The Bicyclist and The Bridgetender: The happy life, tragic death and lasting legacy of Carol Wright
Updated: Feb 6
ON A WARM sun-splashed Sunday morning early last year, a familiar sound grabbed Ron Taylor's attention as he was about to pull into the driveway of his Hampton Road home near the south end of West Palm Beach.
There goes Carol on another bike ride, he thought to himself as he waved out the window of his truck, a bag of fresh McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches at his side.
Carol Wright, in a dark shirt, light shorts and white shoes, had just started pedaling her blue beach cruiser from her driveway across the street. She was headed to the bookstore again, she told him, the one across the middle bridge on Palm Beach.
“Have a good ride,’’ he replied.
Taylor, a longtime appliance repairman known by neighbors as the “Mayor of Hampton Road,’’ remembers a certain vigor about his elderly neighbor as she rode by.
“A lot of times she would walk the bike down the street and then get on,’’ he recalled. “But she felt good that day and she was riding it from her driveway.’’
It was Feb. 6, 2022, with 75-degree temperatures headed to 80. Taylor figured he’d probably be out front when she returned in a few hours pushing the bike up the walkway to her screened front porch as he’d seen her do so many times over their 30-plus years as neighbors.
But Carol would not return home that day or ever.
On as perfect a day for a South Florida bike ride as there ever was, a trip that brought Carol so much joy so many times in her life would be cut short by something as shocking and tragic as it was completely avoidable.
My Bike Is My Therapist
THERE ARE PLENTY of 79-year-olds who won’t dare get on a bicycle, let alone ride one just about every day. Carol Easterling Wright was not one of them.
The whimsical decal on the rack above the beach cruiser’s rear wheel said it all — “My Bike Is My Therapist.”
Bicycles had been her transportation of choice since she learned to ride as a kid in Larchmont, N.Y. She pedaled one as a college student in Miami, as a production assistant and writer in Los Angeles in the 1960s and in retirement in West Palm Beach.
Her latest bike, worn but dependable, was her ticket to staying healthy and active.
She owned a 2013 Toyota Prius, but the car, with about 19,000 miles on the odometer, rarely left the driveway. Her bicycle, though, always seemed to be in motion: to the Clematis Street library downtown, the occasional grocery run to Publix, leisure rides along the Intracoastal Waterway.
A stickler for rules and caution, Carol always wore a helmet, always waited if the traffic light was red, always walked the bike across bridges, preferring to use the pedestrian walkway protected from cars and trucks by a railing.
And she wasn't shy about ringing the handlebar bell — DING-ding! — to clear a path through the joggers, dog walkers and rollerbladers along Flagler Drive’s popular waterfront sidewalk.
“My aunt Carol took safety to a level that most of us don't,’’ said Jill Sanchez, a niece. “Everything about her was cautious.’’
The ride to Classic Bookshop on Palm Beach — three miles there, three miles back — was still a relatively easy one for her, which impressed her friends because Carol had recently recovered from a life-threatening illness that sent her to the Cleveland Clinic the previous fall.
Carol liked to bike to the island on Sundays and Wednesdays because that’s when her good friend, Cheryl Kravetz, worked the register at the popular independent bookstore on South County Road.
In their younger years, they worked as newspaper reporters, Cheryl at the Lake Worth Herald and Carol, the youngest daughter of no-nonsense New York City journalists, at the Palm Beach Daily News.
The bookstore, an intimate space divided by five narrow rows of stacks and shelves, was not much different from a newsroom, a comfortable setting for two former reporters to exchange gossip, talk politics and trade book recommendations.
“We always laughed and had a good time,’’ Cheryl said.
Carol arrived around 11 on the morning of Feb. 6. and hung out for nearly two hours. She picked up two titles, “Tropic of Stupid” by Tim Dorsey and “You Will Never Know,’’ a mystery by Sophia Prentiss, to be read and crammed into the crowded bookcases that made her living room on Hampton Road feel like a library.
Before leaving for lunch, she grabbed one more, Craig Pittman’s “Oh, Florida!: How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country,” which she had Cheryl wrap and ship to a cousin in New Jersey.
Some time after 12:30 p.m., she walked next door to the SurfSide Diner. But the place was packed, not a table open, typical for a Sunday in season. In no mood to wait, she popped her head in the book store and told Cheryl she was just going to head home to read.
Through the window by the register, Cheryl watched Carol drop the books in the basket, unlock her bike from the street pole and adjust her helmet. As she pedaled away, Cheryl marveled at her friend: Two months shy of her 80th birthday and still a force on two wheels.
A block later, Carol leaned left onto Royal Palm Way and pedaled west on the south sidewalk, passing regal stone office buildings on her left and the rows of stately palm trees on her right that gave the street its name.
Just past the westward gaze of the “Cap” Dimick statue in the road’s manicured grass median, she started to slow down, coasting to a stop near the east end of the Royal Park Bridge.
As she’d done so many times over the years, she got off the bike and started pushing it west along the pedestrian sidewalk, which sloped with the arching bridge to a peak of some 20 feet above the base. At the other end, roughly 1,200 feet west, the wide sidewalks along Flagler Drive would make for an easy ride home.
It was 12:48 p.m., according to the timestamp on a video recorded by a police camera mounted on the bridge. The video captured Carol's final moments as she pushed her bike west along the south pedestrian walkway.
‘It was not an accident’
Surveillance video captures Carol Wright on the Royal Park Bridge minutes before her death on Feb. 6, 2022. (Courtesy attorney Lance Ivey)
WHAT IF SHE’D gotten a table at the diner?
What if she’d gabbed with Kravetz just a few minutes longer?
What if she’d just kept walking straight across the bridge instead of stopping several times, as the surveillance video showed, to yield to the cyclists and walkers passing her?
