Second Suicide in 1 Month Shakes Missouri GOP

by | March 31, 2015

By Kevin McDermott

Police were working Monday to piece together the final days and hours of Robert "Spence" Jackson's life, as Missouri Republicans struggled to make sense of the second suicide of a prominent state party member in four weeks.

Jackson, 44, an aide who had worked closely with some of Missouri's top elected Republicans for almost two decades, apparently shot himself in his Jefferson City apartment over the weekend.

Police say Jackson likely died either Friday or Saturday. That means his death came a month -- almost to the day -- after his boss, Missouri auditor and gubernatorial candidate Tom Schweich, took his own life in the same manner.

Jackson had been Schweich's media director for almost four years. In that capacity, Jackson publicly announced Schweich's death last month, and he was a major player in the weeks of political turmoil that followed.

In a news conference Monday, Jefferson City police Capt. Doug Shoemaker said police wouldn't comment "or really entertain questions that might link Mr. Jackson to any type of political issue, whether it's perceived or real."

Still, he said Jefferson City police have contacted authorities in Clayton, where Schweich died.

Unlike Schweich, Jackson left a note, police said. They declined to reveal its contents.

"We are looking at this clearly as a suicide investigation," Shoemaker said. But he added: "We're very aware of the political issues surrounding Mr. Schweich's death and within a month, we have the death of his spokesperson."

On Feb. 26, Schweich, a front-runner for the Republican nomination for governor, shot himself in the head in his Clayton home after voicing concern about the tactics of fellow Republicans in the GOP primary campaign.

Jackson made the first public announcement of Schweich's death, writing in an email to reporters: "It is with great sadness that I confirm the passing of Missouri state Auditor Tom Schweich today. Please keep in mind his wife, Kathy, and two children."

Jackson subsequently called for the resignation of Republican state Chairman John Hancock, because of Schweich's allegation that Hancock had conducted an anti-Semitic "whispering campaign" against Schweich.

"There's just no way that you can have this cloud hanging around the chairman of your political party heading into a crucial election year like 2016," Jackson was quoted as saying at the time.

Hancock has vehemently denied the allegation, saying he may have told others Schweich was Jewish before learning that Schweich, whose father's family was Jewish, was actually Episcopalian. Hancock has not resigned as party chairman.

Hancock's office issued a statement Monday through Missouri GOP spokesman Jonathon Prouty: "Spence was an aggressive and successful communicator who spent years effectively advancing the Republican cause and the conservative agenda. We are saddened by his tragic death, and our thoughts and prayers go out to his friends and family. He will be missed."

Jackson lived alone at the apartment in the 900 block of Southwest Boulevard in Jefferson City. His mother called police to his apartment to check on him shortly after 7 p.m. Sunday, after being unable to reach him.

A source close to Jackson's office told the Post-Dispatch that Jackson took a sick day on Friday. Police said Friday was the last day anyone had heard from Jackson.

A property manager at Jackson's apartment gave officers a key. Police found Jackson dead in his bedroom. They recovered a .357 Magnum revolver, a spent cartridge and the note, Shoemaker said.

Police said there were no signs of forced entry or struggle. The investigation is open, and an autopsy was planned, but authorities said they "have reason to believe this is most likely a suicide."

Police did not get any report of a gunshot during the time frame of Jackson's death, Shoemaker said. He would not comment on the location of the wound.

"We've taken a number of items of evidentiary value from his residence," Shoemaker said.

In addition to his work for Schweich since 2011, Jackson has worked for other top Republicans over the years, including Gov. Matt Blunt and U.S. Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, in both governmental positions and political campaigns.

People in the Missouri political world, who have spent the past month processing Schweich's death, reacted to the news of Jackson's death with numb shock.

"Oh, my God. My God," said former Missouri GOP Chairman Ed Martin, when told late Sunday of Jackson's death.

"None of us have been through anything like this, where we've lost two friends in slightly over four weeks in this manner, and it is absolutely devastating," said Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder. "We're trying to get our arms around this unspeakable tragedy."

Blunt released a statement that said he and his wife were deeply saddened by the news. He called Jackson "a good friend for many years."

"Spence was hardworking, well-liked and quick-witted. He will truly be missed. We mourn his passing and offer our prayers to his family and friends," Blunt said.

Catherine Hanaway, another GOP candidate for governor who just this weekend resumed her campaign after having suspended it out of respect for Schweich, also praised Jackson as "an extremely hard worker who cared deeply about the principles of the party."

Gov. Jay Nixon appointed John Watson as interim auditor following Schweich's death. In a statement, Watson called Jackson a "respected spokesman" and a "longtime servant in state government."

Jackson had also worked for the 2008 gubernatorial campaign of Republican Sarah Steelman.

"Heartbroken about Spence Jackson," she said via Twitter. "An awesome fun guy passionate about politics, dedicated to his work. My three boys loved him. Too sad."

Jackson's longtime friend, Jeff Layman of Springfield, said he was heartbroken, too. They first became friends at Missouri State University 25 years ago.

"Spence was kind, caring and loyal; but most importantly, he was like a brother to me," Layman said in an emailed statement. "I will miss his huge smile, infectious laugh and larger-than-life personality."

Mental health experts have long debated the phenomenon of "copycat" suicides, suicide "clusters" and other phenomena in which two or more suicides occur in ways that appear related.

"There is some research that does document the existence of people who follow up and commit suicide after another suicide," said Dr. Terri Weaver, professor of clinical psychology at St. Louis University.

She said those "copycat" or "cluster" suicides can occur "particularly in a case where (the previous suicide) has been highly publicized, and the person had been honored or idealized" in the media following his death.

But Weaver said suicide in general, and copycat suicide in particular, is most common among adolescents. She said a copycat suicide by a man in his 40s would be highly unusual.

"We know most suicides are multicausal. It's rarely a single event" that prompts it, Weaver said.

Jackson graduated from Missouri State University in Springfield in 1994 with a degree in communications management and communications. He listed himself in LinkedIn.com as a "Kit Bond Alumni," or former staffer for the U.S. senator. He was a field representative for the U.S. Senate from March 1997 to September 1999.

In the early 2000s, Jackson was Matt Blunt's communications director when Blunt was secretary of state. Jackson went on to work for Blunt's gubernatorial campaign, and then worked in Blunt's gubernatorial administration as communications director for one year before moving to the Missouri Department of Economic Development in October 2006.

Virginia Young, Margaret Gillerman, David Hunn and Christine Byers of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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