Months after he said he'd started to quietly work to contact Russian hackers to look for a cache of Hillary Clinton's emails, Peter W. Smith called the Wall Street Journal on May 4 to explain.
The next day, the longtime Republican operative and donor checked into a hotel near the Mayo Clinic, far from his Chicago-area home, police records show. Smith, 81, would kill himself there 10 days later.
The detailed notes he left behind spoke to failing health since January. Also in January, his son David entered a state prison following a conviction on aggravated criminal sexual abuse charges, state records show. The notes also cite an expiring $5 million life insurance policy, and property records show he sold his Gold Coast condo last year amid a foreclosure threat.
"NO FOUL PLAY WHATSOEVER - ALL SELF INFLICTED," Smith's note read in part. "NO PARTY ASSISTED OR HAD KNOWLEDGE AS AN ACCOMPLICE BEFORE THE FACT."
A worker at the Aspen Suites in Rochester, Minn., said Smith was pacing in the lobby area the morning he died. "He would get up from his chair, walk over to the newspapers, then go back to his chair and sit down for about 30 seconds and then get up and walk over to the newspapers again," the employee said. "It seemed like he had a lot on his mind."
Police records say he killed himself later on May 14, more than a month before his name would be thrust into the political spotlight via the Journal's report about his claims. They would be deemed explosive at a time when both Congress and former FBI chief Robert S. Mueller III are investigating possible links between the Russian government and people associated with Republican Donald Trump's presidential campaign.
The Journal reported it had seen emails written by Smith showing his team considered retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, then a top advisor to Trump's campaign, an ally. Flynn briefly was President Trump's national security advisor and resigned after it was determined he had failed to disclose contacts with Russia. Flynn's attorney declined to comment.
In today's political world, Smith's suicide sparked conspiracy theories and questions on social media after the Chicago Tribune first reported his cause of death Thursday. Police on Friday said they notified the FBI "as a courtesy" and made it clear that all the evidence pointed to Smith taking his own life.
"We are providing limited follow-up on this case as it has been determined a suicide, which is normal protocol for our agency," said Rochester police Lt. Mike Sadauskis.
U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, a Chicago Democrat and the only Illinois member of Congress on an intelligence committee, said Friday he read the stories about Smith with great interest. "It is obviously an area that I think this [House Intelligence] committee should investigate," he said.
By Friday, Rochester police and staff at the hotel had become wary of further media inquiries. Police said they would not answer questions, and hotel staff referred queries to corporate managers.
Among the questions raised about Smith's death was his insurance policy. In the notes he left in the Rochester hotel room, he wrote that the timing of his suicide was related to an old, expiring $5-million life insurance policy.
Professor Ezra Friedman of Northwestern Law School said Friday that as a general rule, insurance companies must pay life insurance benefits if people commit suicide, provided that a certain period of time has passed since the policy was taken out.
"Usually after you buy life insurance, after a year or two, and it might be more in some states, they have to pay no matter what," said Friedman, who specializes in law and economics, torts and insurance law.
All the details of Smith's policy were not known, and a spokeswoman for the insurer, AXA Equitable Life Insurance Co., offered no comment.
Smith's obituary said he was involved in public affairs for more than 60 years. Police records show he wrote much of his obit himself, touting political work but not mentioning the push for the former Democratic presidential candidate’s emails he described to a Journal reporter.
In the obit, he touted his work with Gopac, a political committee affiliated with former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Georgia. "The focus of his national political campaign activity since 1992 has been on independent expenditures, including Troopergate disclosures involving President Clinton," the obit read, before listing the family Smith left behind.
In the "Troopergate" probe he touted, political enemies of Bill Clinton gathered information suggesting that Arkansas state troopers had helped the then-governor arrange and cover up extramarital affairs.
According to "Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Story" by Michael Isikoff, Smith gave $5,000 in research funds to David Brock, who wrote an explosive article in the American Spectator about Clinton's sex life. Isikoff said Smith gave $25,000 more to a "whistleblower fund" for troopers who talked about Clinton's alleged affairs.
Also in the key final documents he left behind, Smith wrote: "No Chicago residence has been maintained for past 15 months."
In addition to having a home in Lake Forest, Smith and his wife, Janet Smith, purchased a $582,000 condo in Chicago's exclusive Gold Coast neighborhood in 1999, public records show. The two-bedroom residence on East Delaware Place is atop the Four Seasons Chicago Hotel. The property was sold in January 2016 for $705,000 to a private firm amid a pending foreclosure, which was dismissed, records show.
On June 7, Rochester authorities mailed Smith's cellphone, credit cards and passport to a daughter in Lake Forest, police said. Smith had heart problems, according to a former employee.
At the top of the key document that spelled out his health concerns and insurance motivations for taking his life, Smith addressed the Southern Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner's Office.
"Sorry to have involved you," he wrote, "and appreciate your assistance."
Skiba, Heinzmann and Lighty write for the Chicago Tribune. Skiba reported from Washington, D.C., Heinzmann from Rochester, Minn., and Lighty from Chicago.