“Could she have walked a little faster? Could she have been held up at the bookstore for a few more minutes? Could she have gone somewhere else for lunch?’’ asked Bonnie Hill, Carol’s niece.
“Any of those would have changed the outcome and she would have died in her sleep 10 or 20 years from now.’’
Forget the what-ifs. Even more troubling for Carol's family are the basic questions framed in sobering logic.
How on earth could the drawbridge start rising when someone was still on it?
How could the bridgetender, in a booth with a clear view of the drawbridge 20 feet below, not see there was someone on the bridge?
Carol’s panicked screams for help as she clung to the railing? The blaring car horn at the base of the rising span? The frantic pounding on the door of the bridgetender tower by the passerby?
The bridgetender didn’t hear any of that?
A police investigation would provide troubling answers, exposing lies in the bridgetender’s version of the events leading to Carol’s death as well as a cover-up attempt by the tender and her supervisor.
“When we got more details we realized we needed to fight for Aunt Carol, who never, never would have wanted to die that way,’’ said Bonnie, whose cousin, Jill, filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of Carol's family against the company that employed the bridgetender.
“This was a wrongful death,’’ Bonnie said. “This was a violent death. It was not an accident.’’
'Give every opening your full undivided attention’
Royal Park Bridge circa 1911. (Courtesy of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County)
PEOPLE HAVE BEEN walking, riding bicycles and driving motor vehicles across the Royal Park Bridge for more than 100 years.
One of three drawbridges connecting West Palm Beach to the barrier island town of Palm Beach, it takes its name from the “Royal Park Addition,” a 136-acre subdivision at the east end of the bridge owned in the early 20th century by the town’s first mayor, Elisha Newton “Cap” Dimick.
Dimick, whose family settled in Palm Beach in the 1870s, went by “Cap” because of a fondness for wearing white caps. In 1911, he built a fixed two-lane wood trestle to bring customers to “the addition,” one of the island’s earliest patches of Old Florida wilderness tamed by developers. He charged a toll to cross it, a quarter per car and driver and a nickel for each passenger.
(At the time, it was the area’s second bridge, joining an existing span less than a mile to the north known today as the Flagler Memorial Bridge. A third bridge would be built in 1950 at Southern Boulevard.)
In 1919, Palm Beach County bought Dimick's bridge for $40,000, did away with the tolls and set out to build a replacement. Five years later, a rebuilt bridge opened with a span that swung out, like an opening door, instead of up. For the next 35 years, it carried “horseless carriages” and pedestrians between the two growing communities.
By the 1950s, the bridge was in need of facelift. A four-lane bridge with rising lift spans, built for about $1.5 million, opened to traffic in 1959 and served the two communities for another 40 years.
By the 1980s, there was talk about rebuilding Royal Park as a fixed span 65 feet high — high enough to avoid the need for a drawbridge. But that idea, pushed by state transportation planners, was ditched in 1988 after vehement opposition from West Palm Beach and Palm Beach leaders who feared a high bridge would be an eyesore.
In 1998, bridge inspectors discovered thumb-size insects called wood borers had eaten into the submerged 1924 pine support pilings. The Royal Park Bridge was rebuilt again, this time into the existing drawbridge that opened in 2004, the one Carol Wright would cross so many times on her bike. It cost $53.5 million, including $3 million for a Spanish-Moorish Mediterranean Revival design that pays homage to the 1924 bridge.
Among the features: a three-story bridgetender's house, with machinery and electrical equipment on the two lower levels. The top floor houses the bridgetender’s booth with consoles controlling the machinery below. The booth is surrounded by glass windows and covered by a wraparound balcony offering a 360-degree view of the traffic below on land and water.
The Royal Park Bridge in a recent photo. (Facebook)
The “middle bridge,” as locals know it, opens every 30 minutes on the hour and half hour as demanded by marine traffic on the Intracoastal Waterway. The task of controlling the drawbridge’s massive movable spans belongs to the bridgetenders employed by Florida Drawbridges Inc.
Based in Pompano Beach, the company operates 37 movable bridges from Broward to Indian River counties, performing more than 25,000 openings a month under a six-year $91.5 million contract with the Florida Department of Transportation.
The company offers paid training for bridgetenders. Candidates must be at least 18 years old, pass a drug test and be able to read and understand English, FDI’s website says.
In Florida, bridgetenders make an average of $30,000 a year, or less than $15 an hour, according to ziprecruiter.com. In 2020, FDI offered a starting salary of $10.50 an hour.
Among the messages and rules in the FDOT’s bridgetender manuals:
“The state has entrusted to your care thousands of lives and a valuable piece of machinery.’’
“Always watch for pedestrians and vehicles while opening the bridge. This bridge requires walking away from the console to check all blind spots.’’
”Give every opening your full undivided attention. … Do not talk, text or surf on any phone while operating the bridge.’’
Reading those rules for the first time invokes an almost incredulous reaction: Of course, bridgetenders should pay attention at all times and watch for pedestrians and not use smartphones while operating the drawbridge.
Those rules are no-brainers.
Until a day comes when they’re not.
'I was always the brat!'
The Wright sisters at The Stork Club with Ginger Rogers on Nov. 27, 1946: Cynthia, 7, (second from left in black dress) next to Carol, 4 (in white dress with horizontal stripes), who’s standing in front of Judy, 11 (back row wearing a black dress with white collar). (Contributed)
ON THE AFTERNOON before Thanksgiving 1946, Hollywood starlet Ginger Rogers hosted an ice cream social with a dozen children at the Stork Club, the former New York City speakeasy turned legendary nighttime playground for celebrities, gangsters and glitterati.
Rogers, an Oscar-winner six years earlier for her starring role in “Kitty Foyle,” was promoting the upcoming Christmas release of her latest movie, ‘’The Magnificent Doll.’’ Each kid at the social received a doll.
