Suicide Bridge

Where bodies fall from the sky.

So many bodies have fallen from the sky into Juliet Shreve's neighborhood that she can't remember specifics. They blend together into one limp, anonymous figure. "They never came one after another," she says. "They'd always catch you by surprise."

She must sift through her memory before one sticks out. It was June 27, 1990.

Her children were still in grade school. The dense woods around her house were thick with trees and bushes, overgrown with vines and dogwoods. She was sitting in the still shade of her 1912 colonial, dwarfed by the colossal concrete legs of the All-America Bridge, more commonly known as the Y-Bridge.

It's a massive 3,400-foot snake of concrete that slithers over the lush Little Cuyahoga Valley and splits into a Y as it approaches downtown Akron. Its arched steel frame sits 150 feet in the air, bleeding rust onto the thick concrete limbs that rise above the surrounding greenery.

Below, Shreve's street is seldom traveled. A narrow, one-way passage on the edge of a steep hill, East Lods Street is tucked between the bustle of downtown and the Italian restaurants of North Hill. The bridge protects Shreve and her neighbors from the scorching sun and the harsh winter snow.

As her kids played in its shade, Shreve relaxed to the sound of cars whooshing by overhead. Then, she heard the rustle of trees and a heavy thud. "Someone hollered, 'A body!'" she recalls.

She ran to her backyard, her daughter and two sons at her side. They came upon a man splayed out in the grass, next to the bushes. Shreve remembers the middle-aged white guy lying on his stomach, his head busted open. His name was James Lehman. He was 33 years old.

Her children stared at his brains, which oozed into the spikes of green and yellow grass. More neighbors gathered. Then the police. An hour or so later, the body was carted away.

Shreve knew the routine. After all, she lives beneath the suicide bridge.

Since its construction in 1981, the Y-Bridge has served as the launch site for 43 suicides and countless more attempts.

But unlike most bridges that seduce jumpers, the bodies here don't fall into rivers, lakes, or forests. They fall onto buildings and houses, and into backyards, like some weird, ominous plague.

On a sunny May afternoon, life in the valley is idyllic. Children zigzag on bikes, while old ladies hang laundry out to dry and a man meticulously edges his lawn.

Sandra Babcock has lived below the bridge for more than 23 years. She's a resident of the Elizabeth Park housing project. Its rows of brick apartments sit just beneath the split in the bridge's Y, where bodies have fallen within feet of a children's playground set.

Sitting in the sun, waiting for her ride, Babcock recounts the story of one Thanksgiving. As she placed the turkey on the dinner table, she heard the sirens. Before she could stop him, her teenage son, Larry, ran outside to find the body. When he returned, he refused to eat.

"The guy's head was splattered all over the place," she says. "It was a younger fella that had jumped off the bridge. It shook us all up -- someone that young. He was only 20 or 21."

Ever since, Babcock refuses to look out her window when she hears the thuds and sirens, though the thought of jumpers never leaves her mind.

For others, it's much harder to ignore the somber shower.

The Oriana House, a community corrections service that also treats substance abuse, has had two bodies land on its property in the past two years. One was that of 33-year-old nurse Anita Weaver, who suffered from manic depression. The other was that of 71-year-old James Cummings.

He'd parked his car at St. Thomas Hospital, which sits at the bridge's northern tip. He had planned to get treatment for depression, but decided to jump instead. His body was discovered by an Oriana staffer headed to work.

"It's pretty hard on the staff when they see that going on," says Bernie Rochford, Oriana's executive vice president. "Unfortunately, we seem to be the place of choice."

Other valley dwellers are less queasy. Many residents simply shrug their shoulders. After all, there's nothing they can do about it.

Larry Parker, who owns an office building on East North Street, doesn't seem bothered by the bodies. They break up the monotony of life. "There's never a dull moment down here," he says.

People have fallen through his roof; they've landed in his parking lot. He's watched as their guts were washed off the street with fire hoses.

But to Parker, that's just life in the valley of death.

The Y-Bridge and its predecessor share a history of grief.

At the turn of the 20th century, before there was a bridge, the Little Cuyahoga Valley crippled Akron's growth by preventing it from expanding north.

The deep depression of the valley, which surrounds the Little Cuyahoga River, was largely populated by African Americans who'd migrated from the south. To the north, more immigrants, most of them Italian, remained isolated from the city. It took more than five hours to climb the steep hills with horse and carriage.

