Here’s what we know: Carol Anne Gotbaum accidentally strangled herself to death at Sky Harbor Airport last September. Why, how and who’s to blame are less clear. In exclusive interviews with PHOENIX magazine, those closest to Carol relive the moments leading up to her death.
On the day she died, 45-year-old Carol Anne Gotbaum wrote these words in her journal: “Remember this day as a new beginning. With my heart beating, my hands shaking, my whole being destroyed by alcohol, God please give me the strength to fight this disease.”
It was Friday, September 28, 2007.
Gotbaum was on flight 407 from New York to Tucson – a last-minute change added a quick stopover in Phoenix. She was en route to the Cottonwood de Tucson rehabilitation center for a 30-day stay to confront the alcoholism that had plagued her for 18 months. She hoped to save her marriage and restore her family, which included three young children all under 9.
But everything fell apart when Carol got to Phoenix. According to the police investigation conducted after her death, she missed her connecting flight by one minute, got herself very drunk with booze and prescription medication, and became distraught when she was bumped from the next, overbooked flight. A Good Samaritan took pity on her and offered her his boarding pass, but the airline wouldn’t allow that. She became hysterical when told it would be a “security breach” to use the borrowed pass. She was “set off,” witnesses said. She abandoned her shoes, her purse, her jacket and frantically ran off through the gate area screaming, “I am not a terrorist!”
She was quickly confronted by Phoenix police officers who were facing an “irrational, hysterical” woman. Within eight minutes of her first outburst, she was arrested for disorderly conduct; police “took her down” in order to handcuff her behind her back, and they dragged her off to a tiny cell on the second floor of Terminal 4, where they shackled her to a cement bench. When she finally stopped screaming, they looked in on her from the small window in the door. By then it was too late.
Just 25 minutes after police were called, Carol Anne Gotbaum was dead. She had somehow maneuvered the handcuffs from behind her to the front and accidentally strangled herself in her frantic efforts to be free of her restraints.
Her anxious husband, calling from New York to check on her, wouldn’t know of his wife’s death for more than three hours, and when he was finally told, he screamed, “They killed her, they killed her!”
The blame game began immediately and turned into a media circus. One side asked how police could have so “brutally” treated a woman in obvious emotional and physical distress, for if police had been more compassionate, they say, this tragedy might have been prevented. The other side asked how any family could have sent an alcoholic off by herself on a cross-country flight, for if they hadn’t, none of this would have happened in the first place.
This is the inside story – with voices never before heard – of the death of Carol Anne Gotbaum.
an instant bond
Jodi Hall was exhausted after a wonderful week in New York with six girlfriends – best friends forever since at least sixth grade. These BFFs had celebrated many birthdays together since they graduated from Tempe’s McClintock High School, but this year was one of the biggies: They had started turning 40 and decided such a milestone needed to be celebrated in the Big Apple.
They’d had such a great time – saw two plays, visited the Statue of Liberty, shopped at Tiffany’s, and even though Jodi spent an entire day in bed when they first got there, that hardly dampened their fun. She’d had to rest up to get herself strong enough for the trip; the Lupus that had left her disabled for the past six years didn’t much care if this celebration was extra special, it took its toll anyway.
Now it was time to return home to Phoenix, and Jodi had boarded early so she wouldn’t be hurried. She had a window seat on a 150-passenger plane that left JFK Airport at 9:46 a.m., New York time. She was dozing on and off as the trip began, but she noticed that the slim, attractive woman who sat next to her seemed nervous and upset.
“I kind of felt like she was needing me,” Jodi remembers. But her need for sleep came first, and she was in and out for the first 40 minutes or so. She does remember looking over just after the plane took off and seeing the woman writing in a cloth-covered journal.
When Jodi finally woke up, she and Carol started conversing. Carol was upset, nervous, crying; Jodi was calm, reassuring, comforting. For the next five hours, they shared intimacies about their lives, telling each other stories and secrets that sometimes are easier to tell strangers. “She asked me a lot about my family and told me a lot about her family,” Jodi tells PHOENIX magazine in an exclusive interview. “She was going to Tucson to get help for her and her husband and her kids. She wanted to be the kind of mom she should be and used to be. She didn’t want to be the kind of mom she’d been.”
Carol admitted how hard her drinking problem had been on her marriage, but she stressed that her husband would be waiting for her after rehab, and it was important to her to make her family “proud” of her again.
Jodi remembers how Carol’s emotions seemed to bounce all over the place. One minute she was crying, the next she was laughing over a People magazine article about Brad Pitt – they both agreed how handsome he was – then she was crying and worrying out loud again. Jodi remembers Carol wondering if she’d done the right thing by leaving her children, then feeling reassured when Jodi stressed how brave she was to be doing this.
The anxiety so present in that row of airline seats also caught the attention of the passenger on the aisle, a missionary named Rosa. “Rosa spoke very little English and didn’t know what was going on; she just knew Carol was sad,” Jodi recalls.
Rosa gave Carol a bracelet with crosses and angels made at a Mexican orphanage. “Carol said she was Jewish but she’d wear the bracelet at rehab. Rosa said a prayer for her, and I know Carol very much appreciated that. Rosa said she was sorry she didn’t have a second bracelet she could give to me, and I told her that’s OK. Carol needs it more than me.”
Jodi learned that Carol had originally intended to fly directly from New York to Tucson, but her children were starting at a new school, and she stayed an extra day so she could take them to their new classrooms herself. That’s how she came to be on this flight to Phoenix. She’d have a short layover before her connecting flight to the Tucson airport, where people from the rehab center would be waiting for her.
“She was nervous to go to rehab, and she was sad and distraught that she was leaving her family for a month,” Jodi says. “I asked her, ‘If you’re so distraught, why are they letting you travel by yourself?’ and she said, ‘Because I wanted to do this by myself. I didn’t want anyone to come with me. I wanted to get better by myself.’”