Among Rogers’ lucky guests were the three Wright sisters: Judith, 11; Cynthia, 7; and Carol, 4. The girls scored the invite thanks to their aunt Wanda, better known to tens of thousands of readers across the five boroughs as the movie critic Wanda Hale of the New York Daily News, the newspaper where their parents met. (In 1935, Hale founded the New York City Film Critics Circle, whose annual awards are part of the Oscar season run-up.)
Their father, Todd Wellington Wright, was a star reporter who covered the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, exposed political corruption and wrote a first-person account of living on the streets with the homeless during the Great Depression. He eventually moved his family to Miami in 1957 and retired in West Palm Beach where he contributed his final bylines to The Palm Beach Post.
Their mother, Miriam Lundy (Aunt Wanda’s sister), was an editor, columnist and president of the New York Newspaper Women’s Club, a progressive group at a time when men still dominated newsrooms. It wasn’t unusual to see Miriam mingling at club banquets and fundraisers with the likes of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and actress Joan Crawford.
Mom and dad instilled in their daughters a lifelong passion for reading. When Carol was born, her oldest sister, Judy, came up with her name, the same one she’d given to a favorite doll, after a character in a beloved book, “The Birds’ Christmas Carol.’’
“Books ran through her blood from the time she was little until the time she died,’’ said Jill Sanchez, Carol’s niece. “If it had a binding and pages, she read it.’’
At first, the family lived in Connecticut, where Carol was born, with mom and dad commuting to Manhattan for work. But during World War II, gas rationing forced a move to New York City. After the war, they moved again, this time 25 miles north to the village of Larchmont, N.Y.
The girls enjoyed a happy upbringing. Carol relished the perks of being the youngest. “‘I was always the brat,’ she would say,’’ her niece Bonnie recalled.
Eventually, the news ink in her parents’ veins rubbed off on Carol.
After graduating from the University of Miami in 1964, she went to work as a production assistant for WTVJ in Miami and WPEC in West Palm Beach. She moved to Los Angeles and worked for the cartoon production company Hanna-Barbera and the magazine Bon Appetit.
In the early 80s, she moved back to West Palm Beach to be closer to family. She got a job at the Palm Beach Daily News, writing about the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, socialite Roxanne Pulitzer’s divorce and accused murderer James Sullivan — scandal stories that clashed with the usual light content of the Shiny Sheet, as locals know the Daily News, and its popular photo spreads of the island’s elite at play.
“She kept saying she was trying to make it a real newspaper,’’ Bonnie recalled with a laugh.
She collected a few writing awards and left journalism in 2003 to work as a media liaison for the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser’s Office, a job recommended by a Kiwanis Club friend, Property Appraiser Gary Nikolits.
Carol was friends with many of the reporters who called Nikolits’ office, which gave her stock to badger them into writing the occasional puff piece. A favorite story she pitched was the $150,000 in college scholarships provided to local teens over the years from money raised every week by Property Appraiser’s Office employees on Dress Down Fridays.
When Nikolits retired in 2016, Carol decided it was time for her to quit, too. She was almost 74.
For her retirement date, she intentionally chose April Fool’s Day — “because she thought that was funny,’’ said Property Appraiser Dorothy Jacks, who worked closely with Carol as Nikolits’ long-time deputy.
“She was quirky and she was fun,’’ Jacks recalled. “She was very quick-witted and intelligent and she had a great laugh, one of those booming ‘HA!’ She was a good egg. She did a lot of good here.’’
She kept doing good in retirement, too, quietly working behind the scenes with Holy Ground PBC, a charity that helps expecting single mothers who are at-risk or homeless. She campaigned for Obama and Hillary.
“She was a really cool lady. She was an ardent feminist,’’ Bonnie said.
Carol was engaged three times but never married. Between her sisters, eight nieces and nephews and their children, she was never lonely, not even after her last dog, Chester, was put down in 2021.
At family gatherings, Aunt Carol stories became the stuff of legend: The time she interrupted Dan Marino at a Palm Beach luncheon so the legendary Dolphins quarterback could sign her napkin; her take-no-prisoners approach to Scrabble; her penchant for sending greeting cards (she once sent a get-well card to a niece’s sick dog); her signature good-byes to the children of her nieces and nephews: “I love you a thousand times.’’
For Christmas and birthdays, relatives often gave Carol the same can’t-miss present — gift certificates to Classic Bookshop.
After recovering from an illness that had kept her off her bike for a few months, she celebrated Christmas 2021 at her sister Judy’s house near Dreher Park in West Palm Beach.
Among the gifts she received, a decal that read: “My Bike Is My Therapist.”
“She was so happy in retirement,’’ said Jacks, who saw Carol for the last time on Flagler Drive one day in late 2021. “She was riding her bike. She looked 10 years younger. She just glowed.’’
Carol had started making plans for 2022, to celebrate her 80th birthday, to celebrate Bonnie’s 60th and to visit a cousin in New Jersey.
“I am so happy,’’ relatives remembered her saying as they sat around the Christmas tree. “I haven’t felt this great in years.’’
THE JOB APPLICATION included a basic question: Why do you want to work at Florida Drawbridges Inc.?
Artissua Paulk wrote a simple answer: “It would be a new experiment for me.”
When she applied to FDI in 2020, Tisha, as friends know her, was 42 years old and had worked a variety of jobs over the years — a home nursing aide, a janitor cleaning the Palm Beach County courthouse and Palm Beach State College and waiting tables at a restaurant off Jog Road called Patten’s Cafe.
She’d also had a few run-ins with law enforcement.
In March 2014, she was pulled over for a traffic stop by Riviera Beach police and arrested for possession of marijuana and cocaine, court records show. The charges were dropped by the state attorney.
About two months before that, she was arrested for simple battery for striking a boyfriend with a rope, according to a police report. Prosecutors were unable to contact the victim so the case was dropped.
