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William E. Colby: A Highly Suspicious Death
By Zalin Grant

This was Saturday, April 27, 1996.  William Colby, a former director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, was alone at his weekend house across from Cobb Island, Maryland, 60 miles south of Washington, D.C. Colby, who was 76 years old, had worked all day on his sailboat at a nearby marina, putting it in shape for the coming summer.

After he got home from the marina, Colby called his wife, Sally Shelton, a high-ranking State Department official who was in Houston, Texas, visiting her mother. He told her that he had worked hard all day and was tired.  He said he was going to steam some clams, take a shower, and go to bed.

Colby made the call at 7 p.m. He was seen a few minutes later by two sets of witnesses in his yard watering a willow tree.  One of the witnesses was his gardener who dropped by to introduce his visiting sister. His two next-door neighbors saw him at the same time from their window. After he finished watering his trees, he went inside and had dinner.

The witnesses saw him at 7:15 p.m. The sun set at 7:57—42 minutes later.

When he was found dead in the water nine days later, it was said that he had gone out paddling his canoe at nightfall and drowned.  I was in Paris when I read the story in the International Herald Tribune.  I knew William Colby. And I didn’t believe that for one second.    

Friends & Enemies

I considered Colby a friend.  Not a close friend.  He didn’t have any close friends that I knew about, outside his family.  In my book, Facing the Phoenix, I described him as being a polite man who was open and approachable but without much of a sense of humor or an inclination to introspection. He communicated human interest, I wrote, rather than human warmth.  He was not very physically impressive and at bottom was a shy man, is the way I saw him. He described himself to me as someone who couldn’t easily get the attention of a waiter in a restaurant. Yet he was strong and determined in everything he did.

Colby and I went back in the Vietnam War. I met him early on but got to know him pretty well when he left his job at CIA to serve as Ambassador Robert Komer’s deputy for pacification. Later, when he replaced Komer as pacification chief and I was sent to Vietnam by Time and CBS to investigate the capture of two photographers in Cambodia, Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, he backed me when I got into a dispute with CIA about my search for the two Americans.

When I began working on Facing the Phoenix he volunteered to help set up my interviews with the major intelligence players of the war, from Edward Lansdale to Lou Conein.  The book was subtitled “The CIA and the Political Defeat of the United States in Vietnam.”  To me, Colby was the key to my being able to do the book, which got good reviews from all sides.

Edward Lansdale, who was the model for Graham Greene’s Quiet American, considered Colby to be the most effective American to serve in the Vietnam War. I did too. He listened.  He learned. Although Colby knew I was against the war, that didn’t interfere with our working relationship in the least. 

Willam Colby (left) and Ngo Dinh Diem - Saigon 1963.

Still, the fact was that Colby had more enemies than friends. In the period between September 1973 and his dismissal in November 1975 as CIA director, Colby testified before congressional committees 56 times.  When Congress asked him a question, he gave a straight answer. The Intel guys hated him for it.  They thought it was his duty to lie.  So did Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger who fired him as CIA chief for revealing what were called “the family jewels”—assassination plots and other dirty deeds.

Colby had got rid of a lot of guys in the clandestine service at CIA.  I'd talked to ex-CIA officers who hated his guts.  Even Lou Conein, one of the best-known CIA operatives in Vietnam, told me he believed Colby had destroyed the agency.  And Conein, who knew Colby for many years, liked him.  Colby had enemies coming from the Right and the Left.

Colby realized, of course, that he was in danger of being killed at any time.  But I was surprised when I went to his home in Georgetown for the first in a series of long interviews.  I thought an ex-CIA director would have the latest locks and security cameras and top-secret protection devices.

Colby had nothing.  I had a more secure lock on my door than he did.  When I asked him about it he said that if anybody wanted to get him, they could do it, and he wasn’t going to live his life in constant fear and worry.  I admired his attitude. I knew he was right. On the night they got him both doors to his house were unlocked.

Colby liked my work on the missing journalists that had gone on for years.  When I told him nothing had come of it, he said, “That doesn’t matter. You do what is necessary.  And you did it.” 

So I figured I owed it to him to look into how it happened.  I didn’t expect anything to come of it.  I knew the guys who did it would have done it right, with a minimum of mistakes.  And I knew Colby would have been a fatalist about it.  He wouldn’t have put up a fight when they came for him.

I was already scheduled to leave for Washington on another writing project several weeks after he disappeared. The timing would be good. The media frenzy would have died out.  And I could go in quietly and see what I could make of it.

The Murder Scene

Cobb Island was sixty miles south of Washington. On the way to Colby’s house, I stopped at La Plata, MD, to talk to Sheriff Fred Davis about setting up interviews.  The Charles County Sheriff’s department was responsible for the investigation of Colby’s death.