At some point, Jodi and Carol fell asleep. Flight attendant Pamela Jackson would later tell police she thought the women were traveling together because “they fell asleep against each other, something that doesn’t happen if you don’t know the other person.” But it gives an indication of the bond that had instantly developed.
By the time they got to Phoenix, “Carol was in good spirits,” Jodi says. “I gave her my number and address. She was going to write from Tucson. I thought if she could have visitors, I could have someone drive me down. We talked about me coming to New York to visit her. I truly thought I met a friend I’d have for the rest of my life. I loved her.”
Jodi walked away, meeting up with friends for a ride home, thinking Carol was walking into recovery. “When I hugged her goodbye, she had a smile on her face. She just had to get on the next plane.”
Jodi was watching the 10 p.m. news on Channel 12 that night when she saw a picture of Carol and her children, with the unbelievable news that Carol had died in a holding cell at the airport. “I was devastated,” she says. “When I saw the pictures of the kids I was even more sad, because these were the exact pictures she showed me on the plane.”
She watched the news closely and was upset at early reports claiming Carol was drinking on the flight from New York; she was certain that information was wrong. “I’m positive she didn’t drink on the plane,” Jodi says, adding that Carol never ordered a drink while they were seated together. The only possibility, she says, was when Carol went to the back of the plane to go to the bathroom. Flight attendant Jackson told police that while Carol only drank ginger ale at her seat, she ordered vodka and tomato juice while waiting in the back. But Jodi doesn’t buy that either, saying she was right behind Carol in seeking out the bathroom, estimating Carol was in the back by herself for only about a minute. “She would have had to chug the drink,” Jodi says, remembering there were two drinks on the ledge, but one resembled Coke and the other looked like 7-Up – “neither one looked like a bloody Mary.”
Most unpleasant, Jodi remembers, was her interview with a Phoenix police officer. “He was trying to get me to say she was drinking on the plane, and she wasn’t. I told him he didn’t need to be pushy. I told him to simmer down.”
She was also upset by news reports that claimed Carol was “suicidal” and had strangled herself on purpose – that wasn’t the woman she’d spent most of the day with, she maintains. And worst of all was learning this whole thing happened because Carol missed her connecting flight by just one minute, getting to the gate late because she was on her cell phone with her husband, telling him how encouraged she was to have had such great seatmates. “One minute changed a lot of lives,” Jodi says with great sadness.
The airlines called Jodi about a week after Carol’s death. She remembers them being “very nice, very helpful.” They wanted to know how she was and if they could do anything to help her. “I wish they’d called earlier. I’d liked to have flown back to the funeral,” Jodi says.
The airlines also provided her with the phone number of Carol’s husband, Noah Gotbaum. “I wanted her family to know she was saying good things about everybody. We talked about five minutes and I told him that she said she loved her family very much.” Noah related back his phone call with Carol after she landed in Phoenix, telling Jodi she had raved about the “angels” who sat with her on the flight, believing they’d been placed with her by some divine intervention and that it was a good omen for the trip. Jodi agrees: “I think we sat by each other for a reason.”
And then Jodi Hall shows what a friend she was to Carol. Although she’s the last person to bear any responsibility for this tragedy, she’s the one who owns up to it. She feels responsible for not doing the decent thing to help a troubled woman.
“After I saw it on the news, I felt guilty,” she says. “It’s been hard. It still is hard. I could have prevented this. If I’d just taken a different ride home and waited and took the time out to go to her gate with her, then we wouldn’t have had this. I feel I let her and her family down, and I’ve had a real hard time with it.”
a matter of minutes
The facts in this case play out over an amazingly short period of time. Minutes, really. Reviewing it, it sometimes seems impossible that so much went so wrong so quickly. What follows is an account of what happened that day, detailed by Carol’s husband and a 270-page police report filled with witness statements and telephone transcripts. Memories of officers, airline personnel, other passengers and Carol’s family and friends fill in the blanks.
12:18 p.m., Friday, September 29, 2007: Flight 407 arrives from New York at Gate B6. Carol Gotbaum has had a good flight and arrives in “good spirits.” She has 53 minutes to get to Gate B3 for her 1:16 p.m. connecting flight to Tucson. Officials from Cottonwood de Tucson are waiting for her at the Tucson airport to take her to the rehabilitation center.
12:23 p.m.: Carol dials her husband’s cell phone as the plane is docking, but she doesn’t reach him. She tries Noah again at 12:48 p.m. and still doesn’t connect.
12:51 p.m.: Carol finally reaches Noah, who is preparing their three children for a school dinner. They speak for 11 minutes. In an exclusive interview with PHOENIX magazine, Noah Gotbaum remembers that call: “She was just very up, energized, hopeful. It was incredible to think about it. She told me she had had the most amazing flight and said, ‘Noah, I just met the two most inspiring women I’ve met in my entire life’. She was excited, completely sober and strong and very happy.”
He remembers being surprised when she told him she’d sat between these two women, because he knew she intended to change her middle seat to something more comfortable for her 5-foot-9-inch frame. But Carol explained that, at the last minute, she decided to just keep the seat she had, and now she felt it was meant to be. Noah remembers her saying, “I feel so strong and so ready to do this for you and the kids.”
1:06 p.m.: Carol arrives at the gate with her boarding pass, but the airline has already closed the door and tells her she’s one minute too late. Mesa Air ticketing agent Rikki Greiner is working the gate B3 that day for the 1:16 p.m. flight to Tucson. Greiner tells Carol the next flight to Tucson will be at 2:58 p.m. and although it is overbooked, they will get her on it. Per airline regulations, she offers Carol a free round-trip ticket voucher.
