Artissua Lafay Paulk: Florida bridge tender charged with MANSLAUGHTER after woman's deadly fall
A Florida bridgetender was charged with manslaughter when it was reported that she raised a drawbridge linking Palm Beach and Florida before a 79-year-old grandmother riding her bicycle could reach the other side. Artissua Lafay Paulk, 43, was detained at her house on Thursday in connection with the death of Carol Wright, 79. According to Fox 13, her bond is set at $20,000. She also received a court-imposed no-contact order on Friday, March 18.
On February 6, when the bicyclist walked across the Royal Park Bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, Paulk allegedly opened the bridge, forcing Wright to fall 60 feet to her death. Around 1 p.m., the older woman was walking her bike from Palm Beach to West Palm Beach and was within 10 feet of reaching the safety of the traffic-stopping barrier arm when the drawbridge began to rise, according to authorities.
Witnesses rushed to Wright's rescue and attempted to pull her to safety but couldn't grab on to her for long. She fell through the gap created by the rising bridge and the main highway, desperately clinging to the concrete foundation of the 1,238-foot span across the Intercoastal Waterway, before dropping more than five floors to the concrete base.
“The woman tried to hang on. There was a bystander nearby who tried to help her, but tragically she fell five or six stories below where she died landing on concrete,” West Palm Beach police spokesperson Mike Jachles informed.
A report issued by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) stated Paulk said she checked many times but did not see Wright before opening the span that afternoon.
The tender must get several visual confirmations that the span is clear of vehicles and people before lifting the drawbridge, which the employee stated she did.
According to the Palm Beach Post, Paulk told investigators that she walked out on the balcony before and after putting on the red lights and lowering the gates to stop traffic, made two loudspeaker announcements, and finally stepped outside three times to make sure no one was on the bridge, and also that she had raised the bridge five times throughout the day. But surveillance video showed the bridge was raised six times, while the bridge log only showed four, meaning there were instances the bridge was raised, but not logged, WPEC reported.
After being taken to police headquarters, she was interrogated by investigators again. She was subsequently brought to jail and charged with one count of criminal negligence manslaughter.
The West Palm Beach police investigation will focus on whether the bridge tender violated safety protocols by failing to ensure that no one was on the bridge before raising it, or whether the bicyclist disregarded warning signals and walked across the span after the crossing arms had already been lowered. The bridge has bells and whistles to warn cars and pedestrians when the drawbridge is being raised.
However, according to attorney Lance C. Ivey, who is representing the dead woman's family, surveillance film will demonstrate that Paulk's claim is untrue. The video has not been made public by the police.
“I believe that when we get the video evidence of this incident, it will reveal unequivocally that the bridge tender's statement doesn't align with the true facts,” Ivey informed WPTV.
“There are a number of different camera angles from different sources that were taken into account for evidence and review to corroborate the witnesses' statements,” police said to WRAL.
Text messages released after arrest
A bridge tender, Paulk, is also accused of lying to police after text messages revealed she was instructed on what to say to investigators. Police told WPTV their investigation showed Paulk lied to them when she had said she went outside to visually inspect for cars and pedestrians before raising the bridge. Text messages also showed Paulk’s messaged her supervisor, Kathie Harper, soon after the incident.
Harper, who also happens to be Paulk's mother-in-law, encouraged her to lie. “When they talk to you, make dam sure you tell them you walked outside the balcony 3 diff times to make sure no one was past gates n delete this msg” Harper texted on February 6, the date of Wright's death. She also allegedly informed Harper that she lied to the cops before deleting the texts, according to Fox 13.
Police paperwork also shows Paulk texted someone, “I’m here with police I killed a lady on the bridge.”
Investigators also said Paulk tried to blame the victim. In a text message, Paulk claimed Wright went under the gate to retrieve her cellphone and fell after trying to pick it back up. West Palm Beach police spokesman Mike Jachles said video evidence did not support Paulk's statements. "There are a number of different camera angles from different sources that were taken into account for evidence and reviewed to corroborate the witnesses' statements," Jachles said.
Police said they did determine that the bridge tender was not speaking on her cellphone at the time of the accident, and there were no drugs detected in her system.