Sheriff Davis admitted that it was not an open and shut case. "There is always that window open," he said, "because there were no witnesses."

I continued on to Colby's house.  It was on Hill Road which was technically in Rock Point, Maryland, but Cobb Island, right across Neale Sound, was where Colby kept his sailboat and shopped. 

Colby's home on Hill Road, Rock Point MD. The glassed-in porch facing the front was where he took his last meal.

Colby’s home was a turn of the century oysterman's cottage.  It had two bedrooms and a small kitchen with a breakfast table.  The sunroom, which was glassed in, was originally the porch. Since it offered a spectacular view of the water, the sunroom also served as the dining room. Cobb Island and his home was pure Colby--unpretentious, tranquil, anonymous.

The house was surrounded on three sides by water. Sitting on a finger in Neale Sound, it looked out on Cobb Island and the Wicomico River, which turned into the Potomac farther up.  You could only enter or exit his unfenced grounds by driving down a narrow dirt road. 

Anyone standing on the other side of Neale Sound, using a pair of binoculars, could see practically any movement around the Colby house. 

Colby's house (right) was on a spit of land. Anyone looking with binoculars from the other side of Neale Sound could see what was going on outside his home.

Carroll Wise: Last to Talk to Colby

As I drove up I saw a workman gassing a tractor-lawn mower--Joseph "Carroll" Wise, Colby's gardener and caretaker.  Wise was the last known person to talk to Colby.  Wise, who had grizzled gray hair, tattoos on both arms, and a protruding beer belly, spoke quietly.

It was about 7:15 p.m. on Saturday, April 27, 1996, when Wise drove to Colby's home with his sister. Colby was standing at the edge of his yard, near the front pier, watering a willow tree.  Colby wore a red windbreaker, khaki slacks, and loafers.  

When Colby saw them coming, he said, "Carroll, you've got a new car."  

"No, that's my sister's van," Wise said.  "That's why I've dropped by. I'd like to introduce you."

They exchanged pleasantries for several minutes, then Wise and his sister left.  Colby continued to work in the yard. He didn’t mention to Wise that he planned to go canoeing later, something that might have come up in their small talk.

Based on what he knew about gardening at Colby's house, Wise told me that Colby probably wouldn't have got to his canoe before 8 p.m., even if he had not stopped to have dinner. He was watering his trees and that took a long time.  He was scheduled to return to Washington the next day, Sunday.

Next-Door Neighbors

Colby's next-door neighbors, Clyde Stokes and his wife Alice, saw Colby through their window when Wise and his sister were visiting. So Colby was firmly pegged for this time: 7:15 p.m., Saturday, April 27, 1996.

Sunset: 7:57 p.m. Moon: First Quarter
8:10 p.m. – Twilight 
8:15 p.m. - Street Lights
8:30 p.m. - Dark
8:35 p.m. - Pitch Black 

Bill Colby: A Meticulous Man

Carroll Wise and Clyde Stokes remarked on Bill Colby's meticulous routine. He always collected his yellow hose after watering the lawn.  He took it to a box where it was stored and neatly arranged it in a lasso-like circle.  When Colby went boating, he took an aluminum ladder out of a shed and leaned the ladder in the water against the pier to reach the canoe.  When he returned from canoeing, he removed the ladder and put it back in the shed. Colby was raised in a military family where everything had its place.

Clyde Stokes was skeptical that Colby had gone out canoeing that late.  "Colby was brave but prudent," he said. Stokes remembered that the wind was up and the water was choppy the night Colby supposedly went out.  Stokes and his wife heard nothing because they were looking at TV.

Stokes was an ex-navy man with tattoos, and I was struck by his use of the word "prudent."  There was no contradiction between taking chances and being prudent.  Colby was very brave, he’d parachuted into Europe during World War II for the OSS, and in Vietnam he was always ready to put it on the line. 

But I believed Colby was prudent, too.  Above all, he was not an impulsive man, someone who would tell his wife he was tired and headed to bed--and then decide to go canoeing an hour later at nightfall.

He Worked Hard That Day

Mark Davis worked at the Portside Marina on Cobb Island, almost directly across Neale Sound from Colby's house.  Colby kept his 37-foot sloop, Eagle Wing II, at the marina.  Davis was impressed by how hard Colby worked on his boat that Saturday.  He was at the marina from 11 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., Davis said.  Others did not agree on the time, maybe there was a half-hour’s difference either way. 

But all of them agreed on one point.  For a 76-year-old man, Colby really worked, he did not putter around.  He replaced a sail that had been shredded in a windstorm the summer before and did a spiffy clean-up job on the boat.

