News

Midnight drama at Deception Pass

Deception Pass Bridge closed just before midnight Sunday, March 9, and remained closed to traffic for a little more than two hours. During this time, Skagit and Island County law enforcement officers were busy talking to a 44-year-old Sedro-Woolley man who apparently considered taking his life, according to Sgt. Bryan Stookey of Washington State Patrol.

State Patrol received a call at 11:33 p.m. Sunday reporting that someone was tying a rope to Deception Pass Bridge. Trooper Darren Hettinger arrived on scene five minutes later to find the man with a 20-foot tow strap tied around his neck and the other end tied to the bridge. The man had a six-pack of beer with him, and his white 1985 Ford Bronco was parked nearby at the north end of the bridge.

Around 11:41 p.m. Skagit County Deputy Rhonda Lasley arrived on scene. The man was belligerent and nursing the six-pack while Hettinger and Lasley attempted to keep a dialogue going with him.

The man, reportedly the owner of a tow truck company in Monroe, was upset at Monroe police and the city of Monroe, Stookey said.

Skagit County Sheriff’s Office ran a check on the man and found he “didn’t have much of a criminal history,” and it was unclear why the man felt animosity toward Monroe and its police force, Stookey said.

After about an hour of drunken hollering, the man ducked out of sight, climbing under the bridge. Law enforcement launched a marine vessel to put a spotlight on the bridge to find where the man had disappeared.

“We were worried that he was going to fall due to intoxication,” Stookey said.

They found the man was simply walking along a two-foot wide pipe that runs directly under the bridge’s walkway. The man eventually returned to hanging off the outside railing of the bridge.

Deputy Lasley became the man’s life line. Lasley and Trooper Hettinger led the dialogue that kept the man’s family in focus. The man soon began conversing with Lasley and other officers gathered at Deception Pass.

Lasley was a “calm and soothing voice that made sense,” Stookey said. They were soon on a first name basis and Lasley was even casually telling the man, “Come up here, I need a smoke and I left mine in the car.” She lit one of the man’s cigarettes and handed it back to him.

Law enforcement thought many times about overpowering the man, but didn’t want to risk it, Stookey said.

“We could have a made a grab for him, but just didn’t see any opportunities to do so without seriously putting his life in danger,” he said. “What if we’d done so, and knocked him off balance or contributed to him falling off the edge? It’s one of those situations that you’re darned if you do, darned if you don’t.”

Trooper Hettinger recently received a Washington State Patrol District Commendation Award in recognition of his successful efforts to prevent a female subject from jumping off Deception Pass Bridge. Stookey mentioned Monday he plans to nominate Hettinger and Lasley for “some sort of award recognition” for their efforts Sunday.

While traffic was stopped until 2:10 a.m. cars were scattered in the area between the bridge and Pass Lake. Some chose not to stay, instead heading back to wait it out at Sharp’s Corner or choosing to take a different route all together. At Pass Lake a few impatient motorists could be heard yelling, “Tell him to jump, ” to the officer turning around cars. Stookey doesn’t regret the closure, admitting that State Patrol considered opening the bridge to traffic but didn’t want any added swaying to knock the man over.

In the end the man voluntarily and peacefully came back over the railing and gave Lasley a big hug.

“They made a real emotional bond. There were many times that if she wasn’t there I thought he would have jumped. It would have been pretty devastating if after two hours he’d jumped, we’d probably all be in a debriefing right now,” Stookey said.

The man was transported by Deputy Lasley to Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon where he voluntarily committed himself for mental health evaluation. At the hospital the man was “coherent and very thankful.”

“Right now he’s just glad he didn’t do it. He’s down on his luck, and knows he needs to stay in the hospital long enough to make a plan,” Stookey said.

You can reach Whidbey News-Times contributing writer Cynthia Woolbright at cwoolbright@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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