Seven years ago today, Amanda Stott-Smith dropped her son Eldon, age four, and daughter Trinity, seven, from the Sellwood Bridge in Portland, Oregon. I began looking into this story the next day. I knew it would be a book, if not how long it would take to find out what led to it, what would come after, what people did not want known, and to fit together the stories in order to make sense of what had been deemed largely inexplicable.
As a journalist and as a mother, I had not accepted the conclusion that the reasons a mother kills her children will never be understood. Tracking the story of a family on a path toward destruction, spiraling toward murder, I listened to people trying to make sense of what happened, to know who was really responsible. What they told me proved to be a hall of mirrors, sympathies and alignments reflecting the observer’s biases and objectives, and a story that despite its resolve to not be told ultimately revealed itself.
The book is TO THE BRIDGE. Here is chapter one.
At 1:17 in the morning on May 23, 2009, Pati Gallagher and her husband Dan were having a last after-dinner drink on the patio of their waterside condo in Portland, Oregon. They were not looking toward the Willamette River twenty feet away when they heard something hit the water. The couple was not immediately concerned. Lots of things fell from the Sellwood Bridge: shopping carts, bottles tossed by hooting teenagers. Then they heard a child yell, “Help me!” There was no moonlight that night, and few lights onshore. The couple scrambled to the river’s edge but could see nothing.
“Where are you?” Dan shouted.
Pati called 911. She told the operator someone had been in the water yelling for more than two minutes.
“Can you hear that?!” she said, and held the phone toward the river.
The voice floated north with the current, past a city park, past an old amusement park. It was a clear night, and had someone in the water been looking towards the river’s east bank, they would have seen the outline of a Ferris wheel, and a rollercoaster called the Scream-N-Eagle.
The screams continued. “Help me! Help me!”
David Haag, who lived in a floating home along the river, heard the cries for help. At 1:30, he and his companion Cheryl Robb motored their boat onto the river to find whoever was screaming. It was twenty-five minutes before they saw the partially submerged form of a young girl. Haag jumped in the water and grabbed her. He was swimming her back to the boat when Robb called out, “There’s another one!” Haag went after the other child, a boy. The girl, who had been in the 56-degree water for more than a half-hour, was sobbing. The boy was not. He had been facedown in the water. He was not breathing when Haag got him into the boat. He was still not breathing by the time Haag motored the boat to a yacht club on the river’s east shore.
It was now 2:10 am. Officers were waiting. Sergeant Pete Simpson administered CPR to the boy, who was blue, and cold, and pronounced dead at the scene. The girl was rushed to the hospital. A homicide investigation was initiated.
Authorities first had to ask, who were these children? Did they fall off a boat? Were they kidnapped? Were there others in the river still? The water beneath Portland’s southernmost bridge was now cut by rescue boats, lit by searchlights, whipped by helicopters, the river’s banks trampled by police, and residents who could not or did not want to go back to sleep.
Five miles downriver in Milwaukie, twelve year-old Gavin Stott could not sleep. He had decided to stay home with his grandparents rather than get in the car when his mother went to pick up his two younger half-siblings. This had been just after seven o’clock. At midnight, and again at 12:30, he woke his grandparents, asking why his mom was not back. Kathy and Mike Stott called their daughter Amanda, Gavin’s mother. She did not answer their calls. Shortly after one am, they called their younger daughter Chantel: Had she seen her sister? Chantel had eaten dinner with Amanda the night before at a Mongolian barbecue restaurant, but had not heard from her since. Amanda had told her she was taking the children to the downtown waterfront to see the fireworks. It was a Friday night, the start of the Memorial Day weekend, as well as the opening celebration of Portland’s annual Rose Festival. Because Amanda had previously driven drunk with her kids in the car, Chantel and her husband got out of bed and drove around looking for her.
At 1:33, Kathy called Amanda’s estranged husband Jason Smith. Had he spoken with Amanda?
Jason Smith had not, not since he left their two children with her at around eight o’clock the previous evening. Because Jason’s license had been suspended, his mother Christine Duncan drove them the hundred miles from Eugene, where he and the children were staying in one of Duncan’s rental apartments. Amanda had been waiting at the house in Tualatin, fifteen miles southwest of Portland, where she and the children had lived with Jason before he moved out the previous June. The Tualatin house was where Amanda preferred to meet the children for their every other weekend visitations.