Witnesses agreed that Colby, 76, worked at least six hours on his boat that day.

Sunday April 28 1996

Kevin Akers lived near Rock Point, not far across the water from William Colby, although he did not know him. Akers was a wiry five-foot-two and 29 years old.  An unemployed carpenter, he was the kind of guy found in fishing villages around the world—a handyman who could do most anything connected with the sea. He wasn’t getting rich but he loved the water and the freedom that came with it.

Around noon on Sunday Kevin Akers took his boat out, with his wife and two kids.  He hadn’t gone far when he spotted a green canoe beached near the point where Neale Sound turned into the Wicomico River.  Akers wasn’t surprised.  Small boats often broke their mooring during wind storms and wound up beached somewhere on the Sound.

Akers routinely towed the boats to a nearby marina where the word would eventually reach the owners.  Then he would go back to look for paddles or life jackets, anything that would float, so he could return those to the owner.  Kevin Akers was known as a helpful guy in Rock Point and Cobb Island.

But on this Sunday Akers immediately spotted something out of the ordinary.  The canoe was turned on its side and filled with so much sand that it took him and his wife nearly an hour to empty it before he could tow it to the marina.

Colby's canoe.  It was filled with so much sand that Kevin Akers was suspicious.

Akers was out on the water the day before and had not seen the canoe. That meant it probably had been beached for only two cycles of the tide.  And there was no way, he thought, that two tide cycles could have put that much sand in the canoe.  It looked to him like somebody wanted the canoe to stay put right there.

Something else didn’t seem right. Lots of people left their life jackets in their boats and it was easy to find a floating jacket.  But when Akers searched the area he couldn’t find a life jacket or paddles anywhere.

Akers didn’t tell anyone about his suspicions.  Maybe it was just a coincidence, he thought. He had never heard of William Colby.  He dropped the boat off at the marina and left. 

But next day when the media frenzy began and the TV satellite trucks arrived, Akers believed he might be in personal danger. The first thing he had told the police when they started investigating was about the extraordinary amount of sand in the canoe.  Something was wrong, he said. Too much sand. No life jacket. No paddles. It didn’t fit. 

Now the media wanted to talk to him.  But Kevin Akers didn’t want to talk to reporters. He thought it might get him killed. So he made himself scarce. When he learned that a former CIA director was the owner of the canoe, Akers was hit by one thought.

Colby got whacked.

Alice Stokes Calls 911

On Sunday afternoon Alice Stokes, Colby's next-door neighbor, kept peering out the window. Colby's red Fiat was parked near the house.  The boat was gone.  The ladder was still in the water.  And she hadn’t seen Colby all day long.  It was the ladder that finally pushed Alice Stokes to call 911.  Colby would never leave his ladder in the water if he had returned.

Policewoman Sharon Walsh arrived at 8:18 p.m.  She and Alice checked the house.  Both doors were closed but unlocked.  The computer was on, so was the radio.  A search was made of the surrounding area.  Sharon Walsh saw no signs of foul play and reported it that way. 

It looked to her like an old guy had got himself drowned.  That had happened times before on Cobb Island.  Colby had been a practicing lawyer for the past few years.  He lived a quiet, almost anonymous life.  Neither Sharon Walsh nor anybody else connected with the police realized he was a former CIA director—and one with lots of enemies.

In a big city a mobile crime unit would have arrived, taken photos, dusted for fingerprints, looked for hairs and other small stuff that could be helpful during a later detailed investigation.  This didn’t happen.

Sharon Walsh reported: "The scene was preserved as well as possible." Later, Detective Joseph Goldsmith, the assigned investigator, corrected several errors Walsh made in her report.

If they had been aware of who Colby was and talked to someone who really knew him, their suspicions may have been aroused. Colby didn’t finish his clams, his favorite dish, and he had worked hard, must have been hungry.  It looked like he stopped somewhere near the beginning or middle of the meal.  And the cleanup was sloppy.  There was a dish on the counter and on the stove.  A glass of wine, unfinished, was also on the counter. 

An opened wine bottle, with not much missing, was found on the table in the sunroom. Colby was the kind of guy who would have capped the bottle before leaving and put it in the fridge.

There was another suspicious point. On the kitchen table was his black leather wallet.  It contained $296 (14 twenties and 16 ones), a comb, a file, and various membership and credit cards, a driver's license.  There was also a silver key ring with five keys. When Colby was found, his pockets were empty, no identification at all.

Alice Stokes phoned Sally Shelton Colby in Houston.  Policewoman Sharon Walsh asked to speak to her. Walsh reported: "Ms. Shelton was inquisitive yet calm.  She stated she was 'numb.'" 

