NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ— On February 14, an employee at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) passed away, becoming the most recent victim in a little known rash of deaths taking place at New Brunswick’s parking decks.
Seven others have also died by falling from public parking decks here, including at least one other worker at the hospital.
These deaths include a Rutgers graduate student of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and Elizabeth Johnsen, a nurse who had worked for several years at the hospital.
Unlike other cities who have faced similar rates of suicide, officials at New Brunswick’s parking authority have done little to prevent such tragedies.
New Brunswick Parking Authority (NBPA) officials have publicly disclosed their installation of signs advertising New Jersey’s Hopeline in all parking garages and perimeter alarms along the public parking deck attached to the RWJUH.
However, both of these preventative measures are relatively ineffective. Many people who intend to die by suicide do not bring their phones with them. There would be lag time between perimeter crossing and the arrival of help.
Although authorities are not transparent about additional measures that they may have taken, they have not implemented substantial physical barriers- the most effective suicide prevention measure.
A spokesperson for RWJUH has not responded to questions about what mental health services are available to their staff.
WHAT SHOULD THE NBPA DO?
Kim Kane, the Project Director of the Idaho Lives Project of Boise, Idaho, has more than a decade’s worth of experience in professional suicide prevention.
Kane was the project manager of the Suicide Prevention Program of Idaho during which parking garages were investigated to prevent suicides.
The program’s publications have documented that parking garages are an at-risk location for attempts of suicide by jumping because they provide easier access to greater heights, are open and well-ventilated, and tend to lack security personnel.
The Suicide Prevention Program made an informal investigation of six downtown parking garages of Boise, Idaho after one suicide attempt and one near suicide attempt occurred in one of downtown Boise’s parking garages.
The results of their investigation, as well as the six recommendations made to improve parking garage facilities, can be found at the Suicide Prevention Resource Center website.
After the investigation, the team contacted the developer of the downtown parking garages, the Capital City Development Corporation, to discuss their findings and make certain life-saving recommendations.
Kane described the Capital City Development Corporation as a “wonderful partner” to work with because, she said, they “adopted almost every single one of the six recommendations we made, including the most protective one,” preventative structural barriers, in order to prevent suicides.
Barriers are the most “expensive” and “intrusive” method of suicide prevention, but are also the only method proven to prevent deaths.
“Once you put barriers up, suicides typically go to zero,” Kane explained.
“Even if you put nets up, it’s not like they’re pulling people out of nets. People look at barriers and their brain goes, ‘oh, somebody cared enough to put up a net here.’
“People we lose to suicide… it’s not about wanting to die. It’s about wanting to put an end to their psychological pain and they just don’t see any other way out,” said Kane. “They don’t see any other way out because their thinking is very narrow. They’re usually looking for any sense of belongingness or connection they can have.”
Individuals experiencing a mental health crisis are not thinking clearly or rationally. Due to the fact that their thinking is very narrow, they are also unable to simply substitute their means once their initial method is restricted.
“Usually that narrow thinking includes their means. Means restriction is actually one of the very few things we know that actually reduces suicide rates,” Kane said.
People often become fixated on one means of suicide, and in restricting access to those means, their death is prevented.
“Barriers are the only thing that make a difference,” she has found in her 15 years of working in suicide prevention.
The International Parking & Mobility Institute, the largest organization of professionals in transportation and parking, has also published Suicide in Parking Facilities: Prevention, Response, and Recovery: a guide intended for use by parking facilities’ management, designers, developers and operators as a guide in suicide prevention, response and recovery.
The Editor of New Brunswick Today has tried to broach the topic of these parking deck suicides during the public comment portion of several NBPA Board of Commissioners meetings.
The board members avoided providing transparent or meaningful explanations as to how they are handling the situation.
Methods beyond perimeter alarms along one of the eight parking decks and signage to raise awareness of the suicide hotlines have not been publicly described.
On February 27, 2019, NBToday Editor Charlie Kratovil asked the NBPA Board about the Rutgers graduate student’s death that had occurred on February 3, 2019.
“I’m very concerned because I believe that since 2014 this would be at least the seventh person whose life ended in this way,” Kratovil said. “It’s pretty apparent that there’s a need for more action to be taken. I trust that the Parking Authority is going to do something about this before another person’s life ends in this way.”
The suicide count via New Brunswick Parking decks has risen to eight since that discussion.
“So it’s a serious issue, you know. We take it seriously,” said Kevin McTernan, the Chairman of the NBPA Board and a longtime official with RWJUH.
