A Florida woman was fired from her job as a bridge tender after authorities deemed her criminally responsible for the February death of a 79-year-old woman. Her supervisor, who happened to be her boyfriend’s mother, was also relieved of her position on Tuesday, March 22, because both women violated the company’s safe operations procedures.
After being arrested and charged with one count of manslaughter by culpable negligence in the death of Carol Wright on Thursday, March 17, Artissua Lafay Paulk, 43, received a written statement from her employers letting her know she was no longer employed by Florida Drawbridges, Inc.
Officials have gathered evidence pointing to Paulk being responsible for the drawbridge unexpectedly rising on Sunday, Feb. 6, which caused Wright to fall from the Royal Park Bridge in West Park Beach to her death.
An investigation completed by the West Palm Beach Police department, FOX 13 reports, discovered Paulk lied to police initially about the circumstances surrounding Wright’s death, locating surveillance video and deleted text messages between the woman and her supervisor Kathy Harper regarding how to cover up her role in the senior citizen’s untimely demise.
Wright’s family has secured legal representation to seek justice on behalf of the deceased grandmother.
Attorney Lance Ivey names Paulk as the sole person culpable for Wright’s death.
He says the woman made a trip to a Palm Beach bookstore and upon her return, decided she would take the bridge back to her home. “She legally and lawfully gets on the bridge. And without any expectation, unbeknownst to her, the bridge tender pushes the button that would ultimately turn out to be a slow, mental, and physical death sentence for Carol.”
When Paulk allegedly pressed the button for the drawbridge to go up, Wright was already 10 feet from the barrier arms, a police report states, and she was unable to make a successful retreat.
West Palm Beach police spokesman Mike Jachles explained to the Palm Beach Post, she was walking her bike from east to west and had almost reached the furthest point of the moveable span when it went up.”
He later said, “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.
“Despite those efforts, the woman was not able to hold on and she fell to the concrete landing below to her death,” Jachles said. “From where the victim was to where she landed was approximately five to six stories or 50 to 60 feet.”
The incident happened around 1 p.m. and Fire Rescue’s Technical Rescue Team closed down the bridge for almost six hours as rescue professionals retrieved Wright’s body.
As the team worked to find the woman’s remains, the two women were sending text messages to each other about how to frame Paulk’s hand in the incident. An affidavit prepared by detectives noted Harper told Paulk in the texts to lie during her interview with law enforcement about checking the bridge house balcony for pedestrians.
When Paulk was interviewed, she did as she was instructed by her boyfriend’s mother and lied to officers. She fabricated a story saying she walked onto the balcony to do a visual check of the bridge. The woman said she checked for vehicles or pedestrians before she opened the bridge.
The police took her statement and described her disposition as “distraught” during the questioning.
“That bridge tender has certain safety protocols to follow, specific safety protocols,” Jachles explained, showing how much responsibility the woman had in her job capacity. “That includes lowering of the gates for the vehicles, lowering of the gates for the pedestrians, and making several visual confirmations that there is nobody at either of the spans or past those gates.”
Jachles said footage viewed by officers did not reconcile with Paulk’s initial statement and made them question her story.
“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,” he said.
Paulk did not hand over her cell phone to the investigators until two weeks after Wright’s death. This is when the officers discovered the plan to cover up Paulk’s role in the incident.
Here are the messages law enforcement was able to retrieve from the phone, despite Paulk trying to delete them, and submitted in the arrest affidavit in Palm Beach County court records.
“3:20 p.m. from supervisor to Paulk: When they talk to you make [expletive] sure you tell them you walked outside on balcony 3 diff times to make sure no one was past gates n delete this msg after one time to make sure card [sic] 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” – this message was deleted“
“3:20 p.m. Paulk to supervisor: “I did” – this message was deleted“
“3:59 p.m. from supervisor to Paulk: “You have to write out step by step what you did ok up till time you were told someone fell” – this message was deleted“
Between the messages to Harper, at 3:44 p.m., Paulk sent correspondence to a friend confessing to the crime, “I’m here with the police I killed a lady on the bridge.”
Upon reviewing the affidavit findings and the arrest, Florida Drawbridges, Inc. decided to fire both women. Paulk worked for the company for one year, spending only two months on the bridge assignment. No charges have been announced for her supervisor.
Should Paulk be convicted of the crime, she faces a maximum of 15 years in prison.