Sally Shelton described two possible canoe routes Colby might have taken. He was known to go canoeing for a few minutes sometimes around twilight.  But on both routes he hugged the shoreline and stayed in shallow water.

Local rescue workers and divers arrived, then Coast Guard representatives.  They found nothing.  This was Sunday night.  Nothing would really start until the next morning.

Monday April 29 1996

A massive search effort began on Monday morning and went on day and night for the next few days. Over a dozen navy divers, aided by two helicopters, and volunteers in boats scoured the area.  They used drag-lines to troll the two routes Colby took when he went canoeing. All together, there were around a hundred searchers.

I talked to Lt Mark Sanders of the Maryland Natural Resources Police. He was chief of the search effort.  Drowning accidents were common around Cobb Island. The searchers were practiced and knew what they were doing. Yet even working 24 hours a day, they couldn't find his body.

Something else they didn’t find: Colby’s life jacket.

When Colby went canoeing, he took the life jacket from the shed and put it in the boat.  He didn’t wear it, but the life jacket was always with him.  When he returned, he put it back in the shed.  The life jacket had distinctive markings that made it easy to identify.

The search team found more than a dozen life jackets when they scoured the area.  But not Colby’s. People who preferred to believe Colby had drowned—even his son Paul—remarked to me on this puzzlement. It was missing from the shed.

Colby’s body was found nine days later, on a Monday morning, about 40 meters from where Kevin Akers found the canoe.  Both places were easily accessible by car and foot from a branch of Rock Point Road, which reached a dead-end at that point.  Colby’s body was found by an assistant to LT Mark Sanders, on the edge of the shore, looking like he’d just been tossed in.

Divers had searched that area numerous times.


I was trying to develop a timeline to explain Colby’s last day.  This, I discovered, no one else had tried to do, not the police, not his family.

He had stopped by a well-known fish restaurant on Cobb Island, Captain John’s, to buy a dozen clams after he left the marina about 5:30 or 6 p.m.  He called his wife 7 p.m.  And sometime after 7:15 p.m. he had prepared his meal of clams and corn on the cob. 

Carroll Wise estimated he would have finished up in the yard around 8 p.m.  Maybe he finished a little earlier, maybe a little later, but I decided to call my wife Claude, who was considered a formidable cook, to give me her analysis.

Claude had met Colby in Saigon in 1970.  She was a French medical journalist who had been captured and held for a week by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.  I met her in connection with my investigation of the missing photographers Flynn and Stone.

Claude and I were having a drink one evening on the Continental Terrace when Colby saw us in passing and joined us.  Colby had studied in France when he was young, and he and Claude hit it off immediately. She was very interested in my research on his case.

"Claude," I said.  "The sun sets at 7:57 p.m.  Colby enters his house about that time and presumably begins to prepare dinner.  How long does it take him?"

"Oh, Colby is seventy-six," Claude said.  "He's not going to be moving around very fast. He's going to steam the clams, boil the corn, open a bottle of wine.  You say he laid down a place mat in the sunroom facing the water?"


"That means he is not in a hurry," Claude said.  "Otherwise he would eat at the kitchen table.  So we're talking about 20 to 30 minutes."

The timeline was looking like something close to 8:30 p.m. when Colby supposedly jumped up from his unfinished meal and left to go canoeing.  At 8:30 it was completely dark.

This drowning incident didn’t ring true.  I wanted to talk to Kevin Akers but I couldn’t find him.

The Elusive Fisherman

All the interviews I did for this story took place in May and June 1996, except for one.  I kept going back to Cobb Island in the following years and had lunch at Captain John’s, which made the trip worthwhile. But I never managed to find Kevin Akers.  I finally connected with him seven years later, on June 14, 2003. So this interview is out of sequence.

Akers had taken a job at the Portside Marina, where Colby had kept his sailboat. Bare-chested and in jeans, he was arranging crab traps when I walked up to him.  I told him I’d like to talk about the guy who died, the guy who owned the canoe he brought in.

“You mean somebody died?” he said, warily.

“Yeah, Colby, the ex-CIA director.  I talked to everybody connected to the case, including his wife. But I couldn’t find you.”

“I didn’t want to be found,” he said. “The media was hounding me.”

When he realized that I had done the research, he started to loosen up and talked freely.  He was glad to finally tell someone.  He thought the danger to him had passed.

Akers jumped into his white pickup and led me to the end of Rock Point Road, about a mile away.  We parked and stepped over the “No Trespassing” barrier, then found the path that led to the spot where he found the canoe.

