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Police: Bridge tender didn't tell the truth, supervisor texted what to tell police

WPEC West Palm Beach logo WPEC West Palm Beach 3/21/2022 Lenny Cohen

Authorities say the drawbridge tender who was working when 79-year-old Carol Wright fell to her death didn't tell the truth about what happened.

West Palm Beach police say they got the call on Feb. 6 that a woman who was crossing the bridge with her bicycle had fallen from the bridge as it was opening.

Artissua Lafaye Paulk was arrested Thursday and charged with one count of manslaughter by culpable negligence.

Friday, she made her first court appearance and the judge set bond at $20,000.

On the arrest report, police wrote, "The town of Palm Beach Police Department has cameras that provide a view of the bridge. Video from these cameras was reviewed which showed the following:"

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Caption: Drawbridge tender Artissua Lafay Paulk once faced a drug-related felony, reports Andrew Lofholm, March 18, 2022. (WPEC)

That video showed the bridge opened six times during Paulk’s shift: 8:59  a.m., 9:32 a.m., 10:34 a.m., 11:06 a.m., 12:01 p.m., and 1 p.m. Two of them, the 10:34 and the 12:01, were not on the log that she completed.

They said the video showed the door to the bridge tender’s balcony opened and someone came out and walked around, three times during Paulk’s shift. Those times were 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 on 2/6/22," according to the report. That includes the time Wright fell.

Caption: Artissua Lafay Paulk made her first appearance in court on Friday, March 18, 2022. (WPEC)

Authorities searched her phone on Feb. 18 and found there were several incoming and outgoing instant messages on her phone between 12:52 p.m., which was approximately seven minutes before the bridge opening procedure began, and 4:26 p.m., just before she gave a statement to police.

Police say most of those texts were with her supervisor. When she received a 3:20 p.m. message, it was her supervisor writing, “When they talk to you make dam sure you tell them you walked on balcony 3 diff times to make sure no one was past dates (gates) n delete this msg after one time to make sure card stop 2nd time after gates lowered and 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 [sic].” The message was deleted at 3:21 p.m.

Another message police quoted was from the supervisor to Paulk at 3:59 p.m.: "You have to write out step by step what you did ok up till time you were told someone fell" That message was also deleted.

Police wrote, “There were no other messages on 2/6/22 that make any mention of the incident on the bridge. The 3 messages between Paulk and [her supervisor] that were deleted were during the time frame between [the supervisor]’s statement and Paulk's statement.”

The supervisor is not facing any criminal charges.

Three days later, “On 2/9/22 between 1:01 p.m. and 1:06 p.m. there were 4 outgoing messages that mention the incident on bridge. The messages were as follows:

  • “‘Hey nobody told you I was in jail I know you see that thing with the bridge’
  • “‘I opened the bridge lady fell in and died’
  • “‘I didn't do it she went under the gate’
  • “’She dropped her phone went for it fell in’
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Police spoke to two witnesses on the day of the tragedy.

They said one told them, “He was riding his skateboard. He said the gate that blocks the sidewalk was closed, and the bridge was going up. Ms. Wright was yelling for help and hanging on to the railing as the bridge continued to open. [He] grabbed Ms. Wright’s arm to try to keep her from falling but he had nowhere to brace himself and she was too heavy for him to hold so he had to let her go to keep himself from falling into the opening in the bridge. After Wright fell, [he] called 911 and waited for the police and medics to arrive.”

The second witness said he was driving east, onto the west side of the bridge, according to the report. He saw “the drawbridge signal was red, the bell was ringing, and the traffic gate was going down. He was the first car at the traffic light in the inside eastbound lane. He saw right on the south sidewalk of the bridge inside the west pedestrian gate. As the bridge started to open, Ms. Wright was still on the span and he heard her yell ‘help’ three times. Ms. Wright then slid down the bridge and out of his view. [He] honked his car horn to get the bridge tender’s attention, but the bridge continued to open. After [he] saw Ms. Wright slide down the open span, the bridge closed, the gates opened, and the light turned green. He drove to the top of the bridge where he briefly spoke to [the first witness] who said Ms. Wright fell from the bridge and he thought she was dead. [This witness] drove east off the bridge, parked his car, and walked back to the top where he knocked on the door to the bridge tender tower and used the call box to notify the bridge tender that Ms. Wright had fallen. The bridge tender came out of the tower approximately 30 or 45 seconds before the medics arrived. He could not recall hearing any verbal announcement before the bridge opened or if bridge tender was ever outside on the balcony.”

Four days later, police said a third witness told them, “She had been on the bridge on the day of the incident and had seen Ms. Wright walking across the bridge. ... She 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.”

Police said Paulk, the bridge tender, worked for Florida Drawbridge Inc, which operates and maintains the bridge.

According to the report, her supervisor told them “the tender should come out onto the balcony 3 different times during the opening procedure to ensure there are no vehicles or pedestrians on the bridge before they open it. [Supervisor] said that if someone had gone past the gates after they were closed, the tender should open the gates and let them out and then check that the bridge is clear of vehicles and pedestrians before closing the gates again. The tender should not open the bridge while any vehicles or pedestrians are on the spans.”

Police said about Paulk, “She has worked for Florida Drawbridge, Incorporated for just over a year and has been assigned to this bridge for the past 2 months. She works 8 hour shifts on a rotation of 4 days on and 4 days off. Her shift today began at 6:15 a.m. and was scheduled to end at 2:15 p.m. Paulk stated this bridge opens on the hour and half hour if requested by a boat. The bridge can be opened off schedule if needed.”

