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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Monday, May 13 was the day Bill Carpenter made several choices that would affect him, and those closest to him, for the rest of his life - and then some. That was the day Carpenter drove from his home in southwest Dade to a particular location in Coral Gables. And that was the day Carpenter tried to kill himself. Ever the careful planner, a stickler for details, Bill Carpenter's preparations for suicide were no exception. But unfortunately for Carpenter, his family, and his friends, he didn't plan quite carefully enough.
The afternoon at the Salzedo Avenue fire station had been quiet - no emergencies, no action except for a spirited game of volleyball outside the firehouse. Shortly after 5:30 p.m., one of the firemen saw a white car make a U-turn at the end of the road in back of the station and park in one of the metered spaces. Between the slap of spiked balls, he heard a loud pop, like a car backfiring. Deciding to take a closer look at the Olds Cutlass and its motionless driver, the fireman intentionally rolled the volleyball down the street toward the car, catching up to it a few feet from the door.
When the fireman peered into the car, Bill Carpenter was slumped in the front seat, surrounded by a deep crimson stain that was spreading across the light-colored upholstery. In his right hand, he clutched a .38-caliber pistol. He was still alive.
After paramedics rushed Carpenter to Jackson Memorial Hospital, Antonio Andres, a Metro-Dade homicide detective, arrived on the scene. A note, which had been covered with tape to shield it from the inevitable spray of blood, lay beside where Carpenter had sat. (Although police files make Bill Carpenter's identity a matter of public record, New Times has agreed to honor his family's request for anonymity. For the purposes of this article, he will be referred to as Bill Carpenter. His live-in companion, who likewise wishes not to be identified, will be referred to as Gail Berry. No other names have been changed.) "My message is in briefcase," the note read, referring to an attache case on the back seat. Impounding the note and the briefcase as evidence in a possible murder, Andres sped off to the next scene, a hit-and-run accident involving a little girl. Dade Towing and Recovery picked up the Oldsmobile and hauled it to their South Miami lot.
A former cash-register salesman, Carpenter had grappled with bouts of depression since being laid off as regional manager for a cash register company in January. "Initially he felt confident because his network was so strong," says Pam Roenfeldt, a close friend who had known Carpenter for fifteen years. "But it was hard times. He realized the younger men were there, too. At the beginning, my husband and I would ask him how certain leads were going. After a while we got embarrassed to ask. We figured if something came through, Bill would tell us about it. We backed off. He was starting to build this little wall emotionally. He didn't want to be a burden to anyone."
Gail Berry, Carpenter's live-in companion, arrived at Miami International Airport that night at 8:09 p.m. When she stepped off the US Air flight from Chicago, she was surprised that the perpetually punctual Carpenter was not waiting to pick her up. At nine o'clock, feeling alternately angry and panic-stricken, she caught a taxi home, where she found a handwritten note. "This ain't too cool for you. Sure didn't want to hurt you," Carpenter had printed clearly in capital letters. "Buttons, water my stupid garden. I'm not good for you. I couldn't start over again at 60. I'm at pease now," he wrote, misspelling peace. Believing that the note meant Carpenter wanted to break off their relationship, Berry called Pam Roenfeldt and read the letter to her over the phone. "That's a suicide note," said Roenfeldt, who telephoned Switchboard of Miami, a suicide hotline manned by volunteers. She was instructed to call Metro-Dade Police. At 10:00 p.m. Berry spoke to Metro-Dade Det. Juan Murias, who issued an all-points bulletin for Carpenter in Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties.
Nearly two hours after that, Berry called Murias, who told her that a Detective Andres had been put in charge of the case. "He said if Andres didn't call us, for us to give him a call after three the next afternoon," Berry says. Murias did not tell Berry that Detective Andres was a Metro homicide investigator.
Carpenter, bleeding profusely from the wound on his right temple, was barely alive when he arrived at Jackson at 6:27 p.m., and at 6:50 p.m. a neurologist concluded that the patient could not be saved. "Consider for organ donor," the doctor noted on the patient's chart. Thirty-five minutes later, Bill Carpenter, who had turned 59 the week before, was pronounced dead.
The call from Detective Andres, who was putting in his fifth hour of overtime for that shift, came at four o'clock Tuesday morning, nearly eleven hours after Bill Carpenter shot himself. And the call came not to Berry, but to Pam Roenfeldt, whose name and telephone number, along with those of other friends and family members, Carpenter had included on one of the notes he'd put in his briefcase. "He asked me a series of questions," Roenfeldt recalls, "and I kept asking him, `Where's Bill? Where's Bill? After he had all the information he needed, he said, `Well, the deceased is at the medical examiner's office.' It took me a second to realize Bill was dead. Andres wouldn't tell me what had happened."