“We review our procedures from time to time to make sure that we’re looking at all the available options,” continued McTernan. “We’re looking… I don’t think we’re ready to talk about all the things we’re looking at today but we are–We study it, we take it seriously. It’s a horrible situation.”
“Can you talk a little bit about what is in place now?” Kratovil asked.
“Prefer not to,” said NBPA Executive Director Mitch Karon. “For security purposes, I prefer not to reveal that.”
Nearly two years earlier, following the suicide of Perez, board members had told Kratovil that, in addition to signage about the New Jersey Hopeline, the parking deck attached to RWJUH had a perimeter system in place that alerts Parking Services personnel with an alarm when that perimeter is crossed.
However, there would be inevitable lag time between an individual crossing the barrier and the arrival of Parking Services personnel.
In this 2017 meeting, they had also said that they planned to implement these perimeter systems on several other parking decks.
An update to that plan has not been publicly disclosed.
Evidently, this preventative measure did not stop Edwin Trent’s tragic death on February 14.
A NBPA Board meeting was scheduled for February 26, less than two weeks after the tragedy, but the meeting was cancelled.
“Perimeter alarms?” Kane met the idea of perimeter alarms as a means of suicide prevention with skepticism. “How much notice does that give somebody? A person can jump in a split second. This is the first time I’ve heard about someone using perimeter alarms.”
“The Parking Authority built these garages,” Kratovil said in an interview. “It’s their responsibility to make sure they’re safe places and that they’re not going to be a hazard or a danger to the community. Obviously if people are dying or falling from these facilities, it’s a problem that’s on them to address.”
Kane agreed that the owners of garages have a responsibility to ensure the safety of their public facilities.
“If a parking garage owner continues to ignore suicides at their facilities and neglect to take known preventative measures to prevent those deaths, that can be very problematic for them,” Kane said.
“It would be pretty easy at this point in what we know about parking garages and knowing that barriers are the only thing that make a difference for someone in a court case to say, ‘yeah, they put up those signs… but those don’t work, and they’re known not to work.’”
Stephen Johnsen, the widowed husband of one of the victims, said that even if substantial preventative measures could be intrusive or expensive, the danger posed to vulnerable lives should outweigh such concerns.
“Putting up the signs is very cheap, and that’s the problem,” Stephen Johnsen said. “The problem is, your facility has now become a place that’s popular for taking your life.”
“The signs are something that can be done quickly,” Kane said. She explained that signs should be installed as a quick remedy while other more substantial methods are being implemented.
The effectiveness of signs in suicide prevention has been studied at bridges, where the method of death by jumping is similar to that of parking garages.
“There’s really not good evidence that signs matter all that much,” Kane said.
Most people intending to attempt suicide do not bring their phones with them, so hotlines are largely ineffective in these situations, according to Kane.
Johnsen remembers that his wife did not bring her phone with her when she died by suicide because that was “highly unusual” for her.
“At first when I found out what happened, I kept asking myself, ‘Why wasn’t I there? Why wasn’t I there? Why didn’t she call me? Why didn’t she call me?’” Johnsen said.
“I didn’t find out until later that she didn’t have the phone with her, which was unusual. She always wanted the phone with her in case of emergencies, but she left her phone on the dresser. She purposely did that.”
“What concerns me is their lack of transparency,” Kane said regarding the NBPA. “Typically, when I run into organizations that are really not transparent, it’s because they’re afraid that they’re not doing enough. They’re so much better off being transparent and saying, ‘hey, we need help with this.’
“We don’t expect the people running the parking authority to know a lot about suicide. They shouldn’t be embarrassed by it. It’s OK if they don’t know, but there are people who would be willing to help them.”
Besides physical barriers to prevent suicide, public education and professional training are also important.
The two most important recommendations given to the Capital City Development Corporation for preventing suicide in their garages were physical barriers and professional training to prevent suicide.
The Capital City Development Corporation implemented general gatekeeper training to all staff on-site. Leadership roles were provided with Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST). ASIST training involves teaching people how to provide immediate safety to someone experiencing a mental health crisis.
“Duties of the Authority are to construct, improve, maintain and operate off-street parking facilities… and to improve conditions affecting public safety and welfare,” the New Brunswick Parking Authority’s website reads.
The mission statement of the NBPA includes “providing and maintaining parking services and facilities that are clean, safe, and affordable.”
Their website encourages concerned people to contact them “if you have a question and or need to report any issues.”
The next public NBPA meeting is scheduled for March 27 at 5pm in the sixth floor conference room at 106 Somerset Street.
WHO WERE THE VICTIMS?
Edwin Trent, a 30-year-old Edison resident, dedicated his life to his love of helping people.