This is the end of a branch of Rock Point road, a mile or so from Cobb Island. I followed Akers to the place where he found the canoe.

Kevin Akers points to where he found Colby's
canoe. On the other side of the green spit behind
him is where Colby's body was found 9 days later.
Colby's body was found at the edge of the shore near the crumbling concrete pier in the foreground, about a three-minutes’ walk from the road.

“Okay, here’s where I found the canoe,” Akers said, pointing. “To the right, around that green spit of land behind me, maybe thirty or forty meters away, is where they found Colby’s body nine days later.  It doesn’t make sense.”


“First, if he had really gone down near here, he would have washed up the next day or maybe two days later.  But not nine days.”

“Yes, that didn’t make any sense to me, either,” I said.  “Especially considering all the divers and people who were looking for him.”

“Second,” he said, “the canoe would have washed up at the same place they found the body, not here.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“Okay, look at the tip of that green spit,” he said. “That’s where the current suddenly shifts and turns in a clockwise motion.  All of us who live out here know these currents very well.  My house is just down the road and I’m out on the water all the time. That clockwise current would have pushed the canoe back to the right, where they found the body.  I don’t think the canoe could have made it around the spit to wash up where we are standing.”

The clockwise current was clearly visible, yes, I could see it.  It almost looked like a little whirlpool.  I felt a little prickly on the back of my neck.  This was a murder, not an accident. 

Kevin Akers believed somebody had killed Colby and brought his body back a week later, on a Sunday night after weekenders had left, and dumped it when nobody was looking.  Colby was discovered the next day, Monday, not far from Akers’ house.

I agreed with him that was probably what had happened.  But I didn’t tell him why I believed that. In 1996 I was the only journalist to see Colby’s autopsy photos.  And Colby appeared exactly as Akers was telling me seven years later.  He looked like he had been in the water for one or two days—but certainly not for nine days. 

The Maryland State Medical Examiner

John Smialek, Maryland’s chief medical examiner, was a smooth operator.  He was 53-years-old, six-foot-one, gray, handsome, and wore loafers without socks.  He spoke very carefully, sometimes hesitating in the middle of a sentence, thinking it out. 

Smialek could tell I'd talked to medical examiners before.  And he doubtless perceived what I was thinking: Medical examiners often knew only one thing for certain--that the decedent was dead.  Everything else, except for the standard toxicology tests, was informed guesswork.

I’d seen dozens of drowned bodies floating in rivers in Indochina.   A body sinks, then starts to decompose, and gases form that floats it to the surface, bloated and wasted.  It is not a pretty sight.

I’d also been in touch with a forensic expert before I set up the appointment with Smialek.  He told me that it was hard to determine a heart attack if a body had been in the water a long time.  Decomposition dissolved blood clots.  Actually, he said, it was hard to tell if someone died by drowning if the lungs were decomposed. 

The Maryland state medical examiner's office had, in effect, shut down the media circus that surrounded Colby's disappearance.  Scores of journalists had staked out his home with satellite trucks, the whole works, for the first week after he disappeared.

But after the medical examiner’s office put out the word that he had died of a heart attack the story was stopped in its tracks.  If that was all it was, old guy kicks off with a bad ticker, then ho-hum, the media wasn’t interested. The journalists packed up and left Cobb Island and nobody followed up on the case until I came along. 

Smialek and I exchanged the usual warm-up pleasantries. Then I turned on my tape recorder.  It was June 5, 1996, at his office in Baltimore.

Did they have hard proof Colby drowned after having a heart attack? I asked. 

“Cause of death is often a judgment call by the M.D. who performs the autopsy,” he said. 

Smialek did not do the autopsy.  That was performed by David R. Fowler, assistant medical examiner.  But Smialek was closely in touch with what took place, since Colby was a high-profile case. Smialek had done autopsies on hundreds of drowning victims. He was the expert.

Colby had no history of heart problems and his wife said he was in very good shape. In fact, Smialek didn’t describe to me what had happened to Colby as a heart attack or stroke.  He said it was probably a cardiovascular incident that deprived Colby of oxygen to the brain long enough to topple him out of the canoe.

"Can I see the autopsy report?"

“It's not ready yet,” he said.

"Not ready?” I said, surprised. “The Colby case is pretty famous.  You did the autopsy on May 6, 1996, exactly a month ago.  And you haven't got around to finishing the report?"

“We'll fax it to you tomorrow,” he said.

I asked to see the autopsy photos. 

Johnny D—that’s what he went by—Smialek’s assistant, returned with the photos and tossed them on the table.  Johnny D was a blond guy with a mustache, in his early fifties. He had served in Vietnam, and liked to joke around. He struck me as Smialek’s fixer.