1:33 p.m.: Noah calls Carol again and they talk for five minutes. Although she has just missed the connecting flight to Tucson, he says Carol wasn’t upset. “She just said she arrived too late to get the connection. I didn’t think anything about it. It was a really good conversation. I had three very, very good calls with her and she was just Carol – great and strong and feeling God was on her side. She was in a very good place.”
2:11 p.m.: Carol and Noah talk again – about plans for the children and when he would come out to Tucson to visit her at the clinic during her month-long stay. She tells him she’s going to go get something to eat and then wait for the next plane.
2:27 p.m.: Carol e-mails Noah from her cell phone, ending with “fyi. I love you. Hugs.”
2:35 p.m.: Carol e-mails Noah again, this time about their children, ending with “Will call. Things are crazy at the terminal.” He receives the e-mail two minutes later. Meanwhile, back at Gate B3, ticket agent Greiner sets in motion a drama that will end in tragedy.
Greiner later tells police “she saw Carol leave the B3 podium to get something to eat. Since Carol left the area, Rikki gave Carol’s seat to someone else, and Carol arrived back at the podium, very upset about this.” Carol was carrying food that Greiner believed had come from the Roadhouse 66 Bar – a sports bar on that concourse. Greiner will tell police she did not smell alcohol but watched Carol become “emotionally unbalanced” at the news that she wasn’t going to get on the Tucson flight. “The woman was borderline hysterical because she missed the first flight,” Greiner tells police, and now was going to miss the second.
Greiner says Carol’s crying escalated into a “tantrum.” Greiner calls her supervisor for help and Koolau Davis soon arrives. Davis tells police she found an “irate passenger” when she arrived at gate B3. She says she explained to Carol that the flight was overbooked but she’d “do everything possible to get her on the next flight or arrange to put Carol in a shuttle van to… Tucson,” Phoenix police Officer Dick Richards notes in his report. “As Davis was in the process of making arrangements, a male passenger, name unknown, walked up to the podium and told Carol that he would take the shuttle van, and she could have his boarding pass and seat on the plane.”
2:36 p.m.: Carol is on the phone with Noah. According to Noah, she was “all of a sudden very upset.” He said she was crying, was “very, very distressed” and said, “They won’t let me on the plane. They said I’m eight minutes late. They’re overbooked, and they want me to take a bus to Tucson.” Then he overhears a man say, “Here, you can take my seat,” and he can’t believe it. “I said, ‘Great, give him the free flight coupon and you take his pass and get on the plane.’ I can hear people at the desk and Carol is saying, ‘They won’t give him the free flight,’ and I said, ‘Look Carol – get the ticket changed, get on the plane and do me a favor, eat something.’ She said OK, and off she went.”
2:40 p.m.: “[Airline supervisor] Koolau advised Carol that she could not use someone else’s boarding pass, as this would be considered a security breach,” the police report notes. “Koolau said that this is when Carol got really mad, yelling, ‘I am not a terrorist, I am a United States citizen.’ Koolau said that Carol yelled that several times, bringing attention to herself, and she walked away from the podium.”
2:47 p.m.: Carol is “very, very upset – crying, almost screaming” during a two-minute phone call with Noah that will be their last. “They won’t let me on the plane” she shrieks as Noah tries to calm her down. “Then the phone goes dead and that was it,” he recalls. In Phoenix, Carol has thrown the cell phone in frustration, breaking it into several pieces. Another passenger picks up the pieces and tries talking to her, telling her to calm down or the police will come get her. Noah tries calling her back several times, getting her voicemail each time. He’s in the midst of the school dinner and is trying to remain calm for the sake of his children. “In an earlier call, I’d heard someone at the gate say, ‘We’ll get you on the flight,’ so I hoped they’d keep that promise and she was on her way to Tucson,” he says.
Instead, Carol is in the midst of a meltdown, running toward the security exit, leaving behind her yellow slip-on shoes, her blue windbreaker and her brown leather purse with $554.50 in cash and prescription medicine inside.
Greiner notes the “security breach” wording was responsible for “setting her off.” She and her supervisor both try to explain that didn’t mean they thought Carol was a terrorist, but they said she was no longer listening. Others also try to calm her down – Captain Robert Lackey got off his plane that was about to depart to Tucson and came to the gate to check on the noisy problem, and even he tried to talk to Carol, but to no avail. Other passengers also tried to help calm her down, but she continues to yell and then runs off.
a struggle ensues
Kory Kogon also hoped to catch the 2:58 plane to Tucson that day. She had flown in from California and had a later flight, but she went to gate B3 to see if she could get out sooner. She became No. 7 on the waiting list.
At the gate, she saw a woman “crying and screaming into a cell phone,” she told police.
“Ms. Kogon said that she wondered where the police were when she saw two officers come up to the woman. She said that the officers grabbed the woman, who was ‘fighting them all the way,’” according to the police report. “She said that the woman was a threat only to herself.”
But Kogon also thought “the officers did the best they could based on the woman’s actions. They did not use excessive force. They put her down on the ground and then handcuffed her,” the police report notes.
A few minutes later, as Carol was taken to a holding cell one floor below the gate area, Kogon’s standby number was called and she boarded the 2:58 flight to Tucson.
Another traveler had alerted US Airways Club Representative Clair Carney that a passenger was in distress and suggested somebody should help. Carney decided that, since she worked for the airline, “I should be the one to help her.” As she approached the B3 podium and displayed her company badge, Carol took off, “running, screaming, shouting and waving her arms vigorously in the air,” she told police, “so much so, that her jacket fell off her completely onto the floor.” Carney collected Carol’s purse and shoes in the waiting area and picked up her jacket as she followed Carol toward the security entrance. Before she got to the checkpoint, security agents and police had already confronted Carol. Carney said she handed over Carol’s belongings to the officers.
Most of this was witnessed by Kris Schaufelberger, an immigration agent who was traveling through Phoenix. She was armed and had alerted airline officials but under regulation was not to become involved in any altercation unless requested by airline personnel. So she watched the scene with the eyes of someone trained to restore calm.
