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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."
Gail Berry says Carpenter had given little indication of the series of events he had already set in motion. "On Sunday he told me to rake the needles from the Australian pine tree off the deck in the back yard," Berry says. "He said, `I'm not always going to be here to clean off those needles.' And he went out and bought a month's worth of wet food for the cat. We always had this running battle about whether the cat should have wet or dry food, and he didn't think the cat should have to suffer without wet food." Unbeknownst to Berry, Carpenter also went out and bought a .38-caliber revolver.
He made other preparations, too, and left other instructions. "I tried to make it simple," Carpenter noted in the four-page letter found in his briefcase, addressed simply to "Authorities." The word "simple" had been crossed out and "organized" written in its place. "The apt. is secured," the note read, "i.e., balcony shutters down, humidistat on. There is no need to rush up here." The letter also included an apology to fire-station personnel: "I am sorry for using this facility for this purpose."
"Bill was the most neat, meticulous, organized person," says Pam Roenfeldt. "He was the kind of person that never had one hair out of place. He made me crazy." In fact, Roenfeldt adds, it was Carpenter's penchant for fastidiousness that botched an earlier attempt at suicide, in 1985. "He laid out notes with instructions and then he called me," Roenfeldt recalls. "He specifically arranged for police to go over quickly so that he could donate his organs. I kept him on the phone for an hour and a half and asked someone else in the office to call the police. When they got to Bill's place, they knocked on the door and Bill opened it. That's how they stopped him."
Once again, much of Carpenter's planning had been devoted to ensuring that police and medical personnel were aware that he was a registered organ donor. Choosing the Coral Gables fire station where Guy Gooch, a friend for ten years, works as a firefighter, was an integral part of the plan. "I guess he picked the station because I worked here and he knew he would get immediate attention," says Gooch. "The paramedics knew he was an organ donor. When they arrived at the hospital, they were yelling down the hall at the doctors that he is an organ donor." The afternoon Bill Carpenter decided to shoot himself, however, Guy Gooch had the day off.
In Carpenter's wallet, which accompanied him to Jackson, was an organ-donor card and his driver license, which had a red organ-donor stamp embossed on the lower right-hand corner. "He always talked to everyone he knew about donating their organs," Berry says. "He always said if more people donated their organs, scientists wouldn't have to use animals for experimentation. And even if the organs couldn't be used for transplants, they could be used for research purposes." So that there would be no mistaking his intentions, Carpenter left additional explicit instructions for the authorities. "I am to be cremated after my organs have been removed for transplant purposes," he wrote, suggesting that his status as a donor be verified "on license and in state computer." Almost as an afterthought, aware that his skin, too, could be donated, Carpenter added, "My tattoo is not to be transplanted."
On Tuesday night, Roenfeldt and Berry met Detective Andres when he came to Berry's home to question the women. For the next three hours, as friends and family members gathered at the town house, Andres sat in the living room, interrogating the women. "He was acting like he was king shit," Berry says. "It was a perfect waste of time. He accomplished nothing. I wouldn't have allowed him in the house because I was so furious at the way things had been handled up until then. But Pam said that maybe by talking with him that night, we could avoid having to go to the police station the next
Because Andres did not bring along the briefcase with the four pages of instructions, Roenfeldt and Berry had no way of knowing Carpenter's wishes. "I knew his preference was to be cremated, but I didn't know he had a major problem with the funeral, about a viewing, about a newspaper notice," says Roenfeldt, who paid $3000 for the funeral services. Contrary to Carpenter's instructions, a newspaper notice announcing the death ran in the Miami Herald for two consecutive days. Roenfeldt and Berry had taken it upon themselves to notify Carpenter's daughter, as well as other family members and friends. The family also had Carpenter's car voluntarily repossessed by General Motors Acceptance Corp., which had financed the Oldsmobile. From Monday until Thursday of that week, however, the car sat in the lot of the towing company, baking the bloodstains irreparably into the upholstery. Roenfeldt says Andres insisted that Carpenter's daughter, who was the only relative legally entitled to take possession of Carpenter's belongings, hire a lawyer because of the complicated transactions necessary to turn over a dead person's property. "All it took was filling out one little form," Roenfeldt says. "All she had to do was show ID and sign for it. Bill loved that car. He washed that car every other day. If nothing else, that's the least we could do for him. We tried and tried but couldn't save it."
