Legends of the Fall
Fred and Ceil Feldman sat down for coffee and toast inside their snug beachside condo just before 8 a.m. From their kitchen table, on the sixth floor, the elderly couple gazed in comfortable silence at the ocean. Life hadn't yet begun to buzz at Sands Pointe Condominium. Only white lounge chairs occupied the pool deck outside their door. Even the palm trees below, with their downturned fronds, looked sleepy.
Then there was a strange and heavy thump.
Fred set his mug down and stood up. "I thought a picture had fallen off the wall," he remembers.
Through the glass door, he caught a glimpse of a figure on his patio. It looked like a woman lying down. He walked closer and found a fair-skinned, 89-pound brunette face-down and limp. She wore pajamas with matching slippers. Near her head, blood formed a puddle on the cool concrete. Fred knew immediately: She was dead.
Her name was Khinna, and she had fallen from the sky. Or, more precisely, she had taken a dose of morphine, stood on a lawn chair, and jumped from her 24th-floor balcony. She was a 61-year-old terminal cancer patient. She had landed four feet from the Feldmans' patio door.
"Her body splattered everywhere," Ceil recalls with a deep breath. "She had to be removed piece by piece."
Fred paced around, trying to be a good decision maker. What do I do? Who do I call? My God, what are the odds? he thought. Ceil's blood pressure dropped so low she nearly fainted. She had to close her pretty brown eyes. In the distance, the pool glistened in the Florida sunshine.
Cops and firefighters arrived within minutes at the Sunny Isles Beach condo on that October morning in 2007. To them, the scene was nothing new: just another jumper.
Some cities have fabled bridges where the hopeless go to end it all. Others have eerie cliffs where bodies plunge into rocky canyons. In Miami-Dade, the suicidal have found their own vehicle for death: posh, shining, and often brand-new condo towers. Since the condo boom of 2007, at least 16 people have thrown themselves from the bright, private high-rises. In the past two years, the towers — which include the 1800 Club, Opera Tower, and Mirador — have hosted more jumpers than any other type of structure in the county.
Miami's 16 are of all ages, races, and backgrounds. Mental illness is the common thread. They include a lonesome millionaire, a gorgeous sorority girl, and a gay bartender who survived for hours after his leap. Their stories speak to what pulls a person to the ledge, the mysteries they leave behind, and the lives touched by their last fall.
It makes sense that the towers — which boast ocean-sunrise views like those in paintings — have attracted jumpers. The more mystique a place has, the more likely it will become a suicide spot, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (The Golden Gate Bridge, for example, has tallied an average of one victim every two weeks.) Most of the time, jumpers romanticize what will happen after they step over the edge. They believe they will hit the ground, die cleanly and quickly, and then be transported to a better place.
The truth is more disturbing. The Miami-Dade victims landed at 30 to 75 miles per hour — a death comparable to stepping in front of a speeding bus. Vertebrae snap. Lungs fill with blood. Skulls crack like eggs. The medical examiner's office has a name for it: "multiple blunt force injuries."
Although suicide takes more lives than homicide in America, the media has an awkward relationship with the sensitive subject. In Miami, not one of the jumps was reported in the news, although they take place in highly visible buildings, where hundreds of people live. It's understandable. Journalists have to ask themselves tough questions about privacy and social responsibility when covering these events. (One suicide prevention advocate told New Times that Golden Gate Bridge suicides are "the fault of the press for making something out of it.") So the subject is generally ignored.
There are no easy answers, says Dr. Paula Clayton of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "In other cities, we lobby for restrictions on bridges like nets and guard rails. How you do that in Miami, I have no idea."
It would be unfair to blame the developers, says Toni Pacelli-Hinkley, executive vice president of the Builders Association of South Florida. "I don't think it's a building trend — at least I certainly hope not," she says. "If someone is determined to take their own life, they'll find another vehicle to use."
What follows are the stories of the 16 dead as told by public records, loved ones, and witnesses. In some cases, identifying details and the names of surviving family members have been changed.