In 1921, the city dedicated the valley's first bridge, the North Hill Viaduct. Seven men fell to their death during construction.

The Viaduct became an instant magnet for suicides. In its first decade, more than a dozen people jumped to their death.

Over its 56-year existence, the bridge was the site of at least one suicide a year (police records are incomplete). Only two jumpers were unsuccessful. In 1930, the fall of a 58-year-old man was broken by the roof of a coal company. A year later, a 34-year-old woman was saved by a peach tree.

But the suicides became an unspoken curse.

Eventually, the bridge began to crumble. Residents below had to dodge not only bodies, but blocks of concrete as heavy as 300 pounds. The North Hill Viaduct was finally closed in 1978.

When it was replaced by the Y-Bridge three years later, the suicides increased. In less than a decade, 18 people jumped.

There's no definite explanation of the attraction the Y-Bridge holds for the suicidal. Conventional wisdom suggests that it stems from the bridge's proximity to St. Thomas Hospital and Portage Path Psychiatric Emergency Services (PES), offering easy access to people in crisis. In a 2003 city report on the suicides, Dr. Lisa Kohler, the Summit County medical examiner, suggested that many victims drive to St. Thomas for treatment, then decide to jump instead.

But the same report contradicts the theory, noting that only one in nine jumpers was treated at St. Thomas in the previous five years, and police found only two of their cars in the St. Thomas parking deck.

Others say that the bridge is seductive for the same reason the city doesn't want to fence it off -- its view is stunning, almost romantic.

Drivers headed toward downtown see treetops bursting between the arms of the bridge, as the lush valley spreads out on either side. It's one of the few vantage points in the city to make downtown Akron appear as a thriving metropolis, rather than a battered industrial hub on the slow mend.

From the bridge, the skyline is almost striking, with weathered steeples staggered among large bank buildings and the glass and steel of Akron U's Polymer Science building. As the bridge narrows into Broadway Street, it offers the illusory excitement of emerging from the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan.

It's also easily accessible by foot.

But perhaps the most reasonable explanation for the suicides is this: The bridge's reputation has become self-fulfilling. So many people have ended their lives here that it's almost become the purpose of the structure.

The city has tried to redefine its image, calling it "the Bridge of Unity," "the Bridge of Truth," and "the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge." Still, even politicians casually refer to it as the suicide bridge.

During one election, former Councilman Ron Smith said of his opponent, "I think that if he ever loses, he'd jump off the Y-Bridge."

Jeanette Langston knew that her ex-husband, James Langston, had fallen on hard times.

The two were married when Jeanette was a sophomore at Buchtel High. They had two daughters before their marriage ended.

When Jeanette's mother was in the hospital with cancer, Langston visited her every day, even after their divorce. The day her mother passed away, he went to the grocery store, bought enough food for a regiment, and cooked for her relatives arriving from Georgia.

Even after they split, Langston was there for Jeanette. When she speaks of him, her voice quivers between pride and despair. "He was the kindest, one of the sweetest people," she says. "He went out of his way to help anyone in need."

For more than 10 years, Langston worked at the Oriana House's rehab center. But in 2001, the 58-year-old hit a bad streak. He lost his house to foreclosure. He had remarried, but his new wife left him. He also discovered he had a heart problem and diabetes. Jeanette says he grew despondent.

In the wee hours of an August morning, after a night of booze and tranquilizers, Langston parked his car on the Y-Bridge. Without hesitation, he climbed onto the railing and jumped.

His body landed in a patch of grass off Spring Street, just across from the playground at the Elizabeth Park projects.

Though Jeanette readily relates the better moments of Langston's life, she prefers not to speak of his death. Her daughters feel the same. "It's too depressing," Jeanette says. "My girls just want to let their father rest. Talking about it is too painful."

In fact, when Scene contacted relatives of the deceased for this story, most declined interview requests. Others just hung up with a heavy sigh.

After all, suicide has long been beyond our understanding, defying our primal instinct for survival. It's been stigmatized as an affliction of the weak and selfish. And while newspaper obituaries proudly note someone's battle with breast cancer, they're loath to speak of a failed struggle with mental illness or depression. "It's just too painful," says the mother of Anita Weaver.

