Republican operative found suffocated in hotel room
A Republican operative and major Donald Trump donor was found dead in a hotel room shortly after The Wall Street Journal revealed that he had tried to obtain Hillary Clinton‘s emails from hackers.
By: Jay Greenberg |@NeonNettle
Peter W Smith, a GOP financier from Chicago’s North Shore, had checked into a room the Rochester Hotel only to be found dead a few days later with a suspicious suicide note that said, “NO FOUL PLAY WHATSOEVER”, according to police records.
His death has been ruled a suicide by police who said he died of asphyxiation after suffocating from a plastic bag being placed over his head.
The police report also noted that he had traces of Helium in his system, although this was ruled as being unrelated to his death.
Rochester Police say that his death isn’t being treated as suspicious and his body was cremated shortly after being released by the coroner.
Mr. Smith’s family and friends described him as a “fighter” and say they are shocked by the news, saying he “wasn’t the type” to take his own life and was “far too dedicated to his work”.
Hotel workers stated that he seemed “in good spirits” before he died and were “really surprised” to hear about his suicide.
The hotel is used almost exclusively by patients and relatives of Mayo Clinic, with one hotel worker commenting that he “looked like he’d had some good news”, assuming he’d spoken with doctors during his stay.
However, the Chicago Tribune obtained a Minnesota state death record filed in Olmsted County saying Smith committed suicide in a hotel near the Mayo Clinic at 1:17 p.m. on Sunday, May 14. He was found with a bag over his head with a source of helium attached. A medical examiner’s report gives the same account, without specifying the time, and a report from Rochester police further details his suicide.
In the note recovered by police, Smith apologized to authorities and said that “NO FOUL PLAY WHATSOEVER” was involved in his death. He wrote that he was taking his own life because of a “RECENT BAD TURN IN HEALTH SINCE JANUARY, 2017” and timing related “TO LIFE INSURANCE OF $5 MILLION EXPIRING.”
Smith had a history of doing opposition research, the formal term for unflattering information that political operatives dig up about rival candidates.
For years, former Democratic President Bill Clinton was Smith’s target. The wealthy businessman had a hand in exposing the “Troopergate” allegations about Bill Clinton’s sex life. And he discussed financing a probe of a 1969 trip Bill Clinton took while in college to the Soviet Union, according to Salon magazine.
Investigations into possible links between the Russian government and people associated with Trump’s presidential campaign are underway in Congress and by former FBI chief Robert Mueller. He is acting as a special counsel for the Department of Justice. Mueller spokesman Peter Carr declined to comment on the Journal’s stories on Smith or his death. Washington attorney Robert Kelner, who represents Flynn, had no comment Thursday.
Smith’s death occurred at the Aspen Suites in Rochester, records show. They list the cause of death as “asphyxiation due to displacement of oxygen in confined space with helium.”
Rochester police Chief Roger Peterson on Wednesday called Smith’s manner of death “unusual,” but a funeral home worker said he’d seen it before.
An employee with Rochester Cremation Services, the funeral home that responded to the hotel, said he helped remove Smith’s body from his room and recalled seeing a tank.
The employee, who spoke on condition he not be identified because of the sensitive nature of Smith’s death, described the tank as being similar in size to a propane tank on a gas grill. He did not recall seeing a bag that Smith would have placed over his head. He said the coroner and police were there and that he “didn’t do a lot of looking around.”
“When I got there and saw the tank, I thought, ‘I’ve seen this before,’ and was able to put two and two together,” the employee said.
An autopsy was conducted, according to the death record. The Southern Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner’s Office declined a Tribune request for the autopsy report and released limited information about Smith’s death. A spokeswoman for AXA Equitable Life Insurance Co., listed in documents recovered by police as Smith’s insurance carrier, had no immediate comment.
The Final Exit Network, a Florida-based nonprofit, provides information and support to people who suffer from a terminal illness and want to kill themselves. Fran Schindler, a volunteer with the group, noted that the best-selling book “Final Exit,” written by Derek Humphry in 1991 and revised several times since, explains in detail the helium gas method.
“Many people obtain that information from his book,” Schindler said. “It’s a method that has been around for many years and is well-known.”
According to figures from the Cook County medical examiner’s office, 172 people committed suicide by suffocation from January 2007 to date. Of those deaths from asphyxia, 15 involved the use of a plastic bag over the head.
It could not be determined how many also involved the use of helium, an odorless and tasteless gas that is non-toxic.
“The helium does not have a direct effect. A bag over someone’s head depletes the oxygen for the person and causes death,” said Becky Schlikerman, spokeswoman for the Cook County medical examiner’s office. “The addition of helium may displace the oxygen faster but does not have a direct effect on a person.”
Police found a receipt from a local Walmart time-stamped from the previous day, May 13 at 12:53 p.m. The receipt was for the purchase of “Helium Jumbo” and other items. Police also noted that the two helium tanks in the room were draped with vinyl-covered exercise ankle or wrist weights. The report did not offer an explanation for the weights. Police said that because they did not suspect foul play, they had not viewed any security video from the Walmart store to confirm that Smith bought the tanks himself.
Smith’s remains were cremated in Minnesota, the records said. He was married to Janet L. Smith and had three children and three grandchildren, according to his obituary. Tribune calls to family members were not returned.
His obituary said Smith was involved in public affairs for more than 60 years and it heralded him as a “quietly generous champion of efforts to ensure a more economically and politically secure world.” Smith led private equity firms in corporate acquisitions and venture investments for more than 40 years. Earlier, he worked with DigaComm LLC from 1997 to 2014 and as the president of Peter W. Smith & Co. from 1975 to 1997. Before that, he was a senior officer of Field Enterprises Inc., a firm that then owned the Chicago Sun-Times and was held by the Marshall Field family, his obituary said.
A private family memorial was planned, the obituary said. Friends posted online tributes to Smith after his death. One was from his former employee, Jonathan Safron, 26, who lives in Chicago’s Loop and worked for Smith for about two years.
Safron, in an interview, said he was working for a tutoring firm when Smith became his client. His job entailed teaching Smith how to use a MacBook, Safron said. At the time Smith was living in a condominium atop the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago. Safron said Smith later employed him at Corporate Venture Alliances, a private investment firm that Smith ran, first out of the same condo and later from an office in the Hancock Building.
Safron, who said he had a low-level job with the Illinois Republican Party in 2014, said he had no knowledge of Smith’s bid to find hackers who could locate emails missing from Clinton’s service as secretary of state. In his online tribute to his former employer, he called Smith the “best boss I could ever ask for … a mentor, friend and model human being.”
Safron said he worked part time for Smith, putting in about 15 hours a week, but the two grew close, often having lunch together at a favorite Smith spot: the Oak Tree Restaurant & Bakery Chicago on North Michigan Avenue. He called Smith a serious man who was “upbeat,” “cosmopolitan” and “larger than life.”
Peter Smith wrote two blog posts dated the day before he was found dead. One challenged U.S. intelligence agency findings that Russia interfered with the 2016 election. Another post predicted: “As attention turns to international affairs, as it will shortly, the Russian interference story will die of its own weight.”