His generosity showed through the comfort, support, and kindness he provided to every individual he could.
Trent graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in Cell Biology and Neuroscience so that he could pursue a career in medicine. He also had an extensive history of dedicating his time to serving those in need. He volunteered at Princeton’s SAVE animal shelter, worked as an EMT with the Edison Fire Department, and provided companionship and comfort to his “brothers in song” of the Rutgers Glee Club.
Dr. Patrick Gardner, the director of the Rutgers Glee club, tearfully directed more than 60 club members and alumni as they performed two songs during Trent’s funeral service: the Rutgers Prayer and Spasyeniye Sodelal.
Gardner recalled his most precious memories of Trent, all of which speak to Trent’s selflessness and compassion.
Prior to Trent’s first European tour overseas with the choir, he asked to bring his first aid kit with him.
He was training to be an EMT at the time, and wanted to make sure he could provide help if anybody needed it.
Gardner obliged, luckily. Soon after their group arrived in Italy, a club member injured himself attempting parkour.
Trent was quickly beside his friend, cleansing and bandaging his wounds. His care and diligence earned him his affectionate title as the “Glee Club EMT.”
“Ask anyone here, and they’ll tell you how hard it is to get an excused absence from practice,” Gardner said. Many Glee Club members chuckled between their tears.
Despite the difficulty, Trent would request excused absences whenever his sister, Jenna, needed him. Gardner recalled that Trent would say that being there for his sister was “absolutely necessary.”
“They were a team on their own.”
Trent was closest to his sister, but his extended “family” included his co-workers at RWJUH.
They called themselves the Robert Wood Johnson family. He initially worked as an OR technician for five years, before being promoted to OR coordinator of Pre-Operative Services.
“I could just call him up, and he’d have my back,” Sid, a Recovery Department Technician, said at Trent’s service.
He and Trent often crossed paths before and after their shifts at their lockers. They considered themselves family because their work couldn’t be done alone, Sid said, doing what they had to do to keep “saving lives.”
Donna and Jason, Trent’s coworkers in the OR department, agreed that Trent’s kindness and reliability made him a remarkable team member.
Trent would celebrate successes and encourage his team with high fives and smiles.
“Always a jokester,” Donna said. “He was always cracking jokes.”
On February 14, Edwin Trent worked his last shift in the OR department.
That night at around 11 p.m., Trent died by suicide after jumping from a parking deck owned by the NBPA.
Almost six years earlier, another suicide took place at that same parking deck.
Elizabeth Johnsen also worked for several years at RWJUH in New Brunswick.
She was born in Asheville, North Carolina, attended school overseas in Italy, and graduated from the American Overseas School of Rome. She earned her nursing degree from the University of Rochester, New York, and Grace College, Indiana.
When she and her husband Stephen Johnsen met, she rented an apartment with her sister Deborah Smith, her best friend, at the time. They lived on Hamilton Street on the border between New Brunswick and Somerset, within walking distance of her nursing job at RWJUH.
Elizabeth Johnsen and her sister were especially close. They grew up in Italy together and then moved to the United States.
They spent a lot of time talking together on the phone after they stopped living together, or kept in touch online after her husband taught her how to use their computer.
Elizabeth Johnsen loved art; she painted, enjoyed music, and wrote beautiful poetry.
“I wish I could write like she wrote,” her husband, Stephen Johnsen, said. “She had a way of writing that was musical, poetic… She would write about her feelings and then would write out prayers after that. I still find things every now and then when I’m digging through things. She would write something, and then put it somewhere. She was a beautiful writer.”
While she loved to help people and wanted to better the lives of others, she was very quiet and reserved. She neither boasted nor bragged about her successes, and instead “worked behind the scenes,” said her husband.
Her husband remembers that she “hated the spotlight” although the hard work she put into her job was remarkable, describing her as a sensitive person who was very conscientious.
“She came here on her own, she put herself through school, she was hard-working,” he said. “When I married her she worked two nursing jobs, and I said, ‘honey, you don’t have to do that’… But she did that.’”
Johnsen was a compassionate and diligent nurse who dedicated her time to caring for others.
“She really did care about people,” her husband said. “That’s why she wanted to be a nurse, because she wanted to help people. Her mom was a nurse, and as a little girl she wanted to be a nurse. She wanted to do something for them, their pain and suffering.”
Although she worked with dedication and showed kindness to the people in her life, Johnsen struggled and often bottled her emotions up inside.
“She was afraid to go into work,” her husband recalled. “There’s a difference between hating work and being afraid, and she was afraid.”