Colby was nude in the photos, which were taken from all angles. He was five-eight, 181 pounds, blue eyes.

"Hey, something doesn't seem right," I said.  "I've seen a lot of drowning victims.  But Colby hardly looks dead.  He's not bloated a bit."

"Yes, Mr. Colby's body looked very well preserved, even though it was clear that the body was decomposed and discolored," Smialek said into my tape recorder. "He looked remarkably well."

"What do you think that means?" I asked.

"I interpret that to mean the water was of a sufficiently low temperature that prevented the body from developing the type of gas decomposition that we commonly see with drowning victims when they've been in the water for an extended period."

The water may have been cold but it wasn’t freezing, we’re talking about early May.

“How about the time of death?” I asked. Determining the time of a victim’s death based on his stomach contents was Forensics 101.  Time of death was easy to estimate within a couple of hours, and medical examiners did it all the time.

“Based on the contents of his stomach he died one to two hours after eating,” Smialek said. “The contents included corn and clams.”

It was at this point that Smialek realized what I was doing.  I had asked him if they could prove Colby died of a heart attack or stroke. He said no.  He even said they couldn’t prove he had drowned.

I told him Colby looked to me in the photos like he was hardly dead and I wondered why.  He agreed with me and said he thought it was because the water was cold. He added that Colby “looked remarkably well” based on the hundreds of drowned victims he’d seen.

Then I asked him how long they estimated he had lived after eating.  He said one to two hours.  And I think that rang his bell. He realized that I believed Colby had been murdered, and he had just given me important information for my timeline. 

Let’s say that Carroll Wise, the gardener, was wrong, and it didn’t take Colby until 8 p.m. to finish watering his trees.  Let’s say he finished 15 minutes after he saw Wise and went into his house to prepare his meal at 7:30 p.m.

It still would have taken him 20 to 30 minutes to prepare the corn and clams and sit down to eat part of it.  Let’s say he suddenly decided to go boating and hurried out of his house at 8 p.m.  Smialek said he had died between one and two hours after eating. 

That meant he would have died between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. paddling around on the water in the pitch-black darkness.

Who could believe that?

The Autopsy Report

John Smialek faxed me the autopsy report the next day. It was five pages long and dated June 6, 1996.  There were two possibilities, I thought. Either the report was written the day after our interview.  Or it was already written and then changed after our interview.  Because the report was in conflict with several important things Smialek had told me in our tape-recorded interview in front of two witnesses. 

The autopsy report said Colby appeared in surprisingly good shape for a man of his age. But the gist of the report came down to the last paragraph. The paragraph was titled: "Opinion."

"This 76-year-old white male, William E. Colby, died of drowning and hypothermia associated with arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease.  He was found floating in an advanced state of decomposition nine days after being reported missing.  Identity was confirmed by dental examination.  He had severe calcified atherosclerosis which would predispose him to a stroke or heart attack.  Decomposition, however, will lyse (dissolve) clots and the fatty material in atheroma.  It is likely he suffered a complication of this atherosclerosis which precipitated him into the cold water in a debilitated state and he succumbed to the effects of hypothermia and drowned. The contents of his stomach are consistent with his last reported meal and indicate his death was shortly after his dinner.  The manner of death is ACCIDENT.  The deceased had been consuming alcoholic beverages prior to death."

First: “died of drowning and hypothermia.”  Smialek told me they couldn’t be sure he had drowned.  There was a little water in the lung area but his lungs were too decomposed to make a definitive determination, he said.

Second: “found floating in a state of advanced decomposition.”  Maybe he was in a state of advanced internal decomposition, likely for anyone who had been dead for nine days. But he certainly wasn’t in a state of advanced external decomposition.  Smialek had agreed with me, and so had Johnny D, that Colby looked in remarkably good condition.   

Third: “Identity was confirmed by dental examination.”  That makes it sound like he was in such bad shape that dental records were needed to establish who he was. 

In fact, Sally Shelton had absolutely no problem identifying Colby.  But the medical examiner’s office demanded dental records as a matter of required procedure.  She phoned CIA four times and asked for his dental records.  They ignored her calls.  When the CIA director phoned to offer his condolences, he asked if there was anything he could do for her. 

“Yes, get your guys to answer my calls,” she said. She was still steamed about this when I talked to her.  Both the CIA and FBI ignored Colby’s death and let a county sheriff’s office run the investigation. 

Fourth: “The contents of his stomach are consistent with his last reported meal and indicate his death was shortly after his dinner.”

Shortly after his dinner?  Smialek told me that he had examined hundreds of drowning victims and the contents of Colby’s stomach indicated he had died between one and two hours after eating.