She told police Carol was “throwing a fit” and wouldn’t listen to anyone, including an elderly man and woman who tried to calm her down. She saw Carol throw the cell phone and heard the “I am not a terrorist” protest. She also saw police officers approach her with handcuffs already out and watched them arrest Carol. “She described the woman as being totally out of control, irrational, maybe on drugs. She said the officers could not reason with the woman…. She also said that she wished the gate agent would have called the police sooner. She was about to call the police herself… but before she called she saw the officers walking up.”
Koolau Davis called for help at 2:49 p.m.: “I have a very irate passenger here that’s yelling in the boarding area that she’s not a terrorist and she won’t… she won’t listen to anyone,” she told airport emergency services.
Still not sure everything was OK, Noah Gotbaum called the Cottonwood rehab center at 2:49 p.m. to tell them what was going on and to ask for their assistance. At 2:54 p.m., Cottonwood called Sky Harbor Airport and asked that Carol Gotbaum be paged.
Meanwhile, Carol was running through the concourse. The first person she encountered was Matthew Detras, a five-year veteran with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) who was screening aviation employees into the secured area. He saw a white female with blonde hair, about 5-foot-9-inches tall, maybe 115 pounds, running and waving her arms as she screamed she was not a terrorist. “The woman was hysterical, she looked puzzled, confused and was crying,” the police report summarizes. “Matthew walked up to the woman and asked if she was alright,” the report continues. “She ranted on how someone insinuated that she was a terrorist or like a terrorist. The woman continued to say she was not a terrorist and she just needed a woman to hold her.”
TSA officer Sharisse Benitez approached the “crying, hysterical” Carol, so Detras backed off. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “Calm down. Breathe. It’s going to be OK.” She later told police that Carol indeed started to calm down, but it only lasted a few seconds because a police officer arrived, asked “what’s going on” and Carol “looked at him and then she started acting crazy again.” The officer tried to tell her to calm down, Benitez says, but “she just started mumbling and screaming.”
TSA agent Amanda Caraway heard Carol say, “She wanted to talk to a woman, someone who would understand.” She watched Benitez offer comforting words and “tried to tell the woman she was not a terrorist and the woman went on to say she was just a single mom and she was sad. The woman claimed she needed someone to talk to, a hug, she needed someone to understand her.”
Caraway said Carol was “shaking and crying” when Benitez first approached her, but “Sharisse [Benitez] was able to calm the woman down a little, but when the first officer approached the woman, she began yelling again and flailing her arms.”
Caraway heard the officer tell Carol she needed to calm down and “she told him loudly she was calm.” The police report summarizes her account of what happened next: “The officer grabbed the woman’s arm, which was not forceful, and the woman then pulled her arm away from the officer. She yelled she was not a terrorist and not to put his hands on her. The officer then grabbed her arm again and began to place it behind her back and the woman yelled out that the officer was a ‘fucking American cop’ and that she was not a terrorist. Two more officers then arrived and they began to restrain her. The officers struggled with the woman.”
Carol ended up on the ground, – officers would later report they “took her down” – and she tried to bite one of the officers. Caraway likened her to a “loose cannon.” She said officers “were taking a lot of effort to control the woman and not to injure her, because she was a small person.”
Scott Recchio saw the scene too. He had been in Phoenix for two weeks training with Liberty Mutual and was walking to his gate to fly home to Fresno, California, when he saw a “crying… very frantic and hysterical” woman coming toward him. He watched as Benitez “tried to calm her down,” but she wasn’t calming. He wasn’t aware that she was under the influence of anything but thought she “lost it and was crazy.”
Recchio called Phoenix police because he’d been an eyewitness and wanted officers to know that he had not observed any use of weapons or pepper spray and saw no “hits or strikes between the woman and the officers.” The incident had caused him some concern, he says. As the police report notes, “Scott explained that due to the events of September 11, 2001, the lady could have been a diversion and something else was going to happen down by the gateway. Scott was concerned that authorities were going to shut down the airport.”
Dave Tiffany felt sorry for the cops, he later told them when he called to report what he saw, because “there was nothing they could do, as she was out of control.” The Phoenix passenger says he remembers the woman’s “maniac screaming.” He noted that officers seemed confused about what to do, looking at each other as if to ask, “What do we do with her?”
Phoenix police Officer Andrew Woyna later remembers that he could hear a woman screaming as he presented his identification at a security checkpoint at the top of the concourse. As he approached, she was screaming, “I am not a fucking terrorist. Don’t treat me like a fucking terrorist.” He says he tried to get her to calm down, but without success. He heard her call him a “fucking American” and thought the accent was British. He already had his cuffs out.
“As she would not calm down he told her that she was under arrest for disorderly conduct and reached out and grabbed her left wrist to handcuff her,” the police report notes. By then, officers Duane Rigg and Dick Richards had arrived and Officer Richards reached for her right arm. This is when Carol and the officers “all went to the ground.” Officer Rigg got her right arm out from under her body while Woyna still had her left arm, and they pulled her arms behind her back and cuffed her. They picked her up and tried to walk her from the third floor concourse to take her to a holding cell on the second floor. She dragged and dug her feet into the carpet surfaces, but when they got to the tile floor, she had no traction and slid across the floor, the report states. “When they placed her in the elevator she made a statement like ‘she was a housewife, not a terrorist.’”
Officer Rigg would later say he felt “she was mentally unstable.” He says he didn’t notice any odor of alcohol on her and thought she was on some kind of drug. Officer Richards also says he thought she was on drugs and had no idea if she was drinking.
When they reached the security office, she said she didn’t want any male officer touching her and she’d only speak to a woman.
Officer Terri Klepper searched her, assisted by Officer Daniel Fulton, who helped hold Carol and collect the property she had with her – her wedding ring, a watch and a pair of earrings.