After all, how do you explain to a stranger why your daughter ended her own life -- or how a husband preferred death to watching his children grow?

The city's 2003 report offers the only explanation: The jumpers had histories of depression and/or substance abuse, bringing on states of mind that even close family members can't comprehend or explain.

John Spengler, the man who jumped before Langston, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had been treated for paranoia.

The woman who followed Langston, 33-year-old Weaver, had been diagnosed with manic depression at age 15. The night she died, she had called her caseworker at Portage Path Psychiatric Emergency Services, seeking help. She was scheduled to check herself in at 8 p.m. that night. Instead, her body was found under the bridge at 10:25.

Michael Lewis is perhaps typical. Though he was never diagnosed with a mental illness, he was described by his wife Mary as "depressed." He was out of work, had no health insurance, and had been sick for some time. Still, he refused to see a doctor.

Instead, he wrapped a suicide note in a plastic bag, placed it inside his pocket, and jumped.

For Shreve, the potential jumpers are as disturbing as those who actually plummet into her yard. "It's a regular routine," she says. "Half the time you hear a noise, like sirens or something. You look up and go, 'Okay, it's one of the nuts.'"

Lieutenant Richard Edwards, who commands the Akron Police Department's hostage negotiators, says his officers are dispatched to the bridge at least once a week to talk down potential jumpers. Holidays are the worst.

"A lot of them are false alarms," he says. "If anyone sees someone even stop on the bridge, they call. There are also a lot of people who go up onto the bridge just for attention."

On one particularly cold and rainy day in 2001, Edwards was summoned to help a homeless man who was precariously balancing himself on the bridge's railing. "It was windy," Edwards says, "and my worst fear was that he'd accidentally fall. The concrete is less than a foot wide, with a rail in the middle. One bad step, and he'd have been a dead man."

Edwards casually approached the man. "It's always tense, and no two situations are the same," Edwards says. "But you have to act cool."

For the next nine hours, he did most of the talking, while the man offered clipped words and grunts. By the end of the day, all Edwards knew was that his name was Larry Ellington. He was a homeless, 55-year-old alcoholic. And he wanted to die because all his relatives were dead. In fact, he'd attempted suicide twice before.

"It's frustrating, because you keep having to repeat yourself, and you begin to sound like a broken record," Edwards says. "But you can't just grab for them, because they'll probably jump, and there's always a chance you can go with them."

Edwards offered Ellington everything from dinner to a 40-ounce, just to get him down. His entreaties were met with disdain. But whenever Edwards left, either to buy Ellington beer or to use the restroom at St. Thomas, Ellington would step down from the ledge and wait patiently for his return. As soon as Edwards reappeared, Ellington was back on the precipice.

Twelve hours after the standoff began, Ellington inched along the ledge toward downtown. When he finally hit the street, police grabbed him. Edwards handed him a 40-ouncer. "You can't promise these guys something and not deliver," he says. "Because if you see them up there next week, and you try to make them promises, they'll remember that you broke them before, and you're done."

The Akron police have never lost a jumper during negotiations, but their efforts are costly. Each time police are dispatched to the bridge, five cruisers, a minimum of six officers, and a medical unit are sent. On average, it takes three to five hours to talk someone down. "Years ago, policemen kept order, that's what we did," Edwards says. "Now we're a social service, like therapists. We diagnose you."

Georgia McLaughlin slouches in her wheelchair on the 11th floor of her west side apartment building, gazing out the window and reflecting on why so many of her friends jump off the Y-Bridge. "No one wants to jump in their right mind," says the soft-spoken McLaughlin.

"People want to get rid of the voices in their head, or they stop taking their meds and they feel hopeless. It's hard to understand how people get that low, unless you've been there. It's a very scary feeling. And when you have a bridge sitting right in your direction, it's a tempting option to just end it."

McLaughlin, who was diagnosed with a personality disorder and clinical depression, was a patient at St. Thomas Hospital. She knew a number of fellow patients who opted for the Y-Bridge rather than treatment.

In 2000, McLaughlin attempted to rally support for building a fence along the bridge's railing. She felt that its closeness to St. Thomas and downtown -- both saturated with the homeless and mentally ill -- was too much of a temptation.

For weeks, she rolled her wheelchair across the bridge with a large sign that asked "Y jump?" She also started a petition and got signatures from other patients, but found little support in the medical community. "None of the people at the mental-health agencies would sign my petition," she says.

