A Big Message

— On concluding its December 6, 1999, session, San Diego City Council honored a community volunteer, but few people knew Janice Kay Loesel or how she died. Councilman Juan Vargas described her as a tireless member of the Golden Hill Citizens Patrol who had a special interest in rescuing stray cats. "Unfortunately, she did pass away, and our thoughts and prayers are with her family," Vargas said in adjournment.

Linda Palmer, who monitored Golden Hill monthly with Loesel to help discourage crime, recalls her partner as a quiet person. For nearly eight years, while others talked at patrol meetings, Loesel was responsible for taking notes. "Jan blended into the background," Palmer said. "She was very cautious. She never wanted to overstep her boundaries. She would never argue or speak out."

In the end, Loesel's silence spoke loudly. However timidly she may have lived, she chose to die boldly. In the early hours of October 27, 1999, Loesel drove her car halfway across the Coronado bridge and stopped. She stepped out, climbed atop the bridge's waist-high ledge, and jumped.

Loesel, 51, an unemployed telemarketer, was among 294 people who committed suicide in San Diego County last year. Of that total, 6 died by leaping off the Coronado bridge. As of August 14, another 6 people have killed themselves similarly so far this year. "That's a dramatic way to die. I could understand if she were very emotional, but Jan was a placid kind of person," Palmer said, echoing the shock expressed by other acquaintances. "At times when I think about it, I can't fathom it."

Jumping from high places, such as skyscrapers and freeway overpasses, is less common among suicide victims than shooting oneself, hanging oneself, or overdosing on drugs, said Dr. Rodrigo Mu�oz, a past president of the American Psychiatric Association, who practices in San Diego. But disturbed individuals who have lost hope opt for whatever means are available. "The bridge is a significant presence in many people's lives," Mu�oz said. "It's a certain way to die."

But even that assertion about the Coronado bridge is misleading, Mu�oz acknowledged, given the many degrees between seeking attention, desperately signaling for help -- both forms of parasuicide -- and seriously intending to commit suicide. At least ten San Diego residents have survived after hurling themselves into the bay, while many others have lingered at the bridge's edge long enough to be dissuaded from jumping.

The first death occurred in 1972, three years after the San Diego Coronado Bay Bridge opened to traffic, but it wasn't a suicide. The San Diego Police Department, which investigated the scene, and the San Diego Harbor Police, which retrieved the body, labeled it potential homicide. An estimated 5 percent of bridge victims are first called John Doe or Jane Doe because they aren't immediately identifiable -- as transpired in the following case.

After conferring with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, San Diego police determined the deceased was Jewell P. Hutchings, 52, and charged her husband, James Albert Hutchings, with murder. From their Cerritos home, the couple had driven to the bridge, where Hutchings threatened to shoot his wife unless she jumped. Their daughter and daughter's friend watched from the car, according to criminal records at San Diego Superior Court. Hutchings first told police his wife wanted to kill herself, but he later pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. He was convicted of that charge, incarcerated a few years, and then released on probation in 1974. The court's records end in 1976 with Hutchings's violation of probation resulting in more prison time.

The Hutchings case may be the only murder on the Coronado bridge. With the exception of one man in 1992, the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office has identified all 202 people known to have committed suicide there. Each year the number varies: from none in 1985 to 16 in 1980. About 25 percent of the victims are women -- a breakdown that roughly approximates national statistics for suicide. Most people drive on the bridge, but some walk.

"As with other suicides, there's no common thread for bridge-jumping," said Lt. James E. Barker, commanding officer of the San Diego Police Department's emergency negotiations team, which, in its role of diffusing crises, has talked some people out of leaping. "We used to think it was during the holiday season, but during the last few years, we've had zero activity during the holiday. You can't say it's young versus old, successful people versus unsuccessful people, educated people versus uneducated people. It covers the whole spectrum."

Barker is among some transportation and law-enforcement officials reluctant to talk about Coronado bridge suicides for fear of spawning more. "We can't back it up with a scientific study, but every time something like this gets publicized, we have a copycat or rash of these," Barker said, noting that a suicide attempt from the Laurel Street bridge in January was followed by a Coronado bridge attempt. "What's the value of publicizing all of this? Who are we educating? To me, it's not worth somebody's life."

Bridge-jumping is regarded by some mental-health experts as a big message, a public statement that sometimes expresses pent-up anger as well as irreversible despair and insurmountable pain. The irony is, deaths from the Coronado bridge seldom become news. Coverage has diminished over the years, but phrases such as "police activity on the bridge" and "traffic tie-ups on the bridge" sometimes serve as euphemisms for suicide and suicide attempt.

Either event can involve the California Department of Transportation, California Highway Patrol, San Diego police, Coronado police, and Harbor police. "It's a multijurisdictional issue," Barker said. "We work very well with each other. We have an exceptional relationship." Although the Highway Patrol has primary law-enforcement authority on the Coronado bridge, which is part of State Route 75, it relies on local police to investigate some crimes there. As a practical matter, police from San Diego or Coronado are better positioned and staffed to reach suicide suspects first. The patrol, which decides whether to halt or restrict traffic on the bridge, this year made effective a memorandum of understanding that delineates the roles of various agencies. Caltrans workers, who routinely cross the bridge in emergency and maintenance vehicles, sometimes are the first to spot potential jumpers and make contact. The Harbor police are almost always there to pull bodies and survivors from the bay. That task, too, is sometimes assumed by whoever arrives first, be it the Coast Guard, the Navy, or privately owned boats.