Although one police summary says Officer Klepper noticed the smell of alcohol on Carol’s breath, in her own report describing the events, she doesn’t mention alcohol. In fact, nowhere in the entire police report does anyone mention alcohol – nearly everyone notes her maniacal actions, her hysteria, but nobody guessed that she, indeed, had been severely intoxicated.
Klepper reports how combative Carol was – that at one point, “she kicked her legs out straight and began ‘walking’ up the back of the holding cell.’” Officer Klepper tells how, when officers asked for her identity, she both said and spelled her name. She also described herself as a “depressed, pathetic housewife.”
“I kept arrested person 1 cuffed behind her back due to her combative nature, and the holding cell cuff was placed around the links of the cuffs on her wrists,” Officer Klepper reports.
The cuffs she’d been wearing since police first restrained her were Smith & Wesson. They were now linked to Peerless leg irons that were attached to an eyebolt embedded in the concrete bench of the holding cell.
Officer Klepper left the area and went on about her business elsewhere in the airport.
Officer Woyna was trying to complete the arrest and later recalled that he had tried to read Carol her Miranda Rights before the cell door was closed, but she kept yelling or spoke over him, so he finally gave up. He said it was only three or four minutes after she’d been locked up that he noticed “she had quit screaming.” He went to the door and looked in.
“He said that she was sitting on the floor with her face to the wall,” the police report notes. “Her head was on the bench and he thought that she might have fallen asleep, not an uncommon reaction after being arrested and allowed to calm down. He said that her face was resting on her hands and he first thought she had taken a nap. However, she would not respond when he called out to her. He then entered the holding cell and saw the handcuffs against her neck. Officer Woyna said that he yelled for assistance – [others heard him scream “Oh my God”] – and for someone to call fire as he immediately removed the cuffs and pulled her flat onto the floor.”
At 3:15 p.m., Mark (whose last name was not indicated in the police report) at the Sky Harbor communications office had this conversation with a firefighting paramedic: “Hi, I have police officers requesting fire over [at] the Terminal 4 police office…. They had a female in custody. They just asked me to roll fire, but they’re not saying why.
Fire: Ugh. Any way we can get any information from ’em?
Fire: OK, I will send one unit out. If you find out anything more, let me know so I can –
Mark: Oh yeah, we’ll call ya right away.
Three minutes later, at 3:17, Mark tells Fire, “I don’t have any information, but they did pull an AED [Automatic Electronic Defibrillator, meant to revive the heart].”
Fire: Oh, they did?
Mark: Yeah. I don’t know what they’ve got over there… hey, I’m, I’m checking with ’em right now.
Fire: OK, I’ll hold on.
Mark: …[Male voice talking in the background.] Got Fire standing by. We got a heart rate, but no breathing…
Fire: OK, it’s a code (meaning they’re responding to a dying or dead person).
Although the urgency of the situation had not been initially shared with fire officials, inside the cell, two Phoenix police officers were frantically trying to revive her. Officer Woyna “began CPR once he got her down on her back,” the police report continues. “He was giving mouth to mouth. He said that he did not have a mask and the woman aspirated into his mouth…. He told me that even after the woman vomited in his mouth he returned to giving mouth to mouth. At some point he was provided a mask to use.”
At the same time, Officer Jason Toth was doing chest compressions and hooked up the AED machine. But the machine, which has a voice command, told officers “do not shock.” They wondered if it was working properly, since they couldn’t get a pulse and would have expected the machine to demand a shock in hopes of reviving the patient. Woyna yelled that someone should advise fire to “step it up.” He and Toth were in the process of trying a second machine when paramedics arrived. “Officer Woyna said that he stepped away while fire worked the victim. He then left the room to throw up.”
Carol Gotbaum was officially pronounced dead by 3:29 p.m. – three hours and 11 minutes after she’d landed in Phoenix. Ten minutes earlier, when it was already obvious she had died, an officer called the airport’s communication center to call off the page that was still playing, seeking Carol Gotbaum to answer a call from the Cottonwood rehab center.
A husband pleads
3:38 p.m.: The public information officer at the airport is notified there’s been a death at Terminal 4. About the same time, Noah receives an e-mail from Cottonwood, informing him that Carol’s luggage has arrived in Tucson, but she’s not onboard. This is the first time he realizes she is missing.
4:07 p.m.: A counselor from Cottonwood calls the airport asking why the page has been canceled. The operator hides the truth and tells her it is standard procedure to cancel pages if they aren’t answered after 15 minutes.
If Carol’s cell phone had not been broken, it would have rung again and again over the next three hours as her husband tried to reach her. His futile calls to her are coupled with his increasingly frantic calls to Cottonwood, US Airways and Sky Harbor International Airport, begging for any information about his wife.
4:39 p.m.: Noah first talks with the airport communication center, which has known for an hour that Carol Gotbaum is dead. Noah explains, “She’s been bounced off a flight. The last thing I heard was she was screaming into the cell phone.” It is obvious he has no idea she’s been in contact with police or been arrested.
Operator Mark calls the Phoenix police office, asking what to tell the husband on the phone. “I want someone who’s professional to be talking to ’em,” responds Lieutenant Rich Gehlbach. “Not just blow it to ’em over the phone because I don’t know how he’ll react.”
Mark answers the officer: “Yeah, the only thing he’s saying is he got word she was, you know, screaming and carrying on at the checkpoint.”
Mark tells Noah: “We’re getting this information to our police officers. They’re gonna get back to you in just a few minutes.” Noah answers: “Yeah, is there… is something… is… can you tell me what’s happening? Do you have any idea?”
Mark puts him on hold, then comes back to say he checked with his supervisor and they have no information and the police will get back with him. Noah stresses how important it is to deal with this quickly: “Sounds like she’s in the middle of having a nervous breakdown,” he tells Mark. “I’m very, very concerned!!! She’s on the way to Tucson to go to a clinic there.” Mark tells him: “They should be back to you very shortly.”