January 30, 2007
5:34 p.m., Island Shores
Felipe, a sad-eyed maintenance man at the Eden Roc Hotel, had tried it once before with heart medication. The overdose didn't work, so the 53-year-old climbed to the top of the 11-story, Easter-egg-yellow Island Shores. He gazed toward Maule Lake and then threw himself over the edge. A stranger was driving down NE 163rd Street when he saw Felipe's 140-pound body smash onto the pavement.
February 25, 2007
4:30 a.m., Jade Winds
Edina, a curvy model from Hungary, made the 911 call from the eighth floor. Her boyfriend, Zoltan, had gone ballistic, she told cops. After an evening together at Mansion nightclub in South Beach, he had begun to beat her.
Zoltan, a hulking 26-year-old bodybuilder, was born in Jordan. After living in Canada, he moved to Florida in January 2007 and began attending aviation school. A few weeks after the move, over a lamb and hummus dinner with his uncle, the tattooed muscleman spoke passionately about becoming a pilot. "We ate, we talked, we laughed," says the uncle, Mohod Flafil. They later made plans to go to mosque together.
In the wee hours of February 25, after drinking at the club, Zoltan drove his luxury car to Jade Winds Condo with Edina. There "a struggle ensued on the first floor," according to the medical examiner's investigative report. Edina, with bruises on her face and arms, "took off in an attempt to escape," and the couple left a trail of blood in the lobby and elevator. Zoltan chased her upstairs, where she hid in a friend's unit. She last saw her boyfriend near a balcony on the eighth floor.
When Miami-Dade Police arrived, they found Zoltan's 238-pound body sprawled on the roof of the first-floor balcony. He had a star-shaped fracture on the back of his head, broken ribs, and a hemorrhage in his left testicle, according to the autopsy report.
Zoltan's uncle — a cabinetmaker from Pompano Beach — believes he was murdered. "My nephew didn't kill himself," he insists, his grape-hued lips curving into a frown. "He loved himself."
On a recent muggy Tuesday, Flafil leans against the outside of a warehouse in Pompano Beach. He takes a drag off a Marlboro Light and points up at the sky. "Every time I see an airplane," he says softly. "I think of him."
April 7, 2007
7:57 a.m., Winston Towers
Ana awoke to find herself alone in bed. Her 85-year-old husband was nowhere to be seen. Nick was a Romanian-born building manager with round hazel eyes and a history of clinical depression. Ana shuffled down to the lobby and found a pack of firefighters, who gave her the news. He had fallen nearly 100 feet and landed in the parking lot. His head faced toward the sea.
April 23, 2007
7:04 a.m., Sailboat Cay
The wavy-haired stock market investor landed in a concrete planter after jumping from the sixth floor. Dominique's expensive wristwatch was covered in dirt, and seven of his ribs were broken. On his forehead was a cavernous wound. At age 55, he left behind a wife, two kids, and a carpet-cleaning shop named after him.
May 1, 2007
1 p.m., One Miami
On June 29, 2006, a quietly confident 24-year-old named Tavarius logged onto his financial blog. "It makes me feel good," he typed, "when individuals my age manage their wealth appropriately." Then he logged off.
The slim, stylish entrepreneur had made thousands in the stock market and liked to post investment advice. But money, friends now say, was to blame for his death.
Tavarius grew up in a two-story yellow house with his grandma Helen in Royal Palm Isles, a middle-class neighborhood in Broward County. Childhood friend Brandie Zackery remembers him this way: "We were the geeks until he got popular in high school... Even then, he was always humble, never stuck-up."
In college at Florida A&M, he hung with ambitious types. College pal Enitan Bereola compares Tavarius to Barack Obama: "He could tell you he believed in you, and you would believe in yourself."
Out one night in South Beach, Tavarius's group of friends got into an argument with restaurant management. People began to yell. "Tavarius stood up, apologized to the manager, and calmed everybody down," Bereola explains. "He was effortlessly cool."