Amanda had phoned Jason at 1:22 am. He had ignored her call. But after speaking with Kathy Stott, he called Amanda back. For more than an hour, he received no answer.
At 2:49 am, Amanda answered his call. “Help me,” she said. “Help me.”
“Are the kids okay?” Jason asked. “Where are the kids?”
“Why have you done this to me?” she said. “Why have you taken my joy away?”
Jason again asked where the children were. Amanda would not say.
Jason called the police. He had reason to believe, he said, that his children were in danger; he did not know where they were; they had been with their mother. His own mother filed a missing persons report with police.
Around 7:00 am, Chantel Gardner heard a news report: two children found in the river. She called her mother, who said Amanda and the children had not come home. Kathy Stott called Christine Duncan and told her this. Jason again phoned the police. He told them the kids in the river might be his. Shortly after 8:45 am, he had confirmation: his daughter Trinity Christine Kimberly Smith, age seven, was in the hospital, in serious condition. His son, Eldon Jay Rebhan Smith, had drowned. He was four years old.
At 10:25 am, Portland police officers approached a battered blue 1991 Audi parked on the ninth floor of a downtown Portland parking garage. The car matched the description of the one they were looking for. A woman’s hand, holding a cigarette, rested on the open driver’s side window. Officer Wade Greaves climbed a retaining wall to get a better view. The woman spotted him and opened her car door. She ran. Officer Greaves ran after her. The woman made it to the garage’s structure wall, climbed over, and fell forward. Greaves caught her by the wrist. He and another officer hauled Amanda Jo Stott-Smith back up and placed her under arrest.
News of the incident dominated the front page of Sunday’s newspaper. There were only the barest details. The children had been in the water more than thirty minutes. Because of their ages, they were not initially named. Onlookers shared disbelief and grief. A woman who lived along the river recalled a man who jumped from the Sellwood Bridge to evade police. But children thrown into the river, “just makes my heart sick,” she said. “And it’s so close to home.”
The article included Amanda’s mug shot. Her forehead was creased with tension, but except for her dark hair being in disarray, she looked… what did she look? Dazed? Spent? In surrender?
I could not tell, standing at my kitchen counter, holding the morning’s first cup of coffee. What did I expect a mother who had just dropped her children off a bridge to look like? “Wrecked” was the best answer I could come up with.
I looked again at the photo. Amanda was attractive; she looked her age, thirty-one. She looked as though she were holding her breath. I went online. While there was some compassion in the comments that accompanied the newspaper stories, prayers for the children and pleas to understand mental illness, Amanda was largely vilified:
“If you commit a crime as heinous as this, please conserve public resources by killing yourself before you can be arrested.”
“Hang the mother from the Sellwood Bridge. Make sure you slowly lower her down to not break the neck right away.”
“Evil, pure and simple.”
The reactions were frustrated, angry; a group censure so we might move on, if to where was not specified.
I had written about murderers before. I interviewed John Wayne Gacy, accused of and eventually executed for torturing and killing thirty-three boys and young men in the Chicago area. In person, in prison, he had been chatty, relaxed. If he carried the weight of those thirty-three dead boys, he did so lightly.
I had written about Laurie Recht, who, until she murdered her daughter and killed herself in 2007, and even afterward, was considered a paragon of motherhood. A year later I found out, and wrote, that Recht was far from a paragon; that she suffered from Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome, a psychological disorder that compels caretakers (usually women) to exaggerate or fabricate medical conditions in those they care for, in order to get attention for themselves. Most go so far as to make their children sick, as had been the case with Recht and her daughter Rebecca, who was submitted to unnecessary surgeries and medications. The murder-suicide stunned people who knew Recht: how could a mother so outwardly caring, even excessively caring, do such a thing? There must have been mitigating circumstances. If you rationalized hard enough, Recht’s life was one big mitigating circumstance: she once accused her neighbors of hate crimes, only to be caught painting the swastikas herself in the hallways of the building. She was the sort of person who established fake nonprofits in order to fleece donors; who complained to friends about the yeast infections on her hemorrhoids; who, at fifty-three, was obese and unemployable and knew that were it not for her sweet-tempered daughter, she would have little foothold in society. And now that daughter was fourteen, and spreading wings. This would not do, and so Recht chose to hurt those who loved Rebecca the most effective way she could, by taking away the person they loved. She felt entitled to do this. It was easy to imagine, as Recht took the pills and lay on the bed next to her dying daughter, that she played over in her mind the vengeance she would be wreaking.
