- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 7, 2009

BERLIN (AP) | German billionaire Adolf Merckle committed suicide after his business empire ran into trouble in the financial crisis. He threw himself in front of a train near his home, authorities and his family said Tuesday.

The 74-year-old’s business interests ranged from pharmaceuticals to cement, and his troubles had recently been compounded by losses on shares in automaker Volkswagen AG.

Mr. Merckle’s body was found Monday night on railway tracks at Blaubeuren in southwestern Germany, prosecutors in nearby Ulm said.

His family, which had reported Mr. Merckle missing after he failed to return home Monday, issued a brief statement that he took his own life. Prosecutor Wolfgang Zieher said a suicide note to the family was found, but its contents were not divulged.

Mr. Merckle’s holding company, VEM Vermoegensverwaltung, recently had been in talks with banks to secure credit after its business interests ran up high levels of debt, and also lost value amid the global financial crisis.

The company declined to say how much it needed, or to comment on German media reports that it might have to sell some of its interests.

In addition, the holding company recently said it had suffered millions of euros in losses on shares of automaker Volkswagen AG, which fluctuated wildly last fall as fellow car maker Porsche SE moved to increase its stake in the company.

“Adolf Merckle lived and worked for his family and his firms,” the family stated.

“The distress to his firms caused by the financial crisis and the related uncertainties of recent weeks, along with the helplessness of no longer being able to act, broke the passionate family businessman, and he ended his life,” it said.

Mr. Merckle’s business interests included generic drug maker Ratiopharm International GmbH and cement maker HeidelbergCement AG.

Mr. Merckle helped turn his grandfather’s chemical wholesale company into one of Germany’s biggest pharmaceutical wholesalers, Phoenix Pharmahandel, in which he held a 57 percent stake.

He used his wealth, estimated by Forbes last year to be $9.2 billion, to take stakes in HeidelbergCement and Ratiopharm. HeidelbergCement shares sank on news of Mr. Merckle’s death, closing down 6.2 percent at $43 in Frankfurt.

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