Behind Woman’s Suicide in Flagler Beach, Despair and a Last Evening With Caring Strangers
FlaglerLive | February 2, 2017
She was 68 years old, she had a Master’s degree in education from Purdue University, where she had taught, she had two sons, one of whom had died, she was a breast-cancer survivor, had lived in Palm Coast with her husband of 46 years since 2008, she loved the arts, she played bridge, and she had lost heart for life. When Flagler Beach police found Janis Washburn’s body in the waters of the Intracoastal Waterway nine days ago, near the docks of Hidden Treasure restaurant, they did not know her identity or the circumstances of her death, but quickly surmised that there’d been no foul play—code for suicide.
Their early observations were confirmed. Washburn had jumped off the Flagler Beach bridge sometime the night before, probably around midnight: she was last seen leaving Poor Walt’s, the bar on Moody Boulevard in Flagler Beach, just before 11:30 p.m. the night of Jan. 23, after spending three hours with a group of strangers who took her in and tried to make her feel better, because they’d noticed she’d been very despondent at the bar. She left her car at the bar after walking out. It would have taken less than half an hour to walk to the top of the bridge. An autopsy would determine that she had died by drowning, after jumping from the bridge.
Suicide is not rare. It is a leading cause of death—it is three times more prevalent than homicide—and was called a “serious public health problem” by the Surgeon General in a 1999 “Call To Action to Prevent Suicide.” Under-reporting of the problem, however, tends to keep its frequency and mental health implications in the shadows, amplifying the problem by omission. The Surgeon General’s recommendations included enhanced services and suicide-prevention programs—which are almost absent in Flagler County—but also more awareness of suicide as a public health problem, awareness being a step toward prevention. In Flagler, suicide has been on a steep rise for the past several years—from 11 in 2011 to 17 the following year, then 20, then 26, then 19.
Adding to the problem is the rarity of investigations behind suicides: once a death is ruled as such, the life that preceded it, even leading up to that moment of death, is rarely examined by authorities, adding to the shroud rather than aiding with awareness.
That wasn’t the case with Washburn. A rigorously thorough investigation by Flagler Beach Detective Liz Williams, a veteran detective with the sensibilities of a victim’s advocate, pieced together what amounts to the detailed and poignant last 24 hours in the life of Janis Washburn, the culmination of a wish Washburn had been speaking of since at least 2010: Seven years to the day of her death, she had told her husband that she was going to kill herself by jumping off the bridge, and driven away from her house. Her husband, William Washburn, called police at the time, who were able to locate Janis at Wadsworth Park, near the western foot of the bridge. She had repeated her intentions to the cops who found her, and was Baker Acted at the time.
The following is based largely on Williams’s investigative report, along with the reports of several other Flagler Beach police officers.
On her very last afternoon, Washburn and her husband had done what they’d often done—played bridge with others. But Janis and another woman had a disagreement over Donald Trump. “The other woman had spoken to Janis harshly and hurt her feelings,” the report states. It does not further specify the nature of the argument. But William left the game early because of it. Janis got a ride home from a friend, where she was very bothered by the altercation. She mentioned it several times “and commented that she thought the upset was her fault.” She had been depressed for a long time. William was watching a football game when he noticed his wife go into the garage in the middle of the evening.
He thought she was taking out the trash. But later the trash was still there, and the car was gone. He told police he stayed up until 2 in the morning waiting for her, then went to bed, thinking he could not report her missing for 24 hours. In the morning he called various of Janis’s friends, then drove to Flagler Beach, including Wadsworth Park, looking for her or to spot her car, but to no avail. He checked her credit cards’ activity. There was none.
By then, Flagler Beach police had discovered Janis after Tyler Ecker, a 29-year-old jogger from Flagler Beach, had spotted the body as he stopped to rest on the bridge. He had shouted down to a delivery man who was pulling up to Hidden Treasure and asked him to check what he was looking at in the water. The restaurant’s manager then called police. Janis was wearing a gray sweater over a Celtics shirt, sweatpants and white sneakers. There was no purse nearby, but her purse would be discovered a few hours later. The medical examiner would determine that she had a broken left arm and broken ribs on the left side.
After leaving her house in Palm Coast’s E Section, Janis had driven to Poor Walt’s bar on the Barrier Island, where surveillance video picked up her gold Buick Lacrosse pulling in at 8:30 p.m. the night of Jan. 23. She was carrying a black purse. She took a seat at the bar, where another camera tracked the scene. She ordered a drink. She didn’t identify herself as Janis to the bartender, but as “Gail.”
Five or six people were hanging out in a group nearby, celebrating a birthday. After a few minutes, Aileen Triano, 65, of Palm Coast, one of the people in the group, reached out to Janis and asked her to join them. She did, identifying herself as Gail to them as well, at least at first. Triano told the detective that she’d never met “Gail” before, but that she seemed so despondent that she wanted to cheer her up. “Gail” told her she felt life had no meaning. Triano would later notice that whenever anyone called out the name Gail, Janis would not respond. Janis finally told Triano her actual name, going on to tell her about her unhappiness and her age, which seemed to weigh on her. She spoke of losing her son several years earlier. She did not mention the political argument. But she kept asking what she should do about her life. Traino encouraged her, suggested she should get out more, make new friends. She got concerned about Janis enough to ask for her phone number so she could keep in touch with her.
Janis had played darts, had three margaritas, had spent much of her time with Triano, with whom she appeared quite attached in the video, but at about 11:30 p.m., Janis said she was leaving. Triano urged her to stay. Janis declined. She hugs several of the people she’d played darts with and walks out with Triano. They hug. Triano tells Janis to be careful driving home and, according to the detective’s report, “watched her walk away.” But Triano had instinctively sensed something. After a moment she went back outside to make sure Janis had gotten into her car. She didn’t see her anywhere. Nor did she know at the time that the car Janis had walked past was her Buick. Triano had assumed her car was parked further off.
Most likely, Janis had walked west along East Moody Boulevard, toward the bridge.
William Washburn reported his wife missing 24 hours after she’d left the house. Authorities received the call around 8 p.m. on Jan. 24, and the description of Janis’s car. Soon after that Flagler Beach police found the car at Poor Walt’s, and after examining video footage, determined the identity of the woman they had discovered that morning. At midnight, Sgt. David Arcieri found Janis’s purse at the water’s edge some 30 yards south of where she’d been found. There were several pieces of paper with handwritten notes, not legible just then for being wet, and a Do Not Resuscitate order.