic expert to examine the state medical examiner's conclusion of suicide.

Fowler said friends and family can formally appeal his conclusions to him, but only with new evidence. After that, an appeal can be taken to an administrative law judge.

In his experience, Fowler said, suicide is hardest for friends and relatives to grasp when there is no note and no one expects it.

That seems to be the case with Clay, who was considered by his friends to be a generous supporter of community causes and an ardent, fearless activist for minority businesses.

"He was too happy on the day it happened," Jones said. "Someone saw him driving across town [that morning] and he blew the horn and waved. He met one of his mechanics to give him money to pick up parts. That doesn't seem like someone who was going to kill himself."

Clay founded Robert Clay Inc. in 1968 and rose to positions of influence - through longtime leadership of the Maryland Minority Contractors Association and behind-the-scenes roles in politics - after securing the benefits of minority-participation requirements for federal contractors. In 2004, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. appointed him a member of the state's Commission on Minority Enterprise Reform.

Clay was a controversial figure who twice prevailed over charges he was involved in shootings. But the Laurel resident was also revered by many in the city and Howard County.

The Rev. John Louis Wright of the First Baptist Church of Guilford in Columbia has said Clay, who was a parishioner, paid for funeral expenses for the workers in his contracting firm and that he often gave loans to people on the verge of being evicted.

Pinnie Ross of Columbia said Clay supported her teen beauty pageant every year with a $500 donation. "If he had it, he would give it to you," said Ross, who said she spoke to Clay two days before he died.

Her husband, William A. Ross Sr., said he knew Clay since the 1970s, when Clay's business helped build the city of Columbia.

"The black community had a high regard for him because of his work for minority contractors," William Ross said. "He was never afraid to take on people." One of the people he took on was Mayor Martin O'Malley.

In 1999, Clay was part of a group distributing leaflets that tried to tie O'Malley to white supremacists. This year, a flier he distributed questioned all aspects of the mayor's leadership.

Even in death Clay has caused political waves. On June 4, a program from his funeral with a threatening note written on it was left on the front door of Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who is the father-in-law of O'Malley.

And Clay's friends noted that O'Malley did not attend Clay's May 25 funeral, but that Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan did. Duncan and O'Malley are competing for the Democratic nomination to run for governor against Ehrlich.

O'Malley's office did not comment for this article.

"Even in death he was controversial," said Jolivet. "But nonetheless, he was a good and decent person."

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