In 2018, she received an animal welfare citation for failing to seek medical care for her dog, despite the animal's leg injury. The case is still open.
Paulk, who said on her application that she graduated from Forest Hill High School in 1997, has been divorced twice and has several children, according to court records.
When she applied to work at FDI, she seemed to be trying to get her life on track and to provide for her kids. It’s not clear what drew her to FDI, but one of the company’s employees at the time was Kathie Harper, a supervisor who also is the mother of Paulk's boyfriend, although a police report suggested Harper was Paulk’s "mother-in-law."
It was Harper who interviewed Paulk on Nov. 14, 2020, asking a series of standard questions. Paulk said her greatest accomplishments in life were becoming a mother, finishing school and “getting my CNA.’’ She listed her hobbies and pastimes as “Walk by the water.’’
When Harper asked her to describe an instance where she “had to think on your feet.” Paulk wrote, “When my patient stopped breathing and had to do CPR.’’
On her application, Paulk was asked “what aspects of your work give you the greatest satisfaction?” She wrote: “Making sure everyone gets to there (sic) destination safely.”
With glowing reviews from Harper and other training supervisors, Paulk was hired in late 2020. She started working at the Parker Bridge in North Palm Beach on Nov. 18, earning a starting salary of $10.50 an hour. About a year later, she was assigned to the Royal Park Bridge, where she worked eight-hour shifts four days on, four days off.
On Feb. 6, 2022, she arrived for her shift at 6:15 a.m. She was scheduled to go home at 2:15 p.m.
At 12:50 p.m., an approaching boat radioed a request to open the drawbridge.
The good Samaritan
IN THE PHOTOGRAPH, he wears a white chef's apron. In each gloved hand, prominently held for the camera, a large shellfish. On his face, a serious expression that belies the photo’s whimsical cutline:
“Diego is my giant live sea scallop whisperer.’’
Nearly three years before he encountered Carol Wright screaming for help as she clung the railing of a rising drawbridge, Diego Us Pu, 23, was an aspiring cook training at PB Catch. His mentor was Aaron Black, at the time the chef at the popular Palm Beach seafood restaurant, who posted the “scallop whisperer” photo on Instagram in early 2019.
“Diego’s a good kid,’’ Black said.
Born in Guatemala, Diego emigrated to the United States as a child and attended Forest Hill High School before finding his passion for preparing food in restaurant kitchens.
His social media posts include images of Led Zeppelin, Rush and other rock bands, but he took his cooking passion seriously.
He started as a teenage prep cook at PB Catch before taking his talents a mile south to Cafe Boulud, an upscale restaurant in the Brazilian Court hotel owned by celebrity chef Daniel Boulud.
“A hard worker and fairly serious about things,’’ Daniel Smith, general manager at PB Catch, said of Diego. “This was a person who had an objective and wanted to go for it, and he's just kept learning and learning.’’
He’s endured hardship, too. Several years ago, a fire destroyed his home, Black and Smith said. By early 2022, he found a new apartment just north of downtown West Palm Beach.
On Feb. 6, Diego was running late when he took off on his skateboard for his shift at Cafe Boulud.
He followed a familiar route south along the Flagler Drive sidewalk to the middle bridge where he planned to cross onto the island and ride two more blocks to the Brazilian Court.
Arriving near the west end of the Royal Park Bridge around 12:55 p.m, he put the skateboard in his hands and started walking up the eastbound rise. But before he reached the movable spans, the alarm bells rang and the crossgates dropped. His commute to work would have to wait until the drawbridge opened and closed.
About 30 yards ahead of Diego, Palm Beach Atlantic University student Annabelle Hulke was walking east across the drawbridge’s movable spans when the alarm bells sounded. She picked up her pace and hurried onto the fixed walkway leading to Palm Beach. But her immediate concern was for the woman she’d seen a few moments earlier.
Hulke had just exchanged hellos with Carol Wright as they passed each other from opposite directions near the seam of the two closed drawbridge spans. Carol was “very slowly” walking her bicycle toward the west, the student would tell police.
As soon as Hulke got past the east pedestrian gate, she turned around and saw that Carol was still inside the west pedestrian gate.
The young student kept watching to see if Carol made it safely across, but the east span of the bridge started to rise in tandem with the west span, blocking her view.
'A tragic irony'
RAISING THE DRAWBRIDGE spans on the Royal Park Bridge involves pressing five buttons in a sequence, with the bridgetender making sure the movable spans are clear of cars and pedestrians before the final four buttons are pressed.
The first button triggers the traffic lights on the bridge to change from green to red. The next buttons lower the gates across the traffic lanes and pedestrian walkways. Once the lights are red and the gates down, the final button activates the massive gears, pinions and machinery that raise the drawbridge.
Of paramount importance is the basic task of making sure there are no cars or pedestrians on the movable spans. The bridgetender booth, with expansive windows and an outdoor balcony offering an unobstructed 360-degree view, is designed to make that task as easy as possible. In addition, three cameras on the bridge relay images onto monitors inside the booth.
“The bridgetender is supposed to walk out onto the balcony three different times during the opening to ensure there are no cars or pedestrians on the bridge before they open it,’’ according to a summary of a statement FDI supervisor Kathie Harper gave West Palm Beach police.
“Harper said that if someone has gone past the gates after they were closed, the tender should open the gate and let them out and then check that the bridge is clear of vehicles and pedestrians before closing the gate again,’’ the police report said.
“The tender should not open the bridge while any vehicles or pedestrians are on the spans,’’ Harper told police.
The bridge tower is located on the south side of the bridge, just east of where the western movable span meets the fixed walkway.
Paulk started pushing the buttons to open the bridge at 1 p.m. on Feb. 6, triggering what an attorney for the family would describe as “a slow, mental and physical death sentence for Carol,” who was approaching the tower from the east on the pedestrian walkway when the sequence started.