After college, Tavarius founded a Miami-based boutique investment firm called iVestDirect and made thousands in no time. He recruited clients such as rapper Rico Love and lived in a luxury 17th-floor penthouse, just a few steps from Biscayne Bay.
But then the economy soured. As quickly as he'd earned it, Tavarius lost all of his money. It brought him down so low he stopped showering and shaving. He slept all day and wouldn't eat or talk much. On April 20, 2007, he was served an eviction notice, according to Miami-Dade court documents.
Ten days later, Tavarius invited some friends over to the penthouse for brunch. He didn't tell them he was getting kicked out. A group of people was upstairs playing videogames when George Caboverde, a teenage party promoter, drove up to the building. "Everybody went out and had a huge celebration the night before," Caboverde says. "I don't think they'd been to bed yet." Caboverde had ordered spicy shrimp from Chef Creole Seafood Takeout for Tavarius. He never got to eat it.
A few minutes after pulling up in his car, Caboverde spotted a slim, lifeless body near the driveway. It was Tavarius.
Miami Police Officer J. Garcia soon arrived and determined the party host had jumped. The cop noted, "I observed [Tavarius] laying in the southwest corner" of the lot, near the condo restaurant. In the right pocket of his gray shorts were the keys to his condo.
"They came in with a pressure washer right away and cleaned it up," Caboverde says. "It was like it never happened."
After Tavarius's death, investigators found he had "one pregnant girlfriend and another who had just undergone an abortion." His son was born two months later.
October 30, 2007
8:05 a.m., Sands Pointe
Khinna was beating the cancer that had grown inside her pelvis. Then, in fall 2006, the 61-year-old machinery worker learned it had come back. "I don't want to live like this anymore," she confessed to her family. The sunny morning before she killed herself, her husband stepped out to get her breakfast. He returned and found a lawn chair tipped over on the balcony. Below, Khinna lay dead on the Feldmans' patio.
April 19, 2008
7:20 a.m., Key Colony
Enrique spoke his last words in Spanish. "I've done something wrong, and you will cry," he told his wife. At 75 years old, the industrial fisherman had an anxiety disorder worsened by the death of his mother. At 4:30 a.m., he awoke feeling restless. In a fit, he took off his clothes, paced around the living room, and threw furniture over the balcony. He jumped from the ninth floor and landed in a small flower garden.
May 6, 2008
9:06 p.m., Mirador
His buddies called him "the Bartman" because his life stories were more exciting than fiction. A self-made millionaire and scuba diver, Bart was the life of the party at the Washington, D.C.-based National Potomac Yacht Club. "He was one of the most exciting, outrageous, and fun-loving guys we have ever known," clubber Harold Seigel wrote after his death. "We will be telling Bart stories for as long as we live."
But underneath those dimples and one-liners, something dark ate away at him.
Born in New York City in 1949, Bart was a competitive kid. That drive helped him found a Virginia-based company called Potomac Floor Covering, which would become one of the most successful tiling companies in the D.C. area.
He married young, kicked a coke habit, and divorced "many years ago," according to the coroner's report. In March 2005, he resigned from his position at the business and sold 9,000 shares of company stock for $1.8 million. The deal caused him a legal headache in 2007, when the buyers sued him in federal court. They claimed he cooked the books, and the case was settled out of court.
Other things were going wrong. Bart injured his knee and got hooked on painkillers. Around the same time, he discovered he had hepatitis C and enrolled in a research program for treatment at University of Miami. Retirement wasn't going the way he'd planned. Although his luxury waterfront condo had a sweeping view, the material things weren't cutting it.
The evening of May 6, 2008, a teenager was lounging in the living room of unit 1125 when he heard a noise. He looked up and noticed "something pass by [his] window, which looked like a person," a Miami Beach Police report states. It was Bart.
When cops arrived, they found the door to unit 1225 ajar. Inside, officers spotted "a wine glass with possible lipstick on the rim," a "syringe with unknown liquid," and "empty baggies on top of the dresser along with a spoon." Blood spots speckled the glass coffee table. A woman had been there, "possibly a prostitute," the medical examiner's investigative report says.