She also struggled to get the ear of city council. Members told her that fencing would scar the bridge's beauty. "It's not beautiful," she says. "It's sad. You have Oriana House and the hospitals and the projects. Nothing about it is beautiful. It's the suicide bridge, for crying out loud!"

McLaughlin finally gave up her fight when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Shreve, president of the North Akron Neighborhood Council Inc., says that she too was ignored when she lobbied for fencing. She put together a petition with signatures from people whose homes are under the bridge, but council members told her it would be too expensive.

"They lazy," she says. "They always talking about they budget, so we asked for partial fencing, just to protect the houses. They didn't like that neither. It makes me mad, because I'm a taxpayer, and if you have people jumping on your house, the city should accommodate you to make you safe. But they don't."

Oriana House compiled suicide stats and requested a review of how often police were dispatched to the bridge, says Executive Vice President Bernie Rochford. But when the city conducted its own study in 2003, it decided that the cost of fencing off the bridge -- $1 million for a fence, or $2.3 million for a more elaborate Plexiglas system -- outweighed the benefits.

Besides, it was likely that a fence would just displace the suicides, not deter them. "It would solve the problem of people jumping off that bridge, but not of people taking their lives," says the city's spokesman, Mark Williamson. "They'll just go somewhere else.

"If we spent a couple million on a fence that simply relocates suicides, we'd be deluged by taxpayers. We don't want to sound insensitive. We care, but we can't rationalize spending that kind of money on a fence that won't solve the problem."

Williamson says that if St. Thomas were to complain that the bridge is a serious threat to its patients, the city would reconsider. But St. Thomas has said nothing.

If you're staring down from the edge of the bridge, the fall seems much longer than 150 feet. As you lean over the rail, the blood rushes to your head, sending a tumbling sensation through your limbs.

High above the homes and a pickup basketball game, you feel distant, almost lonely. You quickly push yourself away from the ledge.

Along this 3,400-foot stretch of concrete, there are numerous landing sites to choose from -- a patch of grass, the Little Cuyahoga River, a steep, quiet ravine.

The question comes to mind: Why would jumpers want to land on the hard asphalt of a parking lot? Or take a chance on thick layers of roofing? They could jump anywhere.

Maybe they're afraid their bodies will go undiscovered in the river, left to decompose. Maybe they want to ensure that someone will take notice. Or maybe the choice is random -- it's just where they were when they knew it was time to jump.

In 1988, 60-year-old Sarah Dalbey parked her car on the bridge's southbound lane and jumped. She fell through the roof of Larry Parker's building, which was then S.A. Commune's sprinkler factory. Her body left an imprint between the steel beams. Her head splattered across the cement floor.

A forklift operator was pulling into the building as she tumbled from the sky. She fell just 15 feet from him. He took one look at her lifeless figure, jumped from his forklift, and started running until a group of employees caught up with him.

For Shreve, people like Dalbey are just downright inconsiderate. Most of the residents below the bridge are black. The jumpers are mostly white, as Shreve is quick to point out.

She and her neighbors are offended by the frequent disturbances created by people threatening to jump overhead and the bloody bodies in their bushes. "There was a lot of talk about how we all thought it was a shame that they were coming to our neighborhood," she says. "Like it was a target zone. People would say, 'Why don't they go to their own neighborhood and jump?' We thought we were being attacked."

In February, 23-year-old Shea Harris got up on the bridge and threatened to jump. She tried taking her six-year-old daughter with her, until police pulled them both down.

Harris was charged with child endangerment. Shreve sees another crime. "How do you explain to your kids, still in elementary school, where that body came from?" she asks.

Sometimes, the only way to handle it is with gallows humor. As jumpers stand on the bridge, surrounded by cruiser lights and negotiators, people below will often shout "Jump! Jump!" says Shreve.

Neighbor Sandra Babcock describes men placing bets on whether someone would leap or not.

Even as faces innocently peer over the bridge's edge for a quick glimpse, or walkers pause along the ledge to rest their feet, people below find themselves asking -- from nervousness rather than callousness -- "Who'll jump today?"

On May 31, 30-year-old Charles Roy Bender II walked across the Y-Bridge at 6 p.m. A witness says that he stepped onto the railing, briefly waved his arms, then jumped.

Bender's body was found in Larry Parker's lot.