It looked to me like the medical examiner’s office wanted this be seen as an accident so no one could claim that the Maryland police or anyone associated with the state had screwed up the investigation.

I wondered if their final sentence about Colby “consuming alcoholic beverages” was supposed to suggest Colby had been drunk. Why didn’t they just state his actual alcohol level (O.07), which bordered on but was not high enough to get Colby a DUI in Maryland or anywhere in the U.S.

After our interview ended Johnny D showed me around their offices.  I knew that the examiner who did the autopsy had told Sally Shelton that Colby was dead when he hit the water. 

I said, “That doesn’t square with what John Smialek just told me.

Johnny D said, “We always try to make it as easy as possible for the victim’s families.”
What he meant was that Sally Shelton, like any wife, would prefer to hear that her husband had died instantly and without pain, rather than to be told, “We really can’t say for sure how he died, this is just our opinion.”

But if Smialek and his guys wanted to fudge a bit to make Colby’s death look like an indisputable drowning accident that was okay by me.  I had a chance for another piece of evidence that might establish beyond a reasonable doubt that he was murdered. 

It was Colby’s telephone bill for April 27, 1996.

Colby’s Coded Telephone

As an ex-CIA director, Colby knew how to manipulate communications systems.  He had his phone at his weekend home routed through his Washington number. Any outside calls made from his Maryland home appeared on his Washington telephone bill.  To make an outside call you first had to tap in a code known only to Colby and his wife Sally. This way visiting guests couldn’t run up long-distance charges on his phone.  A local call could be dialed normally.

My question was this: How about if Colby made an outside call to someone while he was cooking, maybe around 8:30 or 8:45 p.m., maybe even later.  Could anyone then believe he had decided to go canoeing in total darkness?

Detective Captain J.C. Montminy, Jr

There were plenty of police agencies like the Charles County (MD) Sheriff’s Department all over America, covering sleepy counties. They were pretty good at what they did.  But they didn’t often investigate anything out of the ordinary.  Colby’s murder occurred on a weekend.  Nobody knew who he was.  They assumed from the first minute that this was a routine boating accident.

Detective Captain J.C. Montminy, Jr, of the Charles County Sheriff's Department, was the overall commander of the Colby investigation. Our conversation at his office, tape recorded June 10, 1996:


Did you check the telephone records to see when was the last time Colby made an outside call?

Detective Montminy

No.  Apparently the family did. Apparently they had some type of phone system where any long distance calls are billed back to their regular Washington phone.  In fact, they used a code so you couldn't even call out unless you knew the code.  Some of the family members who weren't familiar with that, when they got down here, had difficulty using the set-up.


Did you follow it up with Mrs. Colby?

Detective Montminy

After that time period, seven or seven fifteen, there were no calls made out [from 301-259-2905] that we are aware of.  Of course there is no guarantee.  Somebody could have used that line and made a local call and we don't know about it.


Did you ask Mrs. Colby to verify the time of her call?

Detective Montminy



What time was it?

Detective Montminy

I don't have that down.


When you went out, did you reach the conclusion it was a boating accident?

Detective Montminy

Yes and no.  Of course none of the police officers there knew who Colby was.

The police did not ask Sally Shelton for Colby’s telephone bill which included that Saturday’s outside calls.

Colby’s Wife Speaks

I interviewed Sally Shelton Colby, 52, in her office at the State Department.  She was a petite blonde, 24 years younger than her husband, his second wife. Sally Shelton was an accomplished woman. From Missouri, she was a Phi Beta Kappa who had done graduate study as a Fulbright Scholar in Paris. She was the assistant administrator for global programs at the Agency for International Development, and a former ambassador to Grenada and Barbados.  Our conversation, tape recorded in front of a witness June 25, 1996:


I know you've gone over your conversation with your husband, and I hate to ask you to go over it again.  But would you?


Well, he called, he uh—


He called?  Or you called?


He called, uh-huh.  We spoke everyday, at least once a day.  Both of us were traveling a lot.  He said he had just--normally it takes two days to get the Eagle Wing ready for the summer.  But he'd compressed it into one day, so he'd worked very hard.  And he'd had a wonderful time, and he said he was tired.  He had stopped and picked up some clams and he said he was going to have the clams, which was his favorite dish.  Then he was going to take a hot shower and go to bed.


Do you recall whether he said he was going to have dinner?  Or whether he had already had dinner?


He said he was going to have dinner.


Since the Maryland phone records show up at your Washington house, is there any way you can check so I can develop a chronology?


If it's important.  I can tell you it was right at six o'clock [Houston time—7 p.m. Washington] when he called me.  My mother had just walked in and I was looking at the news.