The fall broke both of Bart's legs, and he died on impact. In the days afterward, his lawyer, David Charles Masselli, explained that finances couldn't have triggered the suicide: Bart was loaded. He left behind a daughter.
May 10, 2008
9:40 a.m., Mirador
Jane left the window to Penthouse 3 half-open. The 57-year-old real estate agent had access to the spacious condo, which was under construction on the 17th floor. A Miami Hurricanes fan with bipolar disorder, she jumped in comfortable green sneakers and landed near the building's entrance. A baseball cap fluttered down behind her.
July 21, 2008
4:30 p.m., Bay Garden Manor
Jamie chooses to remember her handsome, green-eyed father before the sickness turned him into a stranger. It comes in images: his smiling face at the go-kart track, the warmth of water while they were boating, playing putt-putt in the sun. "He taught me to be so independent," she says. "He was such a loving father."
Her dad, Fabio, came to Miami from Cuba in 1964 on a nine-foot wooden boat with three friends. Midway through the trek, the motor broke, and they were stranded. Without water or food, they grew hot, thirsty, and hopeless. The slim 22-year-old contemplated drowning himself but was soon rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Once safe in Miami, he met a woman near the Key Biscayne lighthouse. They later married and had a daughter, Jamie. He landed a job moving industrial equipment and then eventually began to run the business himself. When Jamie was in college, he bought her a condo on the 11th floor of Bay Garden Manor. Life was humming along.
But things changed in his mid-50s. Though bipolar disorder usually hits men in their 20s, Fabio's disease coincided with his retirement, Jamie says. "He went through episodes of mania," she explains. "He would spend all of his money, shoplift, and drive around like a maniac. It wasn't him. It was his illness." His wife left him, and he began to get into trouble.
Fabio was arrested several times in the last years of his life. In 2007, a security guard at a Publix in North Miami Beach watched Fabio shove two Crest Spin toothbrushes down the front of his pants. Cops arrested him and charged him with petty theft. (He pleaded guilty and received probation.)
About a month later, a relative told Miami-Dade cops that Fabio stole his car. Fabio had sold the four-door 2003 Cadillac to his nephew, according to police reports. But he later showed up with a tow truck and had it hauled to a lot near Banyan Park.
Afterward, Fabio swiped his nephew's 9mm handgun from the glove compartment and ditched the car, according to police reports. He was in a state of mania. When cops caught up to him, he explained that his nephew had paid him only $2,000 for the $13,000 car and "was going to pay the remaining balance" but never did. Even so, officers charged him with armed grand theft auto. Again, he received probation.
He was arrested for indecent exposure three months later, though the case was dismissed. Later, a condo manager told police that Fabio "knocks on doors looking for kids on occasion" and "touches kids inappropriately."
After all the legal troubles, Jamie checked her father into a hospital for psychiatric treatment. He didn't adjust well. "Trust me, he had his problems," Jamie says. "But it was hard for him to go from being king of his business to living with schizophrenic people."
Psychologists had trouble prescribing medication that worked, and Fabio disliked taking pills, which made him feel nauseated. He also suffered from a prostate condition.
On the muggy afternoon of July 21, 2008, doctors told him he'd have to wear a catheter for the rest of his life.
As Jamie stepped into a yoga class that evening, her cell phone rang. She recognized the number: Miami Beach Police. The voice on the other line told her to come to the station, that something was wrong. Intuitively, she knew her father was dead. Instead of going to the cops, she went straight to the condo and found crime scene tape stretched across the parking lot. There she learned what had happened: Fabio had made his way to the fire escape on the 11th floor and slid out a window. He left no suicide note.
Jamie hasn't been back to the building since. "It's so hard to lose your dad," she says, blinking away tears. "I lost him to the disorder long before he died."
August 22, 2008
12:03 p.m., Triton Tower
Hector was 72 years old but looked much younger. Each morning, before his wife and son awoke, he'd walk for miles — sometimes from Bal Harbor to the southern end of the island. He had been depressed for years. "My dad used to give money to the less fortunate who lived on the beach," his son says. "While other people walked away from them, my dad talked to them."