5 p.m.: Benny from US Airways reservations in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who has been getting calls from Noah Gotbaum, calls Sky Harbor looking for Carol.
5:20 p.m.: Noah calls the communication center again, asking if they have heard anything. He’s put on hold as Mark calls police headquarters. Sergeant Don Steinmetz tells him to get a phone number so they can call him back because, “We can’t tell ’em what’s going on right now.” It’s in this conversation that Noah first learns his wife was taken into custody. Mark tells him he just talked to the police and “now he’s saying that there was an incident involving, uh, your wife, but beyond that he’s not making me privy to any other information.”
Noah is obviously distressed at the news: “Does he understand… about her… uh, the medical state? I mean, with all due respect, she is in a… in a really, really… and if they don’t know that, um, and they don’t know the background, um, this is a very dangerous situation we’re in right now. And I’m not…. I have no idea where she is. I haven’t talked to her. All I know is what you’ve told me and what I imagine has happened.”
Mark repeats that he has no more information and that two officers have Gotbaum’s number and they’ll call him back.
Noah pushes: “Can you tell them, please, that she is in a medical emergency? And that I need to discuss that with them because they’re playing with real fire right now…. This is someone who is… who is, um, uh, suicidal…. You’re dealing with, with medi… medical emergency, and if they don’t know that and they don’t understand what’s the background, um, it, it matters much worse and therefore, I suggest that someone give me a call immediately!”
5:31 p.m.: Channel 3 announces on its evening newscast that an unnamed woman has died at Sky International Harbor Airport, but they have no other details.
6:01 p.m.: Noah calls again, still having not heard anything from police or airport personnel. By now, supervisor Mike Set has come on duty and takes the call. He tells Noah he can’t patch him through to the police and he’ll just have to wait for officers to call him back because, “they’re still doing the investigation or whatever.” Noah by now has contacted a close family friend who lives in the Valley to personally intercede. He tells Set the friend is on his way to the terminal and “he will drive her down to Tucson to rehab.” He tries to impress on Set – as he had earlier with Mark – that the situation is serious and dangerous.
“They’re not dealing with someone who’s been just drinking on [a] flight and acting rowdy,” he says. “That’s not what’s going on here.” Noah describes Carol as suicidal, alcohol abusive and in a deep depression. He also laments that “she is all alone… and she should not be.”
6:07 p.m.: Family friend David Watson calls to say he’s at the executive terminal nearby and is on his way over to Sky Harbor to pick up Carol. He’s just five minutes away. “I understand you got Carol down there and if I want I can come get her,” he tells Set, who informs him that officers will meet him at the terminal.
Officer Eric Lumley describes their meeting like this: “I advised David and Christine Watson of the death of Carol Gotbaum. The news of this death caused them to be in disbelief, but upon their questions to us, they fully understood Carol Gotbaum’s death was a reality.”
Christine told Officer Lumley that Noah had originally hoped she and her husband could meet Carol’s plane when it landed briefly in Phoenix, but they’d been out of town. That afternoon, Noah had called again, saying there was a problem at the airport, and the Watson’s had flown home to Phoenix on their private plane.
Police told the Watsons they were trying to figure out the best way to notify Noah of his wife’s death. They had considered calling the New York Police Department and having an officer go to the Gotbaum residence, but David Watson felt he should be the one to tell him. The officers went with the Watsons to their car, where they used the phone to call.
6:30 p.m. Phoenix time, 9:30 p.m. New York time: David Watson told his friend that Carol had died in a holding cell after being arrested for disorderly conduct. Noah immediately cried out, “They killed her, they killed her.” Officer Lumley tried to talk with Noah, “but he was not in any mood to listen to the details of the incident.”
Police reports often don’t do justice to the emotions of the moment, and this is one of those times.
David and Christine Watson had been friends with the Gotbaums for years. Carol considered Christine one of her best friends. They’d just been on the phone the night before, on the eve of Carol’s flight, reassuring her that this trip to Cottonwood was a good idea. As David Watson would later recount to the New York Daily News, he told Carol, “This is the first day of the rest of your life.”
As the News reported: “The couple tried to talk Gotbaum into embracing the chance for a fresh start – and they said it seemed to work. ‘You could hear her tone change. She was giggling and looking forward by the end of the conversation,’ David Watson said.”
The paper reported the family was “outraged” by the circumstances of her death. “The Watsons are also mystified, particularly after watching video footage of burly cops dragging their hysterical friend through the terminal,” the story continued. “They said Gotbaum was no danger to anyone and just needed someone to calm her down. ‘If one of those strong policemen had been nice and hugged her it would’ve been OK,’ Christine Watson said.”
Phoenix police Officer Michael Polombo became the contact with the Gotbaum family. His police report notes that the day Carol died, he got two calls from her mother-in-law, Betsy Gotbaum, a top official in New York’s City Hall. Betsy Gotbaum is the Public Advocate for the City of New York. [She is the stepmother of Noah, whose father is Victor Gotbaum, a retired labor leader.]
According to the police report, Betsy Gotbaum initially called to get firsthand information on what had happened to her daughter-in-law. Her second call inquired about the level of media coverage. “I told her that the local network affiliates had responded to the airport and that it appeared to be a typical media response to a death that occurred at the international airport,” Officer Polombo said. “Betsy Gotbaum then asked me if we could use Carol Gotbaum’s maiden name, Carol Stiger, in any official reports, so as to insulate her and her family from media exposure.”
6:22 p.m.: Channel 5 called the airport to see if there was any more information before they went on the air to report an unnamed woman had died at the airport. Mike told them there wasn’t. But by the 10 p.m. newscast, the story had been fleshed out, naming Carol and running photographs of her and her children that were found in her purse.