Johnsen had great compassion for her patients and cared for her job, but also faced immense pressure from superiors with unreasonable time constraints, he said. She feared making any errors or facing reprimand.
“She knew what she was doing, but everything else that was for that job got to her. There was a lot of pressure and tension,” her husband said. He feared that she did not have the support that she needed while working.
“It was killing her emotionally.”
On June 4, 2014, Johnsen was scheduled to work at the RWJUH in the Same Day Surgery Department located in the Atrium. However, she was a “no call, no show,” according to a police report.
She had spoken to her husband that day: “She sounded strange,” but she refused his offers to come home early from out-of-state.
Later, Johnsen left her home in the middle of the night, without her phone, after texting her mother X’s and O’s for the last time.
Elizabeth Johnsen died by suicide that night at 3:27am.
Dressed in her blue scrubs and white sneakers, she jumped from the parking deck attached to the hospital on June 5, 2014.
She fell from the same parking deck that Edwin Trent would die by jumping from almost six years later.
On January 23, 2015, parking deck personnel found a loving wife and mother of six children from Barnegat, New Jersey, sitting on the ledge of another NBPA deck.
They tried to talk to her, but she refused their help.
“Leave me alone and don’t come any closer,” she said before jumping to her death.
On October 18, 2015, a nurse from Monroe Township killed herself by jumping from another NBPA deck.
On December 1, 2015, a woman was seen standing over the railing of a New Brunswick Parking Deck. A passerby spoke to her, trying to prevent her death, but was ultimately unsuccessful.
“Goodbye,” the victim said before opening her arms and jumping off the deck. She was pronounced dead by 2:56pm.
The fourth death led the NBPA to install signs that advertise the “New Jersey Hopeline” in parking deck stairwells and elevators.
Since installing these signs, four more deaths have taken place.
Pascual Perez was described by his family and friends as an “energetic” and “vibrant” individual whose smile “would light up a room.”
He loved video games, music, fishing, and sports such as football, soccer, and baseball. Pascual was affectionately called “Paco” by loved ones.
Throughout his grade-school years in Brooklyn, and his time as a Piscataway student, he maintained exceptional grades, graduating with honors and moving on to attend Rutgers as an engineering student.
“Our hearts are beyond heavy, it is more as if our hearts are crushed,” the Mollenkamp family, who had known Pascual and his family for many years, wrote in his obituary.
“We try to find joy in the wonderful times Nils Mollenkamp, and so many in the PHS Class of 2013 and the RU Class of 2017, had with Paco.”
“Memories of you and our friendship will always live on,” Nils Mollenkampf wrote.
Pascual Perez died by suicide after jumping from a New Brunswick Parking Deck on March 25, 2017, despite the signage advertising New Jersey’s Hopeline, and the fact that emergency personnel were aware of his distressed emotional state.
On February 3, 2019, a 25-year-old Rutgers graduate student enrolled in the Molecular Biology and Biochemistry program killed herself by jumping from a different NBPA deck.
According to law enforcement records, the Rutgers graduate student “climbed over the ledge” and jumped “without hesitation.”
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP?
Kane stressed the role of civilians whose loved ones may be experiencing suicidal thoughts and intentions.
If an individual is exhibiting warning signs of suicide, they should not be left alone.
They should be taken to any medical facility or a mental health professional for emergency treatment.
Warning signs to watch out for:
- Talking about wanting to die.
- Feelings of hopelessness or having no reason to live.
- Feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.
- Acting reckless, anxious, or agitated.
- Isolating or withdrawing themselves.
Things you can do to help:
- Do not leave the person alone.
- Be direct. Talk openly and objectively about suicide.
- Listen. Allow expression of emotions. Accept the emotions.
- Be nonjudgmental. Don’t act shocked or surprised.
- Do not debate or lecture on the value of life.
- Take action. Remove means, such as medication or weapons.
- Do not swear to secrecy. Seek help.
- Call the New Jersey Hopeline at 1-855-NJ-HOPELINE (654-6735) or the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
“Make sure that people understand the difference that restricting means makes for people,” Kane said. “That’s the one thing that anyone can do for someone that they care about.
“Everyone needs to know that it’s OK to talk about it.
“Recovery is the norm… most people who become suicidal survive. I don’t think we tell people that enough. They can survive because, guess what? Most people who come to feel the way they do, do survive.”
There is hope. There is help.
Kristin is a New Brunswick Today contributor who focuses on community welfare and individuals' stories. She is a graduate of Rutgers, New Brunswick where she studied journalism, English, and Animal Science.