The Man who Stood on the Bridge (Pt. 1: All around him, bridges)

Non-Fiction | published in Real Change on Jun. 25th, 2008

This piece is part of a series:

- The Man who Stood on the Bridge (Pt. 1: All around him, bridges)
- The Man who Stood on the Bridge (Pt. 2: Waiting, on the inside)
- The Man Who Stood on the Bridge (Pt. 3: Home, it’s better than prison)

What led the 24-year-old Bret Hugh Winch to the Aurora Bridge last October? The first installment of a three-part series looks at the young man’s early life, one marked by abuse, mental illness, and a major felony conviction.

Sigma Delta Chi Award, Feature Writing, 2008,
Society of Professional Journalists
First Place, General News, 2008,
Society of Professional Journalists, Western Washington Chapter
Best Series, 2008
North American Street Newspaper Association

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Standing on the Aurora Bridge, a man.

Behind him, along Aurora Ave., vehicles race north and south. Some 130 feet below him, on N. 34th St., the occasional car. It’s a little after 10 in the morning.

He’s been here for — how long? One minute? Two? Three? Maybe more?

No one can say for sure because no one knows when he caught the bus that brought him to the nearest stop. No one knows just when he set foot on the bridge. But he won’t be here long. By 10:22 a.m., the ordeal on the bridge will be over.

Earlier in the morning, around 9 o’clock, he sat in the day room of the downtown parole office. His parole officer had told the man to wait there while he tried to solve the man’s housing crisis, even if it meant all day. But when the parole officer went to check on him, the man was gone.

And now, here he stands, on the Aurora Bridge. It’s Oct. 17, 2007.

The bridge was built in 1932. A registered historic landmark, it stretches 898 feet across Lake Union. From a distance, it resembles a giant silver crown turned on its points.

Since its construction, more than 230 people have jumped to their deaths here. The Aurora Bridge ranks second in the nation for most suicides by jumping.

And now, he stands on the same bridge where hundreds before him have leapt to the water or the ground below.

But this man: Who is he? Like all people, he has many facets.

A son. A friend. A compassionate being. A vulnerable child. An angel. A menace to society. A man who hears voices. A man who sees demons. A registered sex offender. Quite the character. A lost soul.

The people who know him see in him these traits, these identities. In his life, they find many stories. They acknowledge his presence has impacted their lives.

Yet this morning, before any of them are aware where he is, he stands on the bridge.

But why? Why has he chosen to come here? Why does he, why does anyone consider suicide?

Such questions are timeless. They have been asked before. Surely, they’ll be asked again. That’s because survivors seek answers. They look back, mining the past for clues.

Sadly, none ever fully resolve the questions, because the questions have no answers. They’re riddles only one person can solve. He’s the person no longer here.

But no one has reason to ask the unanswerable this morning, at 10:14 a.m.

That’s the moment Bret Hugh Winch, the 24-year-old standing on the Aurora Bridge on a mostly sunny day, takes out his cell phone. He dials a friend who lives just down the hall. He calls to say he’s on a bridge.

And this time, he intends to jump.

Jumpy. The young Bret was jumpy.

And, his uncle, Raymond Shoquist, remembers, he got into things. Nothing bad, at least not then, but the boy had a tendency to misbehave.

Bret played with Shoquist’s children and as the uncle watched, he could see his nephew was — what exactly? Amped up? Hyperactive? “I didn’t know,” Shoquist confesses. “A trying to fit in, and half the time, he wasn’t trying hard enough. Or he was trying too hard.”

Other people saw it in the young boy, too, including a doctor. Bret’s mother took the boy to see someone, telling Shoquist later the child had been prescribed Ritalin, used to treat children diagnosed with ADD/ADHD (Attention Deficit & Hyperactivity Disorder.) And the antidepressant Prozac: Bret took that too.

These drugs would signal Bret’s entry into a lifetime of prescription medications. At points, his adherence to his ever-changing regimen would prove to be a struggle. When he failed, he often made poor decisions, ones that affected others as well as himself.
In rare cases, Prozac can unmask tics or symptoms of Tourette’s Syndrome, a neurological condition characterized by involuntary muscle movements. Some doctors eventually would believe Bret had the syndrome when he got older, because he developed a habitual blink that would continue.

His parents were young when he was born in 1982 — his mother had just turned 24 — and they lived north of Seattle. Not long after the birth of their only child, their relationship hit a rough patch. Maybe the drinking played a part. But the couple, who had never married, separated. Bret was still a toddler.

His mother had family on Whidbey Island, connected to the naval base, and her brother introduced her to a buddy who was just getting out of the service. The two hit it off. In 1987, barely five years old, Bret found himself with an ex-sailor as a stepfather. Shoquist recalls visiting his sister-in-law and her new husband, who sometimes fought. “We used to see them all the time.”

But putting down roots has become a sometime thing. And the newlyweds, with Bret in tow, bopped around. With them being constantly on the move, Shoquist saw the couple, and his nephew, less and less. He found it harder to see them when Bret’s family set anchor in Cowlitz County, in southwestern Washington, where all around them lay bridges.

Arcing over the Cowlitz River was the W. Cowlitz Way Bridge; a few blocks further south, the Allen St. Bridge. Together, they carried traffic above the tributary, connecting the city of Kelso to Longview.

But neither structure, both a few blocks in length, could compare to what lay roughly seven miles south: the Lewis and Clark Bridge, a mile-and-a-half long behemoth stretching above the steady flow of the Columbia.

From Longview to Kelso, from Kelso to Longview Bret and his mother and stepfather bounced, staying in apartments here, trailers there, traversing the bridges. A few extended family members — aunts, uncles, cousins — moved close by, seeking a quiet place to retire.

Along with Shoquist, other family members continued to live in distant places and once, while still an elementary school student, Bret went to see a relative other than his uncle for an overnight visit. The relative, an older male, invited the seven-year-old Bret to share his bed. The older male was naked. Bret wouldn’t talk about what took place.

Years later, his mother, while discussing Bret’s sex offense charges with authorities, would reference the sleepover, but would never say if anything sexual happened to her son that evening. Though her actions seemed to speak for her.

Bret, long after grade school, never had contact with this relative again.

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