Carol was 18 feet from the spot where the movable span meets the fixed walkway when the crossgates dropped in front of her.
"She was 18 feet away from being safely off the bridge and going home that day," said Lance Ivey, an attorney retained by Carol’s family for their civil lawsuit against FDI.
A review of the surveillance video, which starts at 12:48 p.m. when Carol enters the far east end of the bridge’s walkway on Palm Beach, shows her stopping a few times on her way west to allow other bicyclists and joggers to pass. Collectively, those stops kept Carol on the bridge for at least 10 seconds longer than if she’d continued walking — “a tragic irony,’’ Ivey said, considering how close she was to the fixed walkway when the spans started to rise.
“Ten seconds,’’ Ivey said, “is ample enough time for her to get 18 feet off the bridge and ride her bike home.’’
‘I could see the fear in her eyes’
Video of Royal Park Bridge, shown opening on Jan. 31, 2023, at the spot where Carol Wright fell to her death Feb. 6, 2022. (JOE CAPOZZI)
WHEN THEY OPEN, each of the drawbridge’s two spans move like seesaws. As the east end of the western span rises, its west end drops into the bridge’s machinery pit, creating a narrow 2-foot space between the west end of the rising, soon-to-be perpendicular span and the fixed walkway leading to West Palm Beach.
As the span rises, the pedestrian walkway, with railings on both sides, effectively turns into a steep cattle chute.
The shock Carol must have felt when the alarm bells rang and the pedestrian crossgates dropped in front of her, the panic she endured as the pavement under her feet started to tilt, still haunts her relatives.
“Help me! Help me! Help me!’’
Witnesses heard Carol scream at least three times as gravity slowly forced her down toward that narrow opening over the machinery pit. As she clinged to the rising railing, her bike slid down and disappeared into the pit.
Carol struggled to hold on for several minutes. At least two people witnessed the horrifying scene.
Brian Larosieri, the driver of the first eastbound car waiting behind the cross gates, laid on the horn to try to get the bridgetender’s attention.
Diego Us Pu, shocked at the sight of a screaming woman on the rising span just feet from him, ran along a fixed walkway to the tower and banged on the door, but no one answered, according to Ivey.
He ran back to Carol, who was losing her grip on the railing as the span got steeper and steeper. He crawled under the crossgate, moved to the edge of the opening and reached for Carol.
As the west end of the span continued to drop, it moved Carol closer to Diego. He was able to grab her arm.
“I could see the fear in her eyes,’’ Diego would tell Ivey.
But he had nowhere to brace himself, no way to prevent himself from falling with her. Carol “hung on to him at least a minute before she fell,’’ Ivey said.
At 1:04 p.m., Diego called 911.
911, where’s the location of your emergency?
“I'm here by the bridge.. She was in the middle of the bridge when the bridge is starting up. And I was like with my skateboard and I saw her, when I saw her she was straight up. I think she fell out. I don't know if she's still alive….’’
As he spoke to the operator, vehicular traffic resumed. Larosieri drove to the top of the bridge and rolled his window down to ask Diego about the woman, an exchange caught on the 911 call. Diego replied that she “fell from the bridge and he thought she was dead,’’ the police report said.
Larosieri drove onto Palm Beach, parked on a side street and walked back up the bridge to the bridgetender’s tower. He knocked on the door and used the call box to report that someone had fallen off the bridge. Around the same time, emergency dispatchers were also telephoning the bridgetender booth.
A few moments later, Paulk opened the door. In the distance, the sirens of approaching fire rescue trucks grew louder and louder.
‘Please don’t let it be her’
REPORTS ABOUT A woman falling to her death from the Royal Park Bridge led the local evening newscasts on Feb. 6, 2022, and got picked up by the national media. Since police offered scant details that first day, the initial reports did not mention the woman’s name or how she fell.
“I thought to myself, ‘How in the hell can someone fall from the bridge?’’’ Bonnie, Carol's niece, said, recalling her reaction when she read the news for the first time on her smartphone.
At no point Sunday night did Bonnie or her relatives raise the possibility that the woman who fell was their own Aunt Carol. They had no reason to.
“When I talked to her Sunday morning she said she was going out on her bike,’’ Judy, Carol’s sister, said. “She didn't tell me where she was going. I didn't ask.’’
On Hampton Road, Ron Taylor had a bad feeling when he saw on the evening news that someone fell from the Royal Park Bridge. He walked across the street and peeked inside the windows at Carol’s house but didn’t see Carol or her bike, which usually was propped next to the washer and dryer.
“Then on Monday, I went over again and looked inside and the bicycle wasn’t there,’’ he said.
He said he suspected the woman who fell from the bridge “was probably her,’’ but he held out hope that Carol would prove him wrong and show up later that day.
That Monday morning, Carol’s sister, Cynthia, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., tried calling Carol but found it strange when no one replied.
“I’ve tried to call Carol all day, both on her cell and her landline, and she doesn't answer,’’ Cynthia told Judy. She also mentioned the story she’d seen on TV about a woman falling from a bridge connecting West Palm Beach to Palm Beach.
Judy told Cynthia not to worry.
“I don't think she went over there because she hadn’t told me she was going to,’’ she said. “And sometimes she doesn't answer the phone.’’
After the two sisters hung up, Judy called Carol’s cell phone but got no answer. She got in the car and drove two miles north to Carol’s house.
She saw Wright’s car in the driveway next to the Sunday newspaper, still wrapped in plastic. She entered the screened porch and didn’t see Carol’s bike. She called out for her sister, knocked on the door, but got no reply.
“Something’s the matter,’’ she said on the phone to her daughter Bonnie, who jumped in her car and headed to Carol’s house.
Judy telephoned her niece, Jill Sanchez, and asked her to check emergency rooms.
On the way to Carol’s house, Bonnie called the West Palm Beach Police Department.