And that’s how her seatmate, Jodi Hall, found out what had happened to her new friend.
She doesn’t think it takes much imagination to understand Carol’s reactions. “I know how she was feeling on the plane – she was very anxious – and then not getting on the plane [to Tucson] would have made it worse. To have people messing with her, touching her, I’m sure she was pretty agitated. I’m sure anyone would get pretty agitated.”
Jodi doesn’t play the blame game. “It’s hard to say who’s at fault. Only Carol and God knows what happened. It makes it difficult. Nobody should be judging anyway. It’s a sad situation. Maybe they shouldn’t have put her in there with handcuffs.”
Carol Gotbaum was buried after a memorial service on September 30 at the Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City. As the New York Daily News reported, it was “a day of piercing grief, of three small children saying goodbye to their mother, but Sunday’s funeral… also rippled with anger.”
The paper noted Rabbi Robert Levine said it was a tragedy that didn’t need to happen. “The central teaching of both Judaism and Christianity is to love your neighbor as yourself,” Levin is quoted as saying. “But at that airport… there was no such love offered to our Carol.”
Noah spoke at the funeral and is quoted as saying, “If the airline or the police authorities had treated Carol with some modicum of dignity and grace, or if one single person at that airport had put an arm around her shoulders, sat her down and given her some attention, she might still be with us today.”
Those funeral comments prompted a public rebuttal from the Phoenix Police Department, through its spokesman Andy Hill: “We respect the Gotbaum family’s right to ask for answers and express their grief,” he said, calling the situation “a tragic incident which saddened us all.” But he added: “The surveillance video revealed the unsuccessful attempts by witnesses and officers to calm Ms. Gotbaum. The lifesaving efforts of the police officers involved clearly demonstrated their concern for Ms. Gotbaum.”
Public reaction was swift and unforgiving. While a few blamed the police for not dealing with an obviously disturbed woman with more compassion, most turned their wrath on the Gotbaum family for allowing Carol to travel alone.
Reaction got so vicious that The Arizona Republic suspended “reader comments” about Gotbaum stories on its Website. Then-Editor Ward Bushee told PHOENIX magazine, “It has proven to be the only solution when comments begin to spiral rapidly out of control.” The Website does not allow comments that are profane, that amount to personal attacks or that use ethnic or religious bigotry, he noted.
Insiders say the comments were thick with anti-Jewish and anti-New York sentiments as well as hatred toward the family – “mean, vicious, awful stuff,” says Gotbaum family attorney Michael Manning. The Phoenix Police Department also received vile messages about the family, which prompted spokesman Andy Hill to say some of the comments were “uglier than the ones I heard about the Serial Shooters,” the gunmen Phoenix police say killed seven people and wounded 17 others in 2005 and 2006.
The state’s largest daily paper also laid blame squarely on the shoulders of the family. In an editorial titled “Shifting the Blame” on November 18, The Republic said it was “preposterous” to think police should have been able to anticipate the woman’s medical needs in the short 15 minutes they had her in custody before she died. They objected to a family doctor labeling the police behavior as “insensitive, crude, rude, brutal and aggressive.” They wrote: “The Gotbaum family of New York had quite a bit more than 15 minutes to determine the danger an out-of-control Carol posed to herself.
“Leaving her to travel alone to an alcohol treatment center across the continent is an unfortunate mistake family members, especially husband Noah, will have to live with the rest of their lives.
“Attempting to transfer their responsibility for that mistake to police officers with all of 15 minutes to figure her out is nothing short of insensitive, crude, rude, brutal and aggressive.”
E.J. Montini’s November 15 column was titled “Gotbaums Got Hatred, are Owed Thanks.” He noted that “indignant Arizona folks” had already told the family they felt that responsibility for Carol’s death belonged to herself and her loved ones; that locals didn’t take kindly to hiring heavy hitters to shift the blame to well-meaning police, but that Arizona hadn’t said thank you. “When a suspect dies in police custody, difficult questions should be asked,” Montini wrote. “That doesn’t always occur. Sometimes, it happens only if the deceased person has a family who can afford to hire an attorney like Michael Manning.”
Manning maintains that what officers knew in their first moments of contact with Carol was crucial. “They didn’t know if she was a diabetic, or on drugs or having a prescription drug overdose or was drunk. They did know she was completely mentally disabled [sic]. How do you not call for medical help? The only people with a constitutional right to medical care are people in confinement who are under the care, custody and control of officers. From the minute they cuffed her, officers are trained that she has a constitutional right to medical care. From beginning to end, this was a medical emergency, not a criminal emergency.”
In fact, the Phoenix Police Department well knows the difference and has a special training program for street officers on how to deal with people who are mentally unstable – the one sure thing they knew about Carol Gotbaum. It’s called Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) and has been in operation since 2001. The voluntary training program is based on a Memphis model and trains officers how to diffuse unstable and hysterical situations.
Officer Nick Margiotta runs the program in partnership with mental health groups in Maricopa County. The 40-hour bloc of training “increases awareness, reawakens empathy and teaches first responders how to deal with people in crisis,” he says. “A lot of times you really don’t know what you’re dealing with. It sounds so simple – you deal with what you see. You never jeopardize your officer’s safety, but a lot of things can de-escalate a situation – calm, reassuring tones, being aware of distance, that the person is afraid of you, that you need to allay their fear. It’s the tone of voice and doing a little bit of listening that usually is what it takes. It sounds so simple but it really is an acquired skill.”
There is no record of the officers involved in this case taking the CIT training, although witnesses attest to some attempts at calming her down.
Experts in the mental health and alcoholism fields see fault on both sides of this tragedy.
Dr. Andy Skodol of the Institute for Mental Health Research bemoans that “immediately the blaming mode kicks in and does nobody any good. What we need to look at is how it happened and what can we learn from this. When there’s the threat of litigation, people aren’t going to go there.”
