Jeff Roberson/AP Photo
Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
February 27, 2015 04:30 PM

Seven minutes before police were called to his Clayton, Missouri, home to investigate the sound of a single gunshot, Tom Schweich called a friendly editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and calmly offered the paper an exclusive interview for later that day.

“Gimme a call and let me know if you can have someone here at 2:30,” Schweich, 54, a leading contender in Missouri’s 2016 gubernatorial race, told editorial page editor Tony Messenger in that Thursday-morning voicemail message.

By the time Messenger listened to the recording, Schweich was dead – “Everything at this point suggests suicide,” says Clayton Police Chief Kevin Murphy – and Missouri’s political activists are asking, Why?

A Clayton police spokeswoman tells PEOPLE there is not yet word on whether Schweich left a suicide note. An autopsy was being performed Friday.

To aid the search for clues – if not answers – Messenger took the unusual step of airing his off-the-record conversations with Schweich, the state auditor. Even though he announced his candidacy for governor just four weeks ago, on Jan. 28, the Harvard-trained lawyer was already embroiled in a heated Republican primary race that had turned negative.

“I have no idea why Schweich killed himself,” Messenger wrote in a statement Friday. “But for the past several days he had been confiding in me that he planned to accuse the chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, John Hancock, with leading a ‘whisper campaign’ among donors that he, Schweich, was Jewish.”

Schweich’s grandfather was Jewish, but Schweich – married with two children – attended an Episcopal church.

For his part, Hancock hasn’t denied mentioning to others his belief that Schweich was Jewish. But it wasn’t meant as a smear, he says.

In a Friday email to Republican State Committee members and obtained by the Post-Dispatch, Hancock says:

“Until recently, I mistakenly believed that Tom Schweich was Jewish, but it was simply a part of what I believed to be his biography – no different than the fact that he was from St. Louis and had graduated from Harvard Law School.

“While I do not recall doing so, it is possible that I mentioned Tom s faith in passing during one of the many conversations I have each day. There was absolutely nothing malicious about my intent, and I certainly was not attempting to ‘inject religion’ into the governor s race, as some have suggested.”

Messenger, meanwhile, wonders what might have been.

“Had I not ignored his phone call to me at 9:41 Thursday morning – I was doing a thing at my kids school district – I might have been the last person to talk to the man who wanted to be governor,” Messenger says.

“In the end, he called me, perhaps because he didn t have anybody else. Nobody in his party wanted him to hold a news conference suggesting that there were anti-Semites in the Republican Party. ‘I won t back down,’ he told me. I believed him.”

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