Then the report described what police said Paulk told them about Feb. 6. "Paulk got a call from a boat requesting an opening at 1:00 p.m. Paulk made a verbal announcement on a loudspeaker on the bridge for vehicles and pedestrians, and another announcement over the radio for boats before she began the opening. She turned the traffic lights red and went outside onto the balcony to make sure all the traffic had stopped and there were no pedestrians on the bridge. She then closed the traffic gates at which time she saw a male running from west to east across the bridge on the south sidewalk. She saw this male in the mirror and on the cameras which only provide a view of stationary portion of the bridge and not the movable spans. Paulk walked out onto the balcony and watched as the male cleared the spans and was passed the east pedestrian gate. Paulk said she looked back to the west to make sure no one else was on the bridge and when she did not see anyone, she went back inside and closed the pedestrian gates. Paulk then went back out to the balcony and checked again for any pedestrians or vehicles on the spans. She stated she did not see any people or any bicycles inside the gates, and she then made a second verbal announcement on the loudspeaker for vehicles and pedestrians that the bridge was going to open, and she opened the bridge.”

The report continued. “After the boats passed the bridge during the 1:00 p.m. opening, Paulk made a 3rd verbal announcement on the loudspeaker that the bridge was going to close and then closed the bridge and opened all the gates. About 10 minutes after the bridge closed, a male, identified as [the second witness] knocked on the door to the tower and told her someone fell from the bridge span when it was open. Paulk went back into the bridge house and reopened the bridge. She said she never saw the individual who fell from the bridge. Paulk said she had 5 openings today which she documented on a written log. Paulk said operating the bridge is easy but it requires ‘a lot of looking’ because there is no sensor or warning that tells her if someone is on the bridge spans. Paulk denied being on the house phone or her cellphone during the 1:00 p.m. opening and said the television inside the bridge house was off during all her openings today. Paulk said she was not distracted in any way during any of the openings she did today.” 

Then, the arrest report describes the bridge tower. “There is a balcony that goes all the way around the tower and allows the bridge tenders the ability to walk outside and visually inspect the bridge before, during and after each opening. During the 1:00 p.m. opening the weather was clear and there were no obstructions to Paulk's view.”

Inside, “There was a log on a countertop next to the operating console inside the bridge house. This log is to document all bridge openings. Paulk had logged 4 openings on this log for 2/6/22 even though she stated she did 5 openings. Surveillance video would later show the bridge open total of 6 times during Paulk's shift.”

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Thursday, CBS12 News obtained Paulk's handwritten report, submitted to the Florida Department of Transportation, about the moments before and after Wright fell to her death.

Paulk wrote that she performed the proper safety checks before raising the bridge, including physically walking around the control tower twice to look for people, and making two announcements on speakers near the road.

"I walked out on balcony to see roadway for people walking," she wrote. "I went back and turn[ed] my lights to red. I then walked back out on balcony to see that all cars had stopped and no one was on bridge."

She told investigators there was a man running across the bridge and she made an announcement on the roadside speakers that the bridge would be going up, and lowered all the gates.

"I got all gates down I walked out on balcony to look to see that I had no one on bridge I pulled locks, walked back out on balcony, no one was on bridge," Paulk stated.

The tender said she made a second announcement and looked again and then started raising the bridge.

She said once the boat had passed through, she made an announcement that she was lowering the bridge.

Paulk then said a man began banging on the bridge house door saying a woman had fallen from the bridge.

Detectives did determine Paulk was not speaking on her cellphone at the time, and a drug test conducted that day found she did not have drugs in her system while operating the bridge.

In an interview Thursday, before Paulk's arrest, Wright's family's lawyer Lance Ivey disputed Paulk's claim she followed safety protocols and he said he believes more evidence will show Wright's death was preventable.

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"We look forward to getting the video evidence," Ivey said, regarding surveillance camera footage now out that he believed would show Paulk manning the bridge in the moments before and after Wright's death. "This seven-minute mental and physical suffering [Wright] went through, the true facts are going to be revealed."

Ivey said he and his clients still plan to file a civil lawsuit.

Wright fell 41 feet from the roadway onto the concrete containment pit of the bridge. Her bicycle was located inside the containment pit on the level above her.

Police wrote that according to the autopsy, “The cause of death was listed as blunt force trauma to the head and torso. The death of Carol wright was ruled accidental.”

Police wrote for their conclusion:

“Based on the above investigation, video evidence contradicts Artissua Paulk’s statement that she walked out onto the balcony and visually checked the bridge for vehicles or pedestrians prior to opening the bridge. Artissua Paulk’s actions showed reckless disregard of human life and the safety of a person, specifically Carol Wright, who was exposed to its dangerous effects which resulted in Carol Wright's death. Artissua Paulk consciously followed a course of conduct that she must have known or reasonably should have known was likely to cause death or great bodily injury. Artissua Paulk did, by her own act and with culpable negligence, kill Carol Wright by opening the Royal Park Bridge while Carol Wright was still on the bridge spans and without lawful justification and under circumstances not constituting excusable homicide or murder.”

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Detectives arrested Paulk, 43, at roughly noon Thursday at her home in Greenacres, with help from the U. S. Marshals Service.

As of Friday morning, Paulk was still in the Palm Beach County Jail and had not bonded out.

The Royal Park Bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway connects West Palm Beach to Palm Beach. Carol Wright was walking her bicycle westbound across the bridge, after going to a bookstore in Palm Beach.

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