"I think there's reluctance on the part of the news media to report on suicide because there's a fear of normalizing suicide. I think this is true in other parts of the country, too," said Rudy Kosits, suicide and crisis-intervention specialist for United Behavioral Health. "There was a time when the Golden Gate Bridge suicides were on the front page of the newspaper, and that doesn't happen anymore." United Behavioral Health operates a hotline for San Diego County Mental Health Services. The toll-free telephone number, 800-479-3339, and the words Suicide Counseling Crisis Team 24 Hours, appear on blue signs on the Coronado Bridge. Of 91,744 calls made the year ended June 30, 2662 were either from people threatening suicide or from relatives, friends, and acquaintances of such people.

"We don't keep statistics on the bridge, but several times we have received calls from people on cell phones who are driving on the bridge or driving to the bridge. Bridge-jumping does have a certain air of flamboyance or attention-getting that other types of suicides lack. It's a statement: I was here. I am not here," Kosits said. "Suicides are mostly committed at home. Generally, people use the closest, easiest means at hand."

Like many psychiatrists, Dr. Keith Brown, a medical director for United Behavioral Health, does not believe in copycat suicides -- with the possible exceptions of teenagers, who crave a sense of belonging, and relatives of suicide victims. "I believe strongly in freedom of the press. People have a right to know what's going on. Intervention needs to be at a different level than repressing news information," Brown said. "One myth is if you mention suicide, that will plant the idea in the person to commit suicide. The reality is the best thing to do is ask about suicide. Most people who are near suicide already have the idea. Asking is likely to result in a referral for help."

Talking about treatment, counseling, medication, and their effectiveness may instill hope, Brown said, while defining suicide as a permanent solution to a temporary problem might penetrate an individual's negative mindset. Many suicide victims suffer from mental illness and/or addictions to alcohol and drugs, Brown said, noting that major recurrent depression not only is common but also can lead to death. About 20 percent of all Americans are stricken with such depression at some point, he said, and an estimated 10 percent of that group will kill themselves. About 1 percent of Americans are afflicted with schizophrenia, and 10 percent of those patients will also end their lives.

Many medical examiner reports on the Coronado bridge victims support Brown's generalizations linking suicide to mental illness, depression, and substance abuse.

About 13 hours after Loesel took her life, Julian Fernandez did likewise -- making October 27 a rare instance of two people jumping from the bridge on the same day. The two San Diego residents did not know each other, but both had strived in their own way to better themselves.

Besides struggling with alcoholism, drug use, and suicidal thoughts, Fernandez, 41, took Prozac to treat depression, according to his medical examiner report. Fernandez had lived in the San Diego Rescue Mission downtown to try to overcome his addictions. However, on completing a year-long substance-abuse program, Fernandez became intoxicated and was admitted to San Diego County Mental Health Services. After his release, he became intoxicated again, delivered a note to the mission, and proceeded to the bridge.

Fernandez's violent death and erratic behavior his final days contrasted with the stability he had achieved while sober. He worked in the mission's mailroom and, using his skills as a cosmetologist, cut residents' hair. True to his profession, Fernandez was a stylish dresser. "Julian was really well liked and very much loved by the mission residents," Shari Finney, the Rescue Mission's clinical director, said, recalling that more than 100 people attended Fernandez's funeral. "Julian was a kind person. He wanted to please people. He had a big heart." The two cats Fernandez adopted are still pets at the mission. Friends who miss Fernandez's comforting words and encouragement say he was troubled by separation from his wife. Fernandez spoke openly about past plans to jump from the Coronado bridge.

Loesel's jump was nearly impossible to foresee, given the absence of substance abuse, mental illness, and suicide attempts in her history. A few phrases within the medical examiner's report hinted at a deeper problem: "The decedent...recently lost her job. Acquaintances noted that she had been acting somewhat withdrawn lately." San Diego police officer Ernesto Servin was stunned to learn of Loesel's death. "It wasn't in the news. There were no signs to indicate she was suicidal." Although Loesel was quiet, Servin said, she was active in Golden Hill and expressed her concerns about safety, crime, and quality of life.

Loesel was not one to confide in people, but through casual contact Palmer pieced together her story. After her divorce in Wisconsin, Loesel moved to San Diego in 1979. She hoped to launch a career in business communications. Although she did not prosper in San Diego's low-wage economy, Loesel was generous, often giving gifts and treats to children in her neighborhood and volunteering in an elementary school. She also derived satisfaction from the Volunteers in Policing Program and the Golden Hill Citizens Patrol, which gave her an award in 1996.

Last year when Loesel gave away her pet cats -- the strays she had saved -- Palmer didn't question the explanation that Loesel had developed allergies. Now Palmer realizes that "Jan must have been in the depths of despair. She's one of these people who fell right through the cracks. She was barely getting by," Palmer said, noting that Loesel's rent increased when she lost her job.

"Not everyone who's in need of help is desperately poor or just crossed the border or is a person of color. This is not a city that helps too many people," Palmer said. "Like a lot of people who move to San Diego, Jan came here for that little pot of gold. She was searching hard for meaning in her life."

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