“My aunt, Carol Wright, is missing and we need to talk to someone,’’ Bonnie told the dispatcher. The dispatcher asked for a description of Carol and her address, then placed Bonnie on hold.
“I remember driving and being on hold with the police dispatcher and thinking, ‘Please don't let it be her, please don't let it be her, please don't let it be her,’ the whole way to Aunt Carol's house, because if you say it often enough it's not going to be her, right? That didn't work.’’
Unbeknownst to Judy and Bonnie, the detectives had been on their way to Judy’s house, to inform her about her youngest sister’s death. The detectives knew to go to Judy’s house because they found her address on the back of a business card that Carol, a freelance writer, had kept with her that day. The card was tucked inside a luggage tag that Carol, always thinking ahead on the chance she might have an accident, wore around her neck like a lanyard.
The dispatcher told the two officers that Judy and Bonnie were on their way to Carol’s house, then got back on the line with Bonnie and asked for her location.
“I said I was driving to Aunt Carol’s house. They said, ‘the detectives will meet you there.’’’
It was about 5:20 p.m. on Feb. 7, Bonnie recalled. “At that point, you kind of know,’’ she said, “but you're also not believing what's going on.’’
Det. Ivy Erhardt and an officer met Judy and Bonnie inside the screened porch of Carol’s home. Judy called her niece Jill and put Jill and her husband, Billy, on speaker phone so they could join the conversation with the police as they drove from their home in Hypoluxo.
Erhardt asked what they knew about Carol’s plans the previous day.
“She was probably riding her bike because it’s not here,’’ Bonnie replied.
The detective asked her to describe the bike.
“There’s a sticker on her bike that my brother just put on there at Christmas,’’ she said. As she started to describe the decal, Detective Erhardt spoke the same words with her:
My bike is my therapist.
“She’s finishing the sentence with me,’’ Bonnie said, “so we knew.’’
Texts, lies and videotape
Artissua Paulk at March 17, 2022, hearing. (WPTV screengrab)
DETECTIVES OFFERED FEW details to Carol’s grieving relatives that evening, just that there had been an accident at the bridge.
“Which was OK at the time,’’ Bonnie said. “We needed that.’’
But over the next two days, they would press Erhardt for more information. They would scour the local newspapers for details, a painful exercise they considered necessary — “kind of like a sore and you keep on poking the sore because you can feel it,’’ Bonnie said.
What they learned brought waves of anger and prompted them to contact a family friend, attorney Lance Ivey, a partner in the prominent West Palm Beach personal injury law firm Lytal, Reiter, Smith, Ivey & Fronrath.
On Feb. 14, eight days after Carol’s death, Carol's niece Jill and Jill's husband Billy joined Ivey at the foot of the Royal Park Bridge in West Palm Beach for a press conference. In front of television cameras, Ivey identified Carol as the woman who fell to her death from the bridge on Feb. 6.
He also pointed blame squarely at the bridgetender, whom he did not identify; police would do that a month later.
On March 17, Paulk was arrested at her Greenacres home on a charge of manslaughter by culpable negligence, referred to in layman’s terms as involuntary manslaughter. She was released from jail a day later after posting $20,000 bond.
Paulk did not have drugs in her system while operating the bridge, according to the results of a test FDI conducted the day of Carol’s death.
Police used surveillance video, bridgetender logs and cell phone records to build a case that Paulk’s negligence killed Carol and that the bridgetender conspired with her supervisor to cover it up, a scheme in which Paulk tried to place blame on Carol.
Particularly disturbing to Carol’s family was a series of text messages that day on Paulk’s cell phone, which police obtained through a search warrant and detailed in a probable cause affidavit.
At 12:52 p.m. — as Carol was pushing her bike along the bridge’s walkway — a photograph of a young girl was texted to Paulk’s iPhone from a number belonging to the young girl. The texted photograph of the girl is “most likely” Paulk’s daughter, the police report said.
“Looks like she had pink eye” — That text popped into Paulk’s cell phone at 1:02 p.m. on Feb. 6, roughly the same time Carol lost her grip and fell to her death. The text was sent by Harper, whose number was identified on Paulk’s cell phone as “mother in law,” according to the affidavit.
At 1:06 p.m. — about two minutes after Diego called 911 and roughly a minute before Larosieri picked up the callbox outside the tower to alert Paulk that someone had fallen from the bridge — Paulk texted Harper: “so does she have to go to the hospital.”
The affidavit paints a disturbing scenario: In the minutes leading up to and following Carol’s death, Paulk and Harper were exchanging texts about the health of Paulk’s daughter.
Other texts, sent later that afternoon, would show Harper directing Paulk to lie to investigators and destroy evidence of their text conversation.
“When they talk to you make dam (sic) sure you tell them you walked outside the balcony 3 diff times to make sure no one was past the gates n delete this msg after one time to make sure card stop 2d time after gates lower gates lowered ad 3rd time before you raised spans ok now delete this I know ur upset but u gotta tell them step by step how u do opening,’’ Harper wrote in a text to Paulk at 3:20 p.m.
Paulk replied: “I did.”
At 3:59 p.m., Harper sent this text: “You have to write out step by step what you did ok up time you were told someone fell.”
Those three texts were deleted, but police were able to recover them, according to the affidavit. They had been sent in the time between Harper’s statement to police and Paulk’s statement to police.
Other texts showed Paulk first accepting blame and then shifting blame to Carol.
“I’m here with the police I killed a lady on the bridge,” Paulk wrote in a text sent at 3:44 p.m. to a woman named Shakira, according to a police report.
Three days later, Paulk sent four texts about the bridge incident to another number identified on her phone as “Punkass Jit.” Two texts show Paulk trying to place blame on Wright.
“I didn't do it she went under the gate.”
“She dropped her phone went for it fell in.”
What Paulk wasn't aware of when she sent those texts was the fact that Carol brought only her ATM card with her that day and left her wallet and cell phone at home.