When Hector's wife was away shopping August 22, he penned a goodbye note to his family. Afterward, he grabbed a kitchen knife and stabbed himself once in the chest and again in the lower torso. The blade tore through his teal polo shirt, but the wounds were shallow. When the knife didn't work, he stumbled to the window of his eighth-floor condo and jumped into a grassy yard.
Fire-rescue workers pronounced him dead at the scene.
His note read, "Adiós a todos" — Goodbye to all — "8-22-2008."
September 22, 2008
6:02 p.m., Hamptons South
It was a windy Monday, and Leon was sick of his job. The 39-year-old New Jersey native had hazel eyes and a short crop of curly brown hair. A newly married man with bipolar disorder, he resigned from his position at Communication Consultant Group before lunchtime. After he quit, he called his mother and told her the news. She picked him up at the train station and took him to therapy. Then they had lunch at a Chinese restaurant, where they ate rice and vegetables.
Back at his parents' condo that afternoon, his mom and dad retired for a nap. While they slept, he leapt from the eighth-floor balcony and crashed onto a chair below. The sound of police officers knocking at the door woke his father a couple of hours later.
January 8, 2009
2:47 a.m., Palms of Alton Road
Terry, a blond bartender at the gay nightclub Twist, left an 11-page handwritten suicide note on his kitchen table. It was addressed to different family members and offered bits of advice. To his younger cousin, he wrote, "Get an education." Dropping out of school was one of the things Terry regretted most.
Terry was born in 1971, the youngest of three sons in a quiet Detroit suburb. He was "an extremely good-looking child," remembers his mom, Ellie, "and one of the rowdiest kids in his nursery school."
Growing up, most of his close friends were girls. He hid his sexuality from his parents, who were active in the Roman Catholic Church and "raised him with good Christian values," Ellie says.
In his teenage years, Terry gained nearly 100 pounds and refused to go to school. Sometimes he would mutter he felt like killing himself. Mom sent him to a therapist, but Terry wouldn't say more than a few words. "There's nothing I can do for him," the counselor told her. "He won't talk to me."
At age 18, he left home, dropped out of community college, and became a Buddhist. He eventually ended up in South Beach, where he lost weight and made friends. He rarely phoned his parents. "I felt he pushed me away," Ellie says with a heavy sigh. "He didn't share a whole lot." Years later, when she traveled to Miami to visit him, he had metamorphosed into a trim, strikingly handsome social butterfly. People on the street would wave at Terry. "It was like he was a celebrity," she recalls. "They called him Mr. Miami."
The pay was good at the bar, and Terry was generous with his cash. If somebody had a birthday, he would buy the cake. If he knew a friend liked dirty martinis, he would make a special trip to the store. "Terry threw money around like crazy," Ellie remembers.
In 2001, public records show, he took out a $94,500 mortgage from Southeast Bankers Mortgage on Lincoln Road. But he soon got into trouble with the IRS and lost his condo, Ellie says. He owed creditors thousands.
Terry began to gain back the weight he lost, and Ellie suspects he went through a breakup.
The night before Terry died, he watched The Simpsons and ate a hamburger with a friend, Ellie says. Once they parted, he went home, unlocked his front door, and walked to the rear of unit 509 in the middle of the night. He gazed at the city lights and jumped. His body landed on the hood of a car.
Miami Beach Police were in the area and "heard a loud thump and then moaning," according to the coroner's report. When one officer approached Terry, he was still alive. "Why didn't I die?" he asked.
In pain, he pleaded for the officer to shoot him. Fire-rescue workers rushed him to Jackson Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead three hours later.
These days, the thought of Terry's fall wakes Ellie in the middle of the night. "I have a hard time going to sleep," she says with a shaky voice. "And his father cries in church every Sunday."