He says from what he knows of the case, “It did seem she was having a psychiatric emergency,” and he notes this isn’t an unusual problem for police officers. “Many times, police are confronted with disruptive people,” he says, “and what should have happened with such a patient is she should have been taken to a psychiatric emergency facility where you allow a professional to determine her treatment. You never want to under-manage a patient like this. A person out of control can endanger themselves or someone else.”
But he also agrees the situation shouldn’t have been presented in the first place. “If it was my loved one that was fragile, I wouldn’t have sent her alone – things can go wrong, and their tolerance to handle it when things go wrong is not that great.”
Surprisingly, treatment centers apparently never demand or suggest patients be accompanied by family members. Cottonwood said it could not discuss its policies or protocols about new, arriving patients, but a blind call to the Betty Ford Clinic – the nation’s best known alcoholic treatment center – brought this response: “It’s up to you [about sending someone alone]. If the family feels fine about it, it’s fine.”
That’s not the response you’ll get if you ask Sally Lara, executive director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Her agency specializes in the treatment of women with substance abuse problems. She says the first thing anyone faced with an alcoholic family member learns is that “lying and manipulation becomes a habit – they’ll do anything to protect their addiction; they’ll say anything they have to say.”
She says the phrases families most hear are, “I’ll never do this again” and “I’m sorry.” It’s followed closely by, “I’ve got to prove this by doing it myself.”
So when she hears that Carol Gotbaum insisted on traveling alone to rehab, “I’d say she was going to drink on the way. She should never have been by herself. I’m very surprised.”
And Carol Gotbaum did drink on the way. On the plane, at the most, she had one bloody Mary. Speculation that she brought alcohol with her is countered by security measures that don’t allow more than 3 ounces of liquids to be brought on planes. So she had to have drunk once inside the Phoenix airport. Although neither police nor the family’s attorneys can find where she drank or how much, the autopsy showed her blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit in Arizona, or about 0.24. The medical examiner surmised it was a combination of alcohol and prescription drugs that made her intoxicated. Her system showed two anti-depressants, Celexa and Cymbalta, as well as alcohol, and both were exacerbated by her high adrenaline outburst. The official cause of death was “asphyxia due to hanging.”
Lara isn’t surprised that lethal combination led to a tragedy. “The combination of medications and alcohol can bring up paranoia and you lose control of yourself,” she says. “If she’d have lived, she might not have remembered any of this – she might have been in a blackout the whole time.”
Lara also sees what she thinks police did wrong. “You don’t put her in a room alone. You talk to her. You calm her down.”
Police say they tried that and it didn’t work. But Manning counters that eyewitnesses also note officers grabbed her arms in their first seconds of confronting her, and that handcuffs were already out and at the ready. He suggests they overreacted. “They knew she didn’t have a weapon because she was in a secure area,” he says. “They didn’t think she was suicidal and a threat to herself, they thought she was unstable. They’re cops, not medical personnel – that’s why they’re trained to call for medical help when confronted with a situation like this.”
Manning notes that in all his years of practice, which have included several high-profile cases against Sheriff Joe Arpaio, he has never sued the Phoenix Police Department. “I have a lot of respect for the Phoenix Police Department,” he says. “I’ve been offered 25 different cases against them and have never taken one.” He stresses the Gotbaum family isn’t “suit happy,” and they are in private talks with the city now about a settlement.
To this day, Noah Gotbaum finds it impossible to believe his wife is dead. He’s asked why he thinks the “terrorist” notion set her off so much, and this is what he says:
“This woman was the most gentle, loving person you’ll ever meet – ever. She couldn’t understand people being indifferent or cold. If someone is rude or mean, most of us get angry; Carol got hurt. It hurt her, I know, at that moment after the Good Samaritan came up and gave her his seat, that the airline wouldn’t let her on the plane. Why didn’t they just change the ticket? She felt the indifference.”
And then he’s asked the question everyone wants to ask him: What would you do differently? And he says this:
“There’s not a single day that I don’t replay every single phone call, e-mail and thought. Carol had decided the day before that she was ready to go to Cottonwood. She couldn’t stand being away from the children – it killed her to be away from the kids. She’d just been away for 10 days on Cape Cod. She’d flown by herself from New York to Boston and Boston to Provincetown just five days before [to visit his sister, Rachael, herself a recovering alcoholic – the two women attended AA meetings together]. It had been so hard for her and the kids – they’re in a new school and just getting settled. Now she had to tell them she was going away for a month – that was ripping her apart. Even though I said, ‘let me go with you,’ I knew it was a non-starter for her. No way, after just being away from the kids for 10 days, no way would she let me go with. She said, ‘You have to be here with the kids and I’m going to do this’. I had to be with the kids because they were really hurting.”
He says he wasn’t afraid she couldn’t make it because nothing in the past had hinted that she couldn’t. “We’ve traveled all our lives, and she’d traveled on her own all the time. And in the whole time of dealing with this [alcoholism], Carol never had more than a single drink in public. She didn’t drink outside the home. She’d never had any outbursts like this. Her friends, our friends and people at school didn’t know about this [alcoholism] until after Carol died because she kept her problems at home. All her therapists knew she was traveling alone and none said ‘you ought to go with.’ It wasn’t something they thought was necessary or that she’d have any problems.
“But to answer your question, what would I do differently? I’d have been more forceful and stronger and adamant about going with her. I wouldn’t have let her go alone. But that required me to essentially say to her, ‘I don’t trust you’. That would have been hard.”
And so Noah Gotbaum took his wife to JFK Airport that Friday morning and said goodbye to her at the security gate, promising to come to Tucson soon. She got on the plane and opened her journal, the cloth-covered notebook with flowers embroidered on the front.
As the plane took off, she finished her last entry: “God, please give me the strength to fight this disease. It is hurting the children, Noah and has taken over my life that I know I will die if I continue this way. Please be merciful.”