West Palm Beach police photo shows investigators on the Royal Park Bridge on Feb. 6, 2022.
Investigators also found holes in Paulk’s initial statement to the police. She said she walked onto the balcony during each of her five bridge openings that day. She said she recorded the openings on a log next to the consoles.
But only four openings were recorded on the log, police said. And detectives said surveillance video would later show the bridge opening a total of six times during Paulk’s shift.
The video also showed the balcony door opening, and someone coming outside to walk around, during just three openings: at 8:08 a.m., 8:59 a.m. and 9:03 a.m.
“The door does not open and there is no movement on the balcony at any other time during Paulk’s shift,’’ the police report says.
Paulk also told police she’d made audible announcements, via a loudspeaker outside the booth, warning pedestrians and motorists the drawbridge was about to rise. That’s not true, according to Hulke, the student who said hello to Carol as they passed each other on the bridge.
“Hulke said she frequently walks across the bridge and she has heard audible announcements in the past but she did not hear any audible announcement on the day of this incident,’’ according to the probable cause affidavit.
On March 22 — nearly three weeks after her arrest for involuntary manslaughter — Paulk was fired by Florida Drawbridges Inc. for violating company safe operating procedures.
Harper, who has not been arrested, was fired for violating the company's code of ethics and document retention policy.
'She killed two people that day'
Carol Wright and her dog Chester in 2020. (Contributed)
WHEN CAROL FELL, witnesses assumed she landed in the water. But within minutes after arriving on scene at 1:12 p.m., West Palm Beach fire rescue crews located her body at the bottom of the concrete containment pit that houses the bridge’s machinery, 41 feet below the roadway.
A lieutenant climbed down a ladder into the pit to reach Carol and pronounced her dead at 1:20 p.m. Her bike helmet was still strapped to her head. One of her shoes was missing.
Her bicycle was found in the machinery pit, on a level just above her body. Both books Carol had purchased were recovered, with her debit card and receipt tucked in the pages of one like a book mark.
The medical examiner would determine she died from blunt force trauma to her head and torso.
When detectives first met with Carol’s relatives the following evening, they asked Judy and Bonnie a gut-wrenching question: Could they officially identify Carol by looking at a photograph of her face, taken after her body was found?
“They had cleaned her up,’’ Bonnie said, “but it wasn't Aunt Carol. It wasn’t that vibrant happy woman that we knew.’’
What’s not listed in any police or medical reports are the emotional trauma and psychological scars that haunt members of Carol’s family.
Bonnie, Carol’s niece, said she has sought counseling for depression.
In an interview in May, Judy said she’d had trouble sleeping for the first few months after Carol died, jolted awake almost every night by nightmares of her sister’s final moments.
“To realize how scared she must have been,’’ she said.
Bonnie finished her mother’s sentence: “That's what haunts us.’’
“It's only been recently that I haven't woken up thinking about that,’’ Judy said. “I was not sleeping well for a while. I still am not eating right.’’
Sitting in the living room at Judy’s house, mother and daughter took turns answering questions about how they felt about the bridgetender, who was facing up to 15 years in prison.
Bonnie: “I don’t know if stupidity should put you in prison.’’
Judy: “It’s more than stupidity. It’s laziness.’’
Bonnie: “I don’t think she set out that morning to kill my Aunt Carol, however, that’s what she ended up doing with her negligence, and then lying about it. I don't hate her. I am extremely angry at her and I feel sorry for her.’’
Judy shot a look at her daughter.
“I do feel sorry for her, mom,’’ Bonnie continued, “because her life ended the same day as my Aunt Carol's life.’’
“Yeah,’’ Judy said, “but it was her fault.’’
“It was,’’ Bonnie said. “She killed two people that day because she is never going to be the same again.’’
‘Something truly preventable’
Bridgetenders at Florida Drawbridges Inc. are required to watch this video, part of a settlement to a civil suit filed by Carol Wright's family.
CAROL’S FAMILY FILED a civil lawsuit against Florida Drawbridges Inc. and Paulk on April 8.
“It's not the money we want. It's change,’’ her sister Judy said in May.
A settlement was reached in July. The company agreed to pay $8.277 million and launch a series of reforms.
Some of the money created the Carol Easterling Wright Scholarship at the University of Miami, her alma mater, providing $30,000 to the school each year for 30 years. The $900,000 will go to “deserving students so that they may obtain an education that might not otherwise be available,’’ Ivey said at a press conference announcing the settlement.
The safety reforms include: Conducting criminal background checks on all bridgetenders, recertification training for bridgetenders and rotating the supervisors from other areas to conduct quality-assurance audits — "so you don’t run into a situation where we have a bridgetender who is being audited or supervised by her mother-in-law,’’ Ivey said.
FDI also agreed to require their bridgetenders to watch a 23-minute video about Carol’s life and death. In the video, several of Carol’s relatives and friends struggle to hold back tears as they describe how their lives have been shattered by her death.
Carol’s family turned down larger offers of money and rejected any notion of keeping the settlement confidential. Their goal is to save lives — to prevent someone else from dying the way Carol did — by exposing flaws and forcing change.
“You wouldn’t need any changes if you just make sure your people are properly trained, properly compensated. Give them full-time wages, full-time benefits and treat them with the respect they deserve,’’ Ivey said.
“This is not just some position where you hire somebody at $11 an hour, give them five hours of training and throw them the keys to a $100 million bridge. You need to really respect the position and treat these people accordingly. Our lives are in their hands every day.’’
But before the settlement was reached, Carol’s death was already raising awareness about other close calls on drawbridges, one involving a motorist, another a bicyclist.
The Florida Department of Transportation is testing a high-tech safety system with lasers that, like a garage-door opener, would prevent a bridge from opening if a person is detected on the spans. The agency started working on that system before Carol died.
