Mystery of the Clearasil heiress found strangled in her own home

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New York loves a good high-society mystery, and yesterday the gossip columns were abuzz with speculation about the death of Meredith McDermott, the 28-year-old heiress to the Clearasil cosmetics fortune, after she was found strangled in her Upper East Side apartment.

Police said they had come to no conclusions as to whether her death was murder, suicide or a freak accident.

A rope found tightly wrapped around her neck was variously described in the media as a sash – possibly from her curtains – or a dressing-gown cord. The police said her body had been found hunched on her knees beneath a ceiling fan. The rope was no longer attached to anything, if it ever had been.

A police source told the New York Daily News: "The cord was tied very tight around her neck. The question is: Did she really hang herself ... or did someone do it to her?"

With most of New York's celebrity sleuthing set distracted by the murder trial of Michael Skakel up the road in Connecticut, none was on hand to tap their dinner-party contacts and delve further into the mystery.

That, however, did not stop the tabloid scribblers from trying their best.

According to some accounts, Ms McDermott was a sunny, happy personality without a care in the world and a promising future ahead of her. She lived relatively modestly rather than relying on the trust fund money first established by her grandfather, Ivan DeBlois Combe, the inventor of Clearasil anti-acne cream and the founder of the $250m (£172m) pharmaceuticals company Combe Inc.

Ms McDermott was going through the final stages of training as a pastry chef. She also sold cosmetics and did a little modelling on the side.

But according to other accounts she was emotionally distraught as a result of an on-off relationship with her boy-friend, 29-year-old Joseph Spinelli.

He was the immediate focus of the police investigation, and was questioned for five hours before he requested a lawyer and obtained an unconditional release.

Officials said Ms McDermott had been dead for at least 48 hours when she was found on Monday. It was her mother, Diana Bickford, who raised the alarm after trying to reach her by phone. Police found the door to the apartment unlocked. There was no indication of a break-in or robbery.