I considered Recht a villain and felt justice served by exposing what she had put Rebecca through. And yet I felt the comments directed at Amanda—who, it could be argued, had twice the intentionality of Recht—were caustic and premature. I did not see a parallel. I also could under no circumstance see myself tossing my child off a bridge.
On Tuesday, May 26, Amanda Stott-Smith would be arraigned at the Justice Center in downtown Portland. Two cameramen were the only people in the gallery when I arrived. We talked about whether Amanda would appear facing forward or looking down. We talked about other parents who had murdered their children in Oregon. There was family-killer Christian Longo, who strangled his wife and baby, put them in suitcases and slid them off a dock, then tied his three-year-old daughter and four-year-old son while alive into sleeping bags loaded with rocks and tossed them off a bridge. There was Diane Downs, who shot her three children and blamed it on the archetypal bushy-haired stranger. Each of these killers had been deemed a sociopath. Based on what we knew thus far, none of us thought Amanda was.
By 2:10, the room was filled with twenty-two people on four rows of benches. I did not know who the spectators were here for, but thought maybe the young man in the back row, the one pressed between what appeared to be his mother and sister and snuffling loudly, might be related to Amanda, and if he were, I wanted to speak with him.
As the female clerks and court reporters talked and laughed and booted up computers that made the Windows chime, I looked back at the young man. I gave him a small, what I hoped was respectful smile. He gave me one back.
At 2:27, Judge Julia Philbrook entered. We all rose. The District Attorney told her she would see three defendants in addition to Stott-Smith. They called A.H. The young man in the back row, my snuffling boy, got up and stood before the judge. He was accused of third-degree assault. He pled not guilty. He was ordered to come back on June 3rd and then he left, his tear-tracked mother meeting my gaze before joining her son in walking out. I wondered if they had any idea who he had been on the docket with, and whether they would have cared.
The judge was informed that Stott-Smith was not yet ready to appear. Instead, it was W, in prison blues, tall and lanky with rocker-boy hair. He was accused of possessing heroin. The judge asked if he understood this.
“ ‘K,” said W.
He was told he could go to the STOP program. W did not appear to be listening. He asked his attorney, “Will I be released today?” She said he would be.
“Cool,” he said.
Next up was another young man, charged with second-degree assault. The judge asked whether he could afford a lawyer.
“It depends on how much it costs,” he said.
“Do you have a bank account?” asked the judge.
“And how much is in it?”
“Well, it’s overdrawn,” he said. The judge assigned him a lawyer.
All three were dispensed within eight minutes.
Two guards led Amanda in. She wore a padded pine-green vest, the prison issue “turtle shell” given to those on suicide watch. She looked Native American, maybe; her skin was a creamy coffee color, her cheekbones high and wide; her thick dark hair loose and not untidy. She was not, as the TV cameraman had guessed, looking down. She kept her face up and stared straight ahead. But her eyes landed nowhere in the room.
The judge read the charges: five counts of aggravated murder, two counts of attempted aggravated murder; one count of assault in the second degree, this last because of bruises on the children’s bodies. The aggravated designation meant the crimes were committed intentionally. If Amanda’s case went to trial, she would face the death penalty.
Amanda’s attorney mentioned he was here as a courtesy to the family. It was unclear what this meant. I could not stop staring at Amanda, whose gaze remained unfixed. She looked as though standing were an effort, as though there were a weight on her shoulders dragging her forward and down. The judge asked, “Do you understand the nature of the charges against you?”
Amanda did not answer. The judge asked again, “Do you understand the charges against you?”
This time, Amanda looked toward the judge; she appeared to move her lips; everyone in the courtroom was waiting to hear what she said.
What came out was, “Muh.”
That was the most she would tell us, a syllable later reconstructed in editorials, by judges and politicians, as, “No one will ever understand how this happened” and “No one could ever have seen this coming.”
But if this were the case, why were the phone lines between Kathy Stott, Jason Smith and Christine Duncan burning in the early morning hours of May 23? Why did Chantel Gardner drive around in the dark looking for her sister?
Today, Judge Philbrook issued her orders: Amanda Stott-Smith was to remain in custody until she reappeared on June 3rd. A guard took Amanda’s elbow to escort her from the room. Amanda did not seem to understand the gesture. Two guards turned her and she moved out the door as if moving through deep water.