While Carol’s family would welcome the addition of the safety system, they say she would still be alive today if the bridgetender had followed the protocols that were in place on Feb. 6, 2022.
“That's the shock and disbelief that this even happened, something that was truly preventable,’’ Jill Sanchez said.
The Royal Park Bridge is one of 20 drawbridges, 12 owned by the state and eight by the county, crossing the Intracoastal Waterway in Palm Beach County.
“I still think about that bridge and that day. It was a Sunday, an absolutely gorgeous day in the mid-70s. So many people were on the bridge that day and they got so lucky with only one death,’’ Jill said.
“If that would have been a mother with a stroller who panicked and couldn't figure things out, either, like aunt Carol, who knows what would have happened. Carol's death was horrifying, but more horrifying to me is how many other people it might have happened to.’’
‘Quickest route to an end my family wanted’
CAROL’S RELATIVES OFTEN think about Diego Us Pu, the good Samaritan who tried to save Carol. They want to meet him.
“I would like to be able to comfort him, just to thank him for trying and say I'm glad he was there,’’ Bonnie said.
So far, the family said, their efforts to reach Diego, through police and their attorney, have not been successful.
“It seems like he does not want contact with the family,’’ Bonnie said, “but the family wishes they could at least thank him and tell him we are so grateful that he tried and had contact with her at the end.’’
Diego has declined interview requests. Some of his friends in the restaurant business said he was traumatized by the incident and just wants to move on with his life. They said he recently became a father.
For a while, Carol’s family wondered if they might get a chance to thank him in person when Paulk’s case went to trial. But there won’t be a trial.
In what may seem like an extraordinary act of compassion, Carol’s relatives agreed to a settlement that gives Paulk, a single mother, a chance to stay out of prison and care for her children.
On Jan. 10, Paulk stood before Palm Beach Circuit Judge Scott Suskauer and changed her plea to guilty. She was sentenced to eight years of probation and 18 months of house arrest. She was given credit for two nights in the county jail after her arrest.
While under house arrest, she will wear an ankle monitor but she will be allowed to go to work and to attend school events involving her children.
She is prohibited from working any job involving heavy machinery. She must complete 200 hours of community service and write a letter of apology to each of Wright’s two sisters.
Addressing Paulk from the bench, Suskauer warned her that she will go to prison if she violates her probation.
“Most people for a variety of reasons are not responsible enough to get through probation. Please don't be one of those people, all right?’’ Suskauer told her.
Paulk, whose tiny 5-foot frame seemed to disappear inside the baggy red jacket she wore over a sweater with a hoodie that fell on her back, replied: “Yes, sir.’’
Jill Sanchez, Carol’s niece, was the only relative who attended the hearing. She sat with a State Attorney’s Office advocate on a bench in a row in front of and at the opposite end of where Paulk’s mother and two friends sat. Five other relatives of Carol’s attended via Zoom.
The judge asked Jill if she’d like to offer any remarks to the court. But Jill, who from a distance was face to face with the person responsible for Carol’s death, declined.
“The family wanted accountability while still having compassion,’’ Assistant State Attorney Chrichet Mixon said after the hearing, referring to Paulk’s minor children. “The family took into consideration a lot of things. This is what they wanted.’’
Paulk, who was represented in court by a public defender, would not comment as she walked out of the courthouse. At one point a friend of hers, noticing a reporter with a camera, walked behind Paulk and pulled her hoodie over her head.
The settlement means Carol’s relatives, including her two elderly sisters, won’t have to sit through a trial that would have subjected them to the grisly evidence and disturbing testimony about her violent death.
Bonnie said her 87-year-old mother “seems more fragile than she used to be. I have a very hard time imagining her having to sit for hours in a courtroom.’’
Another factor in the family’s decision to settle: The case was unique because there apparently is no legal precedent in South Florida for a bridgetender facing an involuntary manslaughter charge in the death of a pedestrian. While a conviction and prison sentence may have seemed like a slam-dunk to some observers, that outcome was not guaranteed.
“It was the quickest route to an end that my family wanted,’’ Jill said of the criminal settlement. “Our goal for the whole thing, and I can’t say it enough, is that it doesn't happen again.’’
The end of the criminal trial also means the belongings Carol had with her the day she died will soon no longer be kept evidence.
Carol’s bicycle, the trusty blue beach cruiser with the “My Bike Is My Therapist” decal, will be donated to charity, her family said.
Cove in Ocean Ridge Natural Area where Carol Wright's family spread her ashes. (Joe Capozzi)
ON A SUNNY Saturday in April, a few days after what would have been Carol’s 80th birthday, nearly 100 relatives and friends gathered at Jill and Billy Sanchez’s home in Hypoluxo for a memorial service. It was less than three months since Carol died and emotions were still raw.
Over tears and laughter, visitors exchanged their favorite Carol stories while a montage of photographs from Carol’s life, beamed from a video player, danced across a living room wall.
The Rev. Roger Richardson offered an invocation and read excerpts from John Greenleaf Whittier’s “The Eternal Goodness,’’ a poem he chose because it exemplified Wright’s journey in life.
He finished by invoking Carol’s final moments, how “her earthly end was near but her spirit was caught by God. He whispered in her ear, ‘Your work here is done and I got ya' as he caught her in his arms and carried her away into His kingdom, a place where there was no more harm, hurt, illness, or tears.’’
In May, the West Palm Beach house that Carol bought in 1985 was sold to a new owner. Ron Taylor, the “Mayor of Hampton Road,” said he has heard a teacher lives there today. He thinks Carol would approve.
In July, a boat carrying Carol’s sisters and relatives cruised down the Intracoastal Waterway from Hypoluxo in search of an appropriate final resting place for Carol’s ashes.
“Let me know if you want to stop anywhere,’’ the boat’s pilot, Billy Sanchez, Cynthia’s son-in-law, told the sisters.