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Monday, December 16, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle billionaire Keith McCaw, 49, dies at his home

Seattle Times staff reporter

Billionaire Keith McCaw died of accidental causes early yesterday morning in the hot tub at his Lake Washington home in Seattle, a family spokesman said.

"The family would ask people to respect their privacy at this time, and will have a complete statement in due course," said spokesman Bob Ratliffe.

Mr. McCaw was the youngest of four billionaire brothers, part of a family that helped create a cellular-phone empire. He was 49.

Firefighters and police responded to a 911 call at 1:28 a.m. yesterday from the 100 block of Lake Washington Boulevard East, Mr. McCaw's 20,000-square-foot lakeside mansion.

Fire-department spokeswoman Helen Fitzpatrick said medics performed CPR on a man who was not breathing when they arrived, but they were unable to resuscitate him. The medical examiner was called, she said.

The Seattle Police Department and the King County medical examiner are conducting a death investigation, but "the cause of death is unknown," said Seattle police spokesman Scott Moss, who would not release the victim's name.

Mr. McCaw made his fortune as a stockholder in McCaw Cellular Communications, a company that was bought out by AT&T in September 1994 for $11.5 billion. Mr. McCaw's brother Craig McCaw built the cellular empire.

Keith McCaw served in a variety of management capacities at the McCaw company, but executives said he was never a major player there. He ended his role as an employee in 1986 but continued as a director until 1991.

In March this year, Forbes Magazine listed Mr. McCaw as the 445th-richest man in the world, tied with his brothers Bruce McCaw and John McCaw. Brother Craig McCaw was listed as the world's 168th-wealthiest person, worth $2.4 billion.

The McCaws were known for doing deals fast. They quickly bought rights to cellular airwaves from large communications companies and small-time cellular speculators.

They paid a couple who owned a beauty school in California $1 million for their licensing rights to cellular airwaves, bought during the early days when those airwaves were being snapped up by forward-thinking — and lucky — investors. The McCaws also paid $48,000 to Bill and Hillary Clinton for the sale of a partnership in a cellular license.

Looking for more cash, the McCaw brothers went to junk-bond specialist Michael Milken.

The McCaw empire was a story of riches reborn.

The McCaws grew up wealthy in The Highlands in the old Boeing mansion, a Spanish-style house with eight fireplaces. The patriarch, Elroy McCaw, built the family fortune owning radio and later television stations.

But the family lost the fortune when Elroy McCaw died of a stroke in 1969, and dozens of claims and lawsuits piled in from creditors. The McCaw estate was declared bankrupt, and the family mansion, yacht and other assets were sold for cash.

Faced with financial ruin, Craig McCaw brought his brothers together and worked out a plan to borrow against the remains of their father's once-mighty empire. Craig pushed his bothers to pledge their assets as collateral for the purchase of companies that most people deemed worthless at the time.

Eventually, some of the McCaw investments in cellular companies rose in value by 9,800 percent.

In January, the four McCaw brothers gave $20 million to rename the Seattle Opera House after their mother, Marion Oliver McCaw Garrison.

Mr. McCaw was known for being the most private member of a private family. A lifelong yachtsman, Mr. McCaw was a strong supporter of his brother Craig's recent quest with Paul Allen for the America's Cup.

Four years ago, Mr. McCaw was part of a consortium that purchased the Schweitzer Mountain ski resort near Sandpont, Idaho. In addition to his Seattle home, Mr. McCaw owned a house in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Besides his mother and brothers, Mr. McCaw is survived by his wife and two daughters, Ratliffe said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Jason Margolis can be reached by e-mail at jmargolis@seattletimes.com. Seattle Times staff reporter Ian Ith contributed to this story.

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