Well, could you check to see if he made any calls after that?


I can check if you'd like.  I don't have time to do it before I leave on Friday.


Then I would appreciate if you would check.  So I can see if there were any other calls and I can put together a chronology.


Sure, I'll do it.


Would you?


Uh-huh, sure, I'll do it.

How the Killers Got Away With It

Just as I’d thought, the killers didn’t make many mistakes. The first was unavoidable—Kevin Akers--but with luck they got away with it.  I’d say there were from three to five of them.  Two on a boat, maybe two or three who went to his house in a car around 8:30 p.m., at nightfall.  The two in the car made Colby empty his pockets so if they were stopped he would have no ID to back up his claim that he was an ex-CIA director and these thugs were officers he’d fired. One of the men put the ladder in the water and took the life jacket.  Then they drove to the end of Rock Point Road to rendezvous with the boat.

Meanwhile the boat backed up to Colby’s canoe, which was pointed outward and tied to the pier by a small rope at the rear. They hooked their tow rope to the front and jerked the canoe so hard in taking off that the tie-up rope frayed and released. They towed the canoe to the place where Akers found it.  One guy from the boat pulled the canoe to shore and another guy from the car joined him in helping fill the canoe with sand. The boat took off immediately. The second guy from the boat climbed into the car with the other two guys and Colby.

Why did they want to make sure the canoe didn’t move?

They wanted everybody to think that Colby had drowned in this specific area.  That was because they were coming back by car with Colby’s body the next weekend and would dump him in the water not far from where the canoe was found.  This was the only place on Neale Sound where they would have unobserved access to the water from a dead-end road only 40 meters away.

In Kevin Akers’ opinion, the canoe could not have washed up at the place it did unless someone towed it against the clockwise current.  It would have washed up on the same side of the spit as Colby’s body. But the killers had to tow the canoe there because it was the only place in the area that had enough sand to anchor the boat so it wouldn’t move.  The place where Colby’s body was found, on the other side of the spit, had little sand, as is apparent in the photos I took with Akers.

Why didn’t they just kill him there and dump him into the water?

Because it wouldn’t be easy to drown Colby and to make it look like an accident.  But if they killed him and let his internal organs decompose for a week the medical examiner couldn’t tell how he had died.  And they were betting the examiner would call it a drowning accident.  

What errors did they make?

1.  Kevin Akers – This wasn’t an error but a coincidence.  They pulled the operation off within five hundred meters of his house.  He knew better than anyone the water and the currents around Rock Point.  He became immediately suspicious when he saw the canoe.  He told the police about the excessive sand and they wrote it in their report.  But his information was ignored. He was just a fishing village guy with not a lot of education, and it looked to the police like a routine boating accident.

2.  The Missing Life Jacket – The killers didn’t know whether or not Colby always wore his life jacket. If it turned out he did, and they just threw the life jacket in the water, then where was his body?  They decided to take the jacket with them and hoped that nobody noticed.  In fact, everybody did notice the missing life jacket and talked about it, including his son Paul, who brought it up with me.  But most people did not want to connect the missing jacket to possible foul play.

3.  The Unexplained Tow Rope – In their haste the killers left their tow rope attached to the front of Colby’s canoe.  No one had ever seen a tow rope on Colby’s canoe.  Why would he need it?  Again, that was a point people talked about but nobody wanted to connect it to possible foul play.

My Investigation Ends

I thought there was a good chance that Colby had made an outside call on Saturday night at 8:30 or later and it would show up on his telephone bill.  I felt this would be serious proof that somebody had killed him.

Sally Shelton assured me she would find the telephone bill that would include any outside calls made on Saturday, April 27, 1996, and let me know.  Since I knew how meticulous Colby was—he paid the bills—I was sure the bill was there.

But I did not get to see the phone bill, despite my repeated requests. I drew no conclusions or inferences then or now concerning Sally Shelton Colby’s refusal to help me obtain the telephone record. She was a wife who had lost her husband two months before and still in that state of grief that happens to all of us when we lose a loved one.

On my last call to Mrs. Colby, when I asked about the telephone bill, she said to me, with exasperation: “I think you are on a fishing expedition.”

She was right. 

I was fishing to find out who murdered her husband, William Egan Colby, a former CIA director, and the man I considered the most capable and effective American to serve in the Vietnam War.


ZALIN GRANT served as an Army Intelligence Officer in Vietnam. A former journalist for Time and The New Republic, he is the author of six books, including FACING THE PHOENIX: The CIA and the Political Defeat of the United States in Vietnam, which was also translated and published without permission in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. For further bio, see:

(Photo by Claude Boutillon - August 9, 2010)



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