JEFERSON CITY, Mo. – An aide to former U.S. Sen. John Danforth said Thursday that she was on the phone with Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich — discussing his angst over perceived rumors about his religion — just moments before he killed himself.
Danforth assistant Martha Fitz said in a written statement that Schweich threatened to kill himself during their conversation and then handed the phone to his wife, Kathy.
"Seconds later, I heard Kathy say, 'He shot himself!'" Fitz said in the written statement.
Fitz's statement and another released Thursday by Schweich's chief of staff, Trish Vincent, provide additional details about the timeline of Schweich's death and bolster the narrative that Schweich was deeply upset about remarks he considered anti-Semitic. Schweich had Jewish ancestry but was Christian and attended an Episcopal church just down the street from his home in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton.
Fitz said she shared her account with Clayton police, who are investigating Schweich's Feb. 26 death as an apparent suicide.
Danforth was a political mentor and longtime friend to Schweich, who had declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination for governor just a month before his death. Danforth, an ordained Episcopal minister, delivered the eulogy during Schweich's memorial service Tuesday and used the occasion to suggest his friend had been led to suicide by political bullying and an anti-Semitic whispering campaign.
"Words do hurt. Words can kill," Danforth said at Schweich's funeral. "That has been proven right here in our home state."
On Feb. 23, Schweich told an Associated Press reporter that he believed the new chairman of the Missouri Republican Party — John Hancock — had mentioned to people in an off-handed way last year that Schweich was Jewish. Schweich said he considered the comments anti-Semitic and was so upset about them that he had knots in his stomach. He said he wanted to hold a press conference about it the next day.
Hancock has denied making anti-Semitic remarks, though he has acknowledged that he may have told some people that Schweich was Jewish because he mistakenly believed that was true. Hancock declined to comment Thursday about the circumstances of Schweich's death.
Schweich didn't follow through with his original plans for a press conference, telling the AP on Feb. 24 that his advisers suggested he should first find a prominent Jewish person to stand alongside him. During Schweich's funeral, Danforth said he was haunted by the fact that he had advised Schweich not to personally go public with the assertions but to let others share the information with the media.
On Feb. 26, Schweich was working from his Clayton home, as was his typical routine on a Thursday.
Schweich's chief of staff, Trish Vincent, said in a written statement that she talked with Schweich by phone at 7:20 a.m. and "he was distraught, as he had been the last few days, regarding untruths about his religion." She said Schweich told her he had not slept and had been physically ill most of the night.
"I tried to counsel him on how to handle the situation, but he dismissed my advice," Vincent said.
Vincent then called Fitz, a friend of the Schweichs, expressing concern about his emotional state. Fitz said she immediately called and left a message on Kathy Schweich's cellphone.
Tom Schweich called the AP at 9:16 a.m. to invite a reporter to his home for an afternoon interview, saying he was ready to go public with his allegations about anti-Semitic remarks. Schweich said he was also inviting a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The AP reporter talked with Schweich again at 9:35 a.m. to confirm the interview details.
Fitz said Kathy Schweich returned her call around 9:40 a.m. and the two talked briefly before Tom Schweich then picked up the phone.
"He spoke solely about his outrage concerning the rumors that were being spread about his religion and how he should respond to those rumors. I told him I thought it was best to let others stand up for him," Fitz said.
"He then threatened to kill himself" and handed the phone back to his wife before the shooting, Fitz said.
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