Andres, a nine-year veteran of the Metro-Dade force, answers questions tersely. "That's evidence," he says without elaboration, explaining why the family was not permitted to see the notes until two days after Carpenter's death. He says he didn't call the family sooner because of other work he had to attend to. "There's more than one death in Miami in one night," he says with no trace of humor. "We could have waited until the next working day but we tried not to do that. I didn't get back until four o'clock in the morning. That's when I called." Although Carpenter's death has been ruled a suicide, Andres says the police report is en route to the file room at Metro-Dade Police headquarters, and he declines to answer any specific questions about the case.
It was not until Tuesday, after Carpenter's body was transported to Ahern Plummer Funeral Home on Bird Road, that Roenfeldt found out Carpenter's organs had not been removed. "When the funeral home got him, they said they didn't feel that had been done," she says. "When I called Jackson, they didn't have records of him ever being there. By that time, it was too late." The next day, Berry and Roenfeldt say they asked Andres about the organ donation. "He told us none of the organs had been donated," Berry says. "We asked him why. He said he didn't know. He said nothing. The way that they handled us was totally incompetent and insensitive. And not honoring his wishes is unforgivable. Everything they could've done wrong, they did wrong. It's a total puzzlement."
Juanita Spires, transplant coordinator for the University of Miami Organ Procurement Program, the agency that screens and harvests organs from Jackson patients, says her records show she was not contacted. Spires, who estimates that 25 percent of organ donors have suffered gunshot wounds to the head, says Carpenter's case may not have been referred because of several medical conditions that might possibly have rendered him ineligible for donation, including cardiac death. A patient must be pronounced brain dead, Spires explains, but must have his heart and other organs kept functioning on life-support equipment, in order for the organs to be considered for donation. "If he were alive when he came in or suffered brain death and was on a respirator, we should have been called," Spires says. "Nobody called us. We have no way of knowing who comes into the emergency room unless the hospital notifies us."
According to Spires, her agency receives 250 referrals each year from Jackson. Of that number, organs from only 100 are suitable for donation. And the price of extracting organs for research purposes, which entails the same medical procedures and costs as those used for transplant, are prohibitive. Procuring one kidney, for example, costs between $10,000 and $12,000. "It's just too expensive," Spires says. (Dr. Greg Gelman, whose name is listed in the Dade medical examiner's files as the physician present when Carpenter was pronounced dead, did not return telephone calls from New Times.)
Dr. B.E. Buck, associate director of the UM Tissue Bank, says his office examined Carpenter as a possible donor the morning after Carpenter died. While the Organ Procurement Program must be notified before a patient's heart stops beating, the tissue bank, which harvests corneas, bone, and skin, can wait up to 24 hours after death, and evaluates donors twice per day at the medical examiner's office. "We realized he wasn't a good candidate for either vital organs or tissue," Buck says. "We turn down two to three cases every day. He was not a candidate for us." The spread of bacteria, which enter through wounds, disqualified Carpenter for organ donation, Buck concluded. "Large gunshot wounds generally exclude the donor because they will contaminate the body," says Buck. "If we believe it was too bad an injury, we won't take the case."
The method one chooses in committing suicide often determines whether a victim's organs can be used, adds John McCleland, manager of the Regional Organ Procurement Agency at the UCLA medical campus in Los Angeles. "Using a smaller-caliber pistol would help, because there'd be more of a chance of stabilizing the patient for a longer time," McCleland explains. "With a larger-caliber weapon, you die too quickly to mobilize a team to take advantage of a donation." A large-caliber weapon also results in an exit wound, which multiplies the chances of infection, as well as the loss of blood. But according to McCleland, virtually every method of suicide presents problems for organ donation: drug overdoses tend to damage the organs; hanging takes too long, which means that cardiac arrest usually precedes brain death and the oxygen supply to the organs is cut off; slitting the wrists results in too great a loss of blood, causing the organs to stop functioning.
Bill Carpenter's ashes were scattered off Elliot Key in Biscayne Bay on the blustery Saturday afternoon after he died, in a small ceremony attended by members of his family and a few friends. The man who had so meticulously planned his death, whose last attempts to control his life entailed choreographing his death, had unwittingly sabotaged his own chances for organ donation. "His first objective was to kill himself," says Carpenter's friend Guy Gooch. "And he did a good job at that. In terms of donating his organs, that was a total screw-up on his part. He didn't know."
"Poor Bill," adds Pam Roenfeldt. "With everything he knew, he didn't know that one little thing. He wanted everything to be so neat and clean, and it was not that. It was not that at all.