San Diego 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.