Friends and acquaintances of Philip Merrill said yesterday that they had noticed a downturn in the demeanor of the normally energetic publisher and former diplomat in the months before his apparent suicide.
Merrill's family revealed Tuesday that he apparently took his own life June 10 while on a solo excursion on his 41-foot-yacht on the Chesapeake Bay. Authorities say the case remains under investigation, but several law enforcement sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said evidence points toward a self-inflicted wound to the head from a shotgun.
Two law enforcement sources said the search team knew early on that Merrill had recently purchased a shotgun from an Annapolis gun store and had appeared depressed.
Samuel W. Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, was one of several hundred guests who attended a party Merrill gave the weekend before he disappeared. Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell attended this year's annual fete, but Lewis said Merrill seemed "less optimistic" that evening and "more going through the motions."
Lewis said: "My wife and I, we were talking about it afterward, we thought he had been acting differently, but not that you'd anticipate anything like this. I'm thunderstruck by the news."
Lewis recalled Merrill talking with uncertainty about the future. "He was still thinking about what was next. He said he had some ideas. He didn't have the usual drive and conviction."
Merrill, who published The Capital in Annapolis and the Washingtonian magazine, had undergone bypass surgery a year ago, and the family talked to his physicians about his change in behavior in recent weeks. Depression is a frequent side-effect of open-heart surgery, research shows.
The discovery of Merrill's unmanned sailboat launched a search-and-recovery mission that ended after his body was pulled from the Chesapeake on Monday.
After seeing on television that Merrill had been reported missing, the owner of an Annapolis gun shop called police to say he had sold the publisher a shotgun, according to law enforcement sources. The man thought it unusual that Merrill, whose newspaper had editorialized in favor of stricter gun control, would purchase a weapon, the sources said.
Police went to the store and examined the model, checking to see if it could be fired while turned toward the shooter, according to the sources. Police then met with the family to brief them and ask about the state of Merrill's health, sources said. The family revealed his heart problems and his seeming lack of spark in recent weeks, sources said.
The owner of the gunshop declined to comment about the sale yesterday, saying that all transactions are confidential.
Ken Turner, a spokesman for the Natural Resources police, declined to discuss the shotgun purchase, saying disclosure of any details could "contaminate the investigation."
However, he said, the case has "always been a criminal investigation." Suicide is against the law. Police have said from the start that they do not suspect anyone else killed Merrill, though a final determination has not been made.
Authorities say they will not release the cause of Merrill's death until the medical examiner completes the final autopsy report, expected early next week.
William Regardie, founder of a now-defunct D.C.-area business magazine called Regardie's that competed with the Washingtonian, said, "Phil Merrill all his life has planned and been precise and compartmentalized. He does not leave anything to chance."
Regardie had sought business advice from Merrill in recent months and was surprised that his former rival advised him to not to think of the financial gains as much as what a new business enterprise could mean to his life.
"You wouldn't think that Phil would think that," he said.
Merrill had just finished a stint as chairman and president of the Export-Import Bank and was trying to determine what to do next.
Tom Marquardt, the executive editor of The Capital, said, "He came back to a newspaper being run by a managing editor and executive editor. He really wasn't needed [day to day]. We thought he was finally relaxing in life. When we saw these kinds of changes, we attributed it to slowing down."
It is not unusual for patients to experience depression after heart surgery, said Dr. Dawn Kershner, a cardiologist with Mid-Atlantic Cardiovascular Services, who treats patients after they've had open-heart surgery.
"It is almost a Catch-22," Kersh- ner said. "People with depression are more likely to develop heart disease, and people with heart disease are more likely to develop depression."
The National Institutes of Health warns physicians about the link between heart surgery and depression - one study on its Web site says that one in three open-heart surgery patients experience depression after the operation. But cardiologists often aren't looking for psychological side effects.
"Depression is something that can fall to the wayside unless you are very aggressive about [treating] it, or if the patients are very vocal about what they are experiencing - which is not the norm," Kershner said.
Sun reporter Candus Thomson contributed to this report.