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Tuesday, December 17, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Death of McCaw a 'crazy tragedy'; details incomplete

Seattle Times reporters

Firefighters and police who responded to billionaire Keith McCaw's Lake Washington home early Sunday morning did so after a "hysterical woman" called 911, "saying someone was bleeding and drowned in a Jacuzzi," according to the police report.

Officers found Mr. McCaw, 49, in the hot tub, unresponsive. Paramedics pulled him out of the water and administered CPR, to no avail. He was pronounced dead. A police source said Mr. McCaw suffered a head injury, but investigators found no signs of foul play, no property damage and nothing suspicious.

The police report did not identify the woman who called for help.

Mr. McCaw's family and friends said they're convinced he had a heart attack or stroke.

Bob Ratliffe, a friend and family spokesman, said Mr. McCaw's death appears to be a "crazy tragedy," perhaps because he was in the hot tub too long. Ratliffe also noted that Mr. McCaw's father, Elroy McCaw, died of a stroke at 57.

Family and friends described Mr. McCaw as intensely private, warm and devoted to his children.

"Keith was a very devoted husband and father and took great pride in his children," eldest brother Bruce McCaw said in a statement. "Keith loved to laugh and be with his friends, whom he cherished so much.

"He could be a tough business negotiator one minute and a great practical joker the next. His passing will leave a tremendous hole in not only our family, but the broader community that was touched by his friendship and generosity."

Mr. McCaw was born Nov. 17, 1953, in Seattle to John Elroy and Marion Oliver McCaw and was the youngest of four sons.

The book "Money From Thin Air" by Casey Corr, a former journalist who now is communications director for Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, said the McCaws were among the area's wealthy elite. Seattle newspapers announced the family's plans for vacations and parties, and regular visitors included people such as Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Mr. McCaw and his brothers attended the exclusive Lakeside School, but the family lost its fortune when Keith McCaw was a teenager. After his father died, dozens of claims and lawsuits piled in from creditors. The McCaw estate was declared bankrupt.

Mr. McCaw attended Colorado College, a small liberal arts and sciences college at the foot of Pike's Peak in Colorado Springs. He received a bachelor's degree in business administration and joined McCaw Cellular Communications, where his family says he played an active role in the cable television and paging businesses. He resigned as executive vice president in 1986 to pursue his own interests but stayed on the board until 1991.

He made his fortune as a stockholder in McCaw Cellular, built by his brother Craig and sold to AT&T in September 1994 for $11.5 billion.

Corr wrote that Mr. McCaw and his brothers shared interests in nice cars, jets, large boats, vacation homes in Sun Valley and "an acute desire to avoid the spotlight."

After he left his family's company, Mr. McCaw spent his money and energy on real-estate investments and philanthropy. He owned a controlling interest in Stevens Pass and Mission Ridge ski areas and a 23 percent stake in Tully's Coffee, where he served on the board.

Tully's Chairman Tom O'Keefe, who has known Mr. McCaw for almost 30 years, remembered his friend as intensely private but intensely committed to his family, friends and community causes, particularly anything involving children.

A tax return filed in June shows that the Keith and Mary Kay McCaw Family Foundation gave $3 million to various charities and educational institutions in 2001, including $18,000 to Lakeside and $200,000 to United Way of King County.

The largest donation last year, $2.6 million, went to the Seattle Center Foundation, to which he and his wife have donated $5 million that was matched by his three brothers' families. The $20 million gift led the fund-raising campaign for a new performance hall at the center that will be named for their mother.

Mr. McCaw's foundation had assets of $9.4 million at the end of its 2001 fiscal year, records show.

"Keith was an incredible giver and philanthropist, but anonymously," O'Keefe said. "The city of Seattle truly doesn't know what it has lost."

In addition to his mother, three brothers and wife, Mr. McCaw also is survived by his two daughters.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Mark's Cathedral, with a reception to follow at the Seattle Golf Club. Remembrances should be directed to the children's charity of your choice or The Museum of Flight.

Monica Soto: 206-515-5632 or msoto@seattletimes.com.

Times reporters Sharon Chan, Jake Batsell, and Dave Birkland contributed to this report.

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