January 28, 2009
4:10 p.m., Mar Del Plata
Responding to a "777-777" — police code for a death investigation — Miami Beach Police Det. Robert Lawrence found Plácido slumped by the pool. The collision had broken his neck and knocked out his top teeth. The father of two hadn't been able to work since 1992 because of a disability. He had told psychiatrists at Mercy Hospital he was hallucinating. The voices in his head urged him: "You must die."
June 25, 2009
11:10 p.m., 1800 Club
Other girls were jealous of Jennifer. It seemed like the stunning Jewish brunette had everything. She was one of the brightest in her sorority, with a mellow demeanor guys loved and a well-off, supportive family. It made no sense, friends would say later, that she was prone to such impassioned breakdowns.
Jennifer was a New York native who moved to a one-story North Miami Beach home in 1996. In the front yard was a big tree that shaded a weathered basketball hoop. During high school, she traveled to Poland to explore the history of the Holocaust.
A few years later, in her sorority at Florida State University, she earned a reputation as "the funky, free-spirited one, as well as the smartest," says former roommate Carrie. Jennifer and Carrie roomed together sophomore year, with a Britney Spears poster on the wall and a closet full of shared clothes. Each night, Jennifer would stuff a towel in the crack under the bedroom door because she was paranoid about cockroaches. The roommates "talked about boys and shoes — just girl stuff," Carrie says.
She was away at grad school at Boston University in December 2007 when she first broke down. While studying dentistry, she was kicked out for "alcohol abuse," according to a medical examiner's report. She went to rehab but never stopped wanting to die.
Afterward, she moved back to Miami. She sometimes stole antianxiety pills from her mom's prescription bottle. She didn't like to be left alone.
By September 2008, she moved in with a boyfriend named Will at the 1800 Club, a sleek, 423-foot tower just a stone's throw from Margaret Pace Park.
Maria, who sits at the front desk, says the young couple would fight loudly and often. "The neighbors complained. They said, 'These people argue every day. How can they live together?'"
On June 24, Will returned home from a business trip and kept working. Jennifer "became hysterical because she felt she was being ignored," according to the medical examiner's investigation. She threatened to kill herself, so Will took her cell phone to call the cops.
"The argument became violent when [Jennifer] attempted to get her phone from him," the police report says. Dog walkers in the park below heard them shouting from their 32nd-floor balcony. "If you call them, I'm going to jump!" Jennifer screamed. Then she stepped onto a patio chair, climbed onto a rail, and sat there. "It's my time!" she yelled before plunging to the ground.
July 28, 2008
8:30 p.m., Opera Tower
Mariajose, a short 29-year-old with long brown locks, was hosting an afternoon pool party. "She seemed happy," says one close friend. "She had just moved into her new condo." Though she had been hospitalized for suicide attempts, she was excelling as an analyst for Burger King Corp. And it wouldn't be long before she'd be done with her master's in business at University of Miami.
Midway through the party, she and her boyfriend Victor "were involved in a heated argument," according to the medical examiner's investigation. She told him she wanted to die, so Victor left her 28th-floor condo to look for help from security guards. When he got downstairs, he saw "people on their cell phones, running frantically" toward Mariajose's bikini-clad body. She had a gaping wound on her head the size of an eggplant.
Fred and Ceil Feldman couldn't help but stare at the broken body on their patio. "As much as I didn't want to look," Fred remembers, "I had to."
The rest of the day was filled with questions from detectives. The Feldmans were trapped in the gruesome scene of Khinna's death: They weren't able to leave their home for hours. A cleaning crew finally began to wash the couple's blood-stained outdoor tables six hours later. Two men wore clunky masks and coveralls as they scrubbed the mess with toothbrush-size instruments. "The city sent them," Ceil says. "They looked like they'd come from the moon."
These days, Fred, an 81-year-old retired businessman, sometimes wonders about that fateful morning. What if he and Ceil had decided to have coffee outside? Would they be alive? And what if Khinna's husband hadn't left to fetch breakfast? Or if the cancer hadn't come back?
Fred and Ceil don't pretend to know what went on in that poor woman's mind. "It may seem strange," Fred